Book Review: Secret Agent X-9: 1934-1936 by Dashiell Hammett & Alex Raymond

Sometimes a "Dream Team" is better left to the imagination.
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Everyone loves a dream team. Who can forget Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage joining forces to form the Mega-Powers or Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison coming together as the musical Voltron known as The Traveling Wilburys? Much like the magical combination of chocolate and peanut butter, a dream team represents a union of the good, the great, and the totally sweet, and not only lays to rest the question of “What If?” that lurks inside the hearts and minds of all fans, but also threatens to tear the very fabric of the universe asunder with the magnitude of it’s awesomeness.

Ponder, if you will, a world in which the guy who wrote The Maltese Falcon joined forces with the dude who drew Flash Gordon for a daily comic strip. Such a marvelous team-up seems almost too good to be true, but I’m not speaking of a dream world or an alternate reality, like the one where Billy Squier replaced David Lee Roth in Van Halen; nay, I speak of an event which took place in 1934, years before most of our parents were even born!

Then again, if you’re reading a review of a largely unsuccessful comic strip from the 30’s, there’s a pretty good chance you’re a good deal older than me, which would make your parents older as well. Maybe they’ve passed on - if so, I’m sorry for your loss. Hopefully this impressive tome from IDW and the Library of American Comics, collecting the complete Hammett/Raymond strips, plus the subsequent stories by Raymond and Leslie Charteris (famous himself for The Saint novels) as well as the Charteris stories drawn by Charles Flanders will help to ease your pain.

First things first: I already mentioned that this collection is presented to us by IDW and the Library of American Comics, which is sort of like a guarantee that you’ve got a great product on your hands. If we’re talking about dream teams (and I’m pretty sure we are), the IDW/LOAC combo is a veritable tower of power, too sweet to be sour. This hardcover book is no exception. It’s huge (11.4 x 10.3 x 1.3 inches and weighing 4.5 lbs) and could probably kill a man if you hit him with it hard enough. At the very least, it might break a toe if you dropped it. So there’s plenty of room to reprint three strips per page, which is large enough for your grandmother to read and enjoy, even if she’s got cataracts.

As for the stories… well, you’re not really buying it for the stories, are you? You’re buying it for the dream team of Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond. I can tell because their names are at the top of the cover and they’re like, three times as big as the title, which is almost buried in the corner. You probably didn’t notice the title because you were drooling over that cover illustration. Wow, that guy could draw, couldn’t he? So yeah, you’re definitely buying this because of Alex Raymond’s artwork as well as Dashiell Hammett’s name.

Maybe you’re buying it for the extensive and in-depth introduction, which talks about how Hammett, talented though he was, wasn’t really a comic writer and definitely had quite a learning curve when it came to the nuance of pacing a daily strip and even the placement of word balloons. It also talks about how Hollywood was always calling and Hammett was a drunk and basically does everything short of saying “William Randolph Hearst threw a bunch of money at Hammett so King Features could attempt to match the success of Dick Tracy and Hammett was just phoning it in.”  It doesn’t actually say that; in fact, it’s a really fascinating and well-written intro by a guy named Bruce Canwell. But that’s pretty much what I got from it, though Canwell is way nicer than I am and he talks Hammett’s talents up a lot more.

To be honest, I’m exaggerating a bit. I actually did enjoy the first couple stories in this collection quite a bit, though they meander a little and certainly take the long way to reach their destination. Secret Agent X-9 is packed with action and excitement and a pretty healthy sense of humor, as well as a truckload of old-fashioned expressions that have long since gone out of style, something I’m always in favor of. I don’t think it qualifies as noir and nothing about it really feels like what one typically expects from a secret agent story. As a matter of fact, X-9 sorta just seems like a dude in a suit who wanders into these stories and takes charge, whether he’s got the credentials to back it up or not. Come to think of it, I’m not sure he ever flashes a badge or shows ID of any form.

Anyway, it just sort of feels like a generic crime strip and as the stories progress, they get shorter and less detailed until you start to feel like even Alex Raymond doesn’t care anymore and kinda starts phoning it in as well. In the initial tale, Raymond’s artwork is absolutely brilliant. Beautiful and full of sweeping romance and action, it is every bit as amazing as his seminal work on Flash Gordon, though the protagonists wear suits and ball gowns in lieu of capes and skintight spacesuits. After a couple of stories, it still looks great (this is Alex Raymond, after all), but definitely lacks the zing of the earlier strips. Hey, maybe the guy was just busy with the most amazing comic strip that has ever existed in the history of time? No, not Jungle Jim; I’m talking about Flash Gordon!

Listen, I’m definitely writing one of those snarky reviews where I do that internet thing and try to be funny by being mean. In truth, Secret Agent X-9 doesn’t quite deserve the amount of scorn I’m heaping upon it. Honestly, it’s greatest crime is just being sorta blah. But when titans with names like Hammett and Raymond team up, it’s sort of … well, it’s a dream come true, right? And haven’t we been talking about dream teams for something along the lines of 1,000 words now? So when that dream team comes together and only produces something that’s only decent, it’s almost a greater affront than if they had crapped out a bunch of garbage, isn’t it? Secret Agent X-9 isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just not good.  That’s all.

That said, I’m not even really complaining. Seriously! This isn’t one of those situations where I’m going to pawn this book off at my local used bookstore or try to sell it on eBay. I’ll hold on to it because while I may not have loved reading it, I definitely love looking at it! In addition to being a jerk writer who concocts snarky reviews in which I insult long dead alcoholic writers and make jokes about the readers’ dead parents, I like to fancy myself as something of a sequential-art connoisseur and I’m definitely a huge fan of great artwork - and even when Alex Raymond appears to be phoning it in, he’s still head and shoulders above a lot of folks!

And here’s the thing: I don’t even really like detective stories all that much. Maybe you’ll read it and you’ll reflect upon that hack writer who just got this book for the pretty pictures and you’ll have a chuckle at my expense. After all, I didn't even mention the stories in this volume by Leslie Charteris and Charles Flanders (because I got bored with the book and just thumbed through them and while they seemed servicable enough, I had kinda just lost interest at that point). Maybe you’ll even love it. If you’re a collector or a completist, you’ll want this one in your own library. Of course, if you fit that bill, you probably don’t even need to read this review because you’ve already bought it.  

But if you’re on the fence and you’re considering picking it up based on the name value, I’m going to recommend that instead, you pick up a Flash Gordon collection and read your copy of The Thin Man and dream of a world in which these two talents combined to form a fantastic union while reminding yourself to be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

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