Book Review: Red Barry: Undercover Man, Vol. 1 (1934-1935) by Will Gould

I adored newspaper comic strips as I was growing up. My parents took in the Tulsa World, which was a morning paper, and the Claremore Progress, which ran in the afternoon. There was a lot of overlap in the two paper’s comics pages, but the Progress had a few strips that the World did not. My sister and I would fight over who got to read the World over breakfast and then again over who could get home the fastest and grab the Progress. I read almost all of the strips but my favorites were Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and Bloom County. The only strips I didn’t read were the dramatic ones like Rex Morgan, M.D. and action comics like Spider-Man.

Sometimes I’d try to get into those action comics cause it seemed like something I’d like, but they were always in the middle of some story and I’d be completely lost. Even when I could figure out what was going on, the necessity of telling a longer story in tiny parts each day always drove me away after a time. I guess my attention span was just too narrow. Getting a good dramatic resolution after a week of strips just wasn’t the same as a funny punchline every day.

Dashiell Hammett, writing for the now-classic Black Mask magazine essentially invented the hard-boiled detective story in the 1920s. His style has been copied, aped, and stolen from ever since. In 1931, Chester Gould took it to the comics with Dick Tracy. It was a smash hit causing the other newspaper syndicates to scramble to come up with similar strips. King Features came up with two: Agent X-9 (whose series was initially written by Hammett himself) and Red Barry. The later was created, written, and drawn by Will Gould (no relation to Chester) and featured the titular character as an undercover cop getting into narrowly escaped scraps each week.

It was quite successful and well loved by critics and fans of the genre, but only lasted four years (in part because Gould struggled meeting deadlines, and because he got “bored”). I find I have the same difficulties with it that I had with action comics way back when as a child. Having the strip bound together makes it easier to follow the stories, as I don’t have to wait until the next day to read the next strip, but the pay-offs are still never big enough to keep me interested. The very nature of a daily strip makes it difficult to maintain any dramatic tension. In order to re-familiarize readers with what’s going on, the strip often has a little summation panel to start thing off leaving it only three panels to tells the day’s story. The longer story arcs can still only last two to three weeks, which never allows for any real depth of character development or larger plot lines.

In 1934, the idea of undercover cops was still fairly fresh and not the tired cliche it is today, but that doesn’t make it anymore interesting reading it now. Gould draws in stark, clean lines using plenty of noir-ish shadows. His characters have great, individualist, rough faces, and the backgrounds are nicely detailed. The writing is fine for what it is – simple cop stories told to children for the daily newspaper.

With this book, the Library of American Comics presents the first two years of Red Barry (from 1934-1935). The daily strips are fitted three to a page and look as good as they ever have (no doubt better than they did in a lot of newspapers). The Sunday pages, which had a separate continuity, run in the back of the book in color. It runs roughly 300 pages and has a wonderfully informed introduction by Bruce Canwell.

It is a great presentation of a lesser-known detective strip from the ’30s. If you like detective newspaper strips, then I suspect you’ll really enjoy Red Barry and you can’t go wrong with this book. I’ve tried not to be overly hard on it as this just isn’t my genre (at least not in this format) but it certainly didn’t win me over.

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Mat Brewster

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