SECRET AGENT X-9Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creators: Dashiell Hammett (writer) and Alex Raymond (artist)
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got its start in pulp magazines of the 1920s, and by the '30s was beginning to spread into newspaper comics. Dick Tracy, which started in The Chicago Tribune in 1931, was an instant hit, and was joined within a couple of years by Dan Dunn, Red Barry and other strips whose protagonists spent their days putting wrongdoers behind bars.
Undercover government agents were also becoming a popular form of fiction right then. Unfortunately, when, in 1934, King Features Syndicate launched Secret Agent X-9, they apparently couldn't decide whether it was a secret agent strip or a Tracy knock-off.
Once King had decided to put out a strip of this sort, they sought a big name to write it. Dashiell Hammett, famous for his work in Black Mask magazine, where he introduced such enduring characters as Sam Spade and The Continental Op, was looking for new venues, so he took the job. (King used a similar ploy the following year, putting Zane Grey on King of the Royal Mounted.) For an artist, they looked closer to home, and hired a young man who had been assisting on Tillie the Toiler, Blondie and Tim Tyler's Luck, Alex Raymond. Raymond became famous in his own right soon enough, as his Flash Gordon, launched the same month as X-9 as competition for Buck Rogers, quickly catapulted him to national prominence. The daily-only X-9 strip began on January 22, 1934.
The confusion in the concept became evident right away. X-9 was so secret an agent, not only was his name a secret, he didn't even reveal what agency he was an agent for! And yet, he talked and functioned just like the fictional private eyes that were proliferating at the time, taking jobs from rich clients and tracking down common criminals. It's likely King edited Hammett's dialog to bring the strip more in line with their conception (whatever it may have been), and that only made it harder to figure out what kind of hero X-9 was.
The ambiguity probably contributed to the fact that the strip never was extremely popular. Enough papers carried it to keep it going a long time, but far from enough to qualify it as a best-seller. Still, it was made into a feature-length movie in 1937 and a 13-part serial in 1945, both from Universal Studios. The series did get into comic books, as David McKay's Magic Comics began reprinting it in 1939, but it was relegated to the back pages — Magic's covers were occupied by Henry, Mandrake the Magician and Blondie. X-9 also appeared in back-up stories in the mid-1960s, when King published its own line of comic books, but again, never on a cover.
Hammett left the series after writing only four stories. It may be that he was frustrated trying to write coherently despite the syndicate's interference, but a more likely explanation is that opportunities were opening up for him in Hollywood. He was succeeded by Leslie Charteris, another pulp writer, who created The Saint. Charteris stayed only a few months, after which stories were attributed to "Robert Stone", a house name.
Raymond's tenure, too, was brief, as his meticulous work on the Sunday Flash Gordon page and its topper, Jungle Jim, didn't leave him with enough time for a daily. His replacement (starting in November, 1935) was Charles Flanders, better known for his work on the Lone Ranger newspaper strip. G-men being popular heroes at the time, it was during the brief Flanders era that it was revealed the agency X-9 worked for was the FBI. In later years, when the FBI and its supposedly heroic chief, J. Edgar Hoover, fell out of public favor, the agency discreetly became nameless again.
Flanders was followed by Nicholas Afonsky (Little Annie Rooney), then Austin Briggs (who later handled the Flash Gordon daily strip), before getting a permanent artist at last. Mel Graff took it over in 1940, and kept it longer than anybody else, before or since. Before long, he was writing the strip as well. It was early in his tenure that its greatest absurdity was finally done away with — the fact that the character couldn't have been a very "secret" agent if everybody went around calling him "X-9" all the time. Possibly echoing his own earlier character, The Phantom Magician (aka Phil Cardigan), Graff dubbed him "Phil Corrigan" and that was that. It was also Graff who married the character off to mystery novelist Wilda Dorray.
Graff employed a few identifiable ghosts over the years. E.E. Hibbard, known for his work on The Flash, did a few weeks of it in the early 1940s. Paul Norris, best known for Brick Bradford, did it on a recurring basis from the late 1940s on. Graff left in 1960, after which he took over the Captain Easy Sunday strip. He was replaced by Bob Lubbers, who also collaborated with Li'l Abner's Al Capp on Long Sam, tho on X-9, Lubbers used the pseudonym "Bob Lewis".
Artist Al Williamson, one of the mainstays of the old EC line, and writer Archie Goodwin, with extensive credits at DC, Marvel and just about everywhere else, took over in 1967 and kept it until 1980. It was while they had it that the title was changed (over their protests) to Secret Agent Corrigan. The last to handle the strip was George Evans, another EC man.
X-9/Corrigan has always been a favorite among knowledgeable comics fans, because of the high-power talent that's worked on it. Many sequences have been reprinted, in venues such as Strip Adventures magazine, Nostalgia Press and Comics Revue. But it never attracted a very large popular audience, and eventually faded from the scene. The last episode was dated February 10, 1996.