Rip Kirby - The Debonair Detective
Growing up with Comics
I grew up in a fairly humble existence. My parents couldn’t afford toys and other expensive distractions. This probably helped my overactive mind to invent stories and games to keep me and my younger brothers entertained. There was one thing that my father could afford and strangely enough this inexpensive collection of pages is what entertained and enchanted me.
I am indebted to my father for introducing me to the pleasures of a good narrative combined with splendid artwork. Yes, he read comics. And when he finished reading them, he passed them onto me. I was six when I started reading these worlds of wonder that transported me from some of the dreary realities of my childhood.
I devoured the pleasures of various Golden age comic strips such as Steel Claw, Flash Gordon, Phantom, Tarzan, Buzz Sawyer, Modesty Blaise, Secret Agent X-9 as these were sourced from all over the world the reprinted by a South Indian comic strip publisher called Muthu Comics. There were the best of French, Italian, English& American comics that were reprinted locally. Although the strips were translated into Tamil, the strength of the narrative and the power of the pictures meant that the stories crossed language and country barriers. I could be transported from our dusty and wet two roomed shanty house to anywhere in the word.
Among all the dazzling adventurers with superhuman skills, there was one that stood out who had no superhuman characteristics. He used his brain more than his brawn. He was no James Bond like womaniser but had a steady girlfriend. His sidekick was no acrobat but a balding butler who is an ex con. Despite these ‘shortcomings’ the series was drawn with extraordinary artwork, some brilliant stories featuring well developed characters and went onto become one of the most successful dailies of all time.
The strip was called Rip Kirby.
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The Artist and his Creation
It’s only later, many years older , wiser and when I was able to afford to actually buy books - did I revisit the comics of my childhood years and realised Rip Kirby was the brainchild of superstar comics artist Alex Raymond and was produced as a daily strip for that institution that defined comics in those decades- King’s Features syndicate. Raymond has a top pedigree when it comes to drawing daily strips- He created Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9.
That Rip Kirby went on to become one of the most successful comic strips of those decades comes as no surprise. The artistry contained within those panels will astound anyone who can appreciate storytelling and art.
Raymond had great success with Flash Gordon when he enlisted as a marine in World War II. He was demobbed and returned in 1946 to find Flash Gordon in the safe hands of his former assistant. At the suggestion of King’s Features he created the character of an ex-marine turned urbane New York based detective Remington ‘Rip’ Kirby.
The launch of the strip was extraordinary- King’s Features ran full page advertisements to promote the strip and it was quickly syndicated all across America enjoying fantastic reception. Circulation rose, and the strip was extremely successful. It ran from 1946 for well over 50 years finally ending it’s run in 1999. Although the quality of storytelling and the artistry remained impeccable, none could match the extraordinary talents of Alex Raymond, who sadly died in a car accident in 1956. He was only 46 when he died.
The Dramatis Personae
People had seen nothing like Rip Kirby before. Most of their pulp private detectives were thugs and heavies, often using violence and brawn to solve their cases. Remington 'Rip' Kirby was a breath of fresh air. He was an ex chemistry scholar, living in comfortable existence in New York as a private detective. He was suave, looked good in a suit and a tux, had wavy dark hair, rugged good looks and smoked a pipe! He also wore glasses and had a studious mentality. He used his brain to solve the crimes but wasn't afraid to use his fists when called for.
One only has to look at pictures of Alex Raymond himself to see that he had modelled some of his characteristics onto his creation. Alex loved dressing up in smart suits and cravats, sported an Errol Flynn moustache, smoked a pipe and loved driving fast cars.
His girl-friend, model ‘Honey’ Dorian was a blonde cutie. Her modelling career also gave Rip excuse to travel round the world solving cases as far away from his native NY to London, Paris and Rome.
He could afford a live in butler, a Jeeves like Desmond. The latter is an ex safecracker and a con artist, whose skills maybe called into assistance once in a while.
To Honey’s Yin there was the dark temptress Pagan Lee who served as Yang. Drawn to Rip in a love hate relationship she went from a minor character to a mobster hell-bent on destroying the detective.
The characters were well drawn out and even though there was a whiff of stereotypical in their construction, one can forgive the fact as they inhabited the 50s and sixties.
The editor at King’s features, Ward Greene himself, is said to have penned the stories until his death and was subsequent taken over by Fred Dickinson. Although most involved murder in New York there are outrageous plots and twists involving chemical weapons, kidnapping, blackmail and mob crimes.
Alex Raymond may have had a hand in suggestion story arcs and filling in the blanks. He was truly gifted. The success of the strip was the refreshing take on crime solving as opposed to the pulp vigilantism of Mickey Spillane and tough talking no-nonsense Raymond Chandleresque private dicks, Rip represented a breath of fresh air. He was debonair, he had charm, he was kind to women, he had a heart, he dressed well, wrote science books, yet when it came to a situation can bring upon his boxing skills and self defence to look after himself and protect his girl. He was a very first metro-sexual!
The stories had their fare share of twists, thrills and spills aided by Alex Raymond's extraordinary visuals. There was such flow in the panels, as one scene merged into another, the characters were in constant motion, never static, always expressive. A true master-class in portraiture and storytelling.
The Collected Rip Kirby from IDWClick thumbnail to view full-size
Where to Find Rip Kirby?
In gorgeous coffee table format IDW have recently started publishing heavy collectors tomes of Rip Kirby comic strips. Although a tad on the pricey side, I feel it is well worth the money to rediscover nostalgia. These volumes ( 7 so far) cover specific periods and are broken down into individual story arcs.
I've indulged myself at Christmas 2010 with three glorious volumes of Rip Kirby ( Nostalgia doesn't come cheap!) but I tell, you it is worth it. The books are handsomely produced and I have since procured each volume as it arrived. The 7th volume is out next week ( July 2014) I Can't Wait .
Rip was translated into French, Spanish and many other European languages as well as the in the Asian subcontinent and enjoys reruns and new readership all the time. The strips are timeless and deserve much wider recognition to inspire new writers and new artists.
Give Rip Kirby a try. You will enjoy travelling back to the New York of the 60s and seventies.. gripping reads, gorgeous visuals, engaging characters- what else can we ask for?
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Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2014