Egad! A Review of Rip Kirby The First Modern Detective: Completed Comic Strips 1970 – 1973
Artwork by John Prentice
Stories by Fred Dickenson
Published by IDW Publishing
“Books! Like life itself, they are always completely predictable,” exclaims Dr. Data as he tosses a volume to the floor. This panel illustrates the limits and creativity implemented in the Rip Kirby series, of which this is the tenth volume.
Since you obviously ask “how so,” I shall tell you. First thing’s first though: what is a Rip Kirby? After all, this is the tenth collection ranging from 1970 to 1973, so it must be something. Rip Kirby, while being neither the desired undead remake from Nintendo or Marvel, has the honor of being an incredibly long run detective strip – over fifty years in fact. Following the noir and hard-boiled waves, Rip Kirby tells the story of the detective – you guessed it – Rip Kirby.
Rip Kirby’s begins this volume pitched against Dr. Data, who has built a computer – a marvel in the seventies. The machine’s point, narratively speaking, is that based off of all previous data it can predict anything, including Kirby’s supper. Similarly, we, the mindless readers, have consumed enough stories to untangle and predict plots, clichéd ones in particular.
But, before this seems to be too bashing, let us move through the art, which is mostly excellent. John Prentice’s character designs for the men are vividly individualistic; his women however are uninspired set pieces. I also noticed that a chinless British butler backs the square-jawed American hero, but I won’t comment.
Since Rip Kirby is a strip formatted into a book, the page layouts are inoffensively mundane and irrelevant. That said, these stories were made at a time in which cartoonists still had space to work with, so the actual detailing of the panels is quite amazing. In his wok, Prentice proves himself a worthy successor to Alex Raymond, the series’ creator and initial illustrator.
The stories, though, are fun, meant in both the positive and negative sense. Returning to Dr. Data, we confront his exclamation, that is, how predictable books can be. Rip Kirby’s adventures are rather predictable. Not bad, but predictable without including more ornamentation, like, for instance, Tintin. If a work is like a building, Rip Kirby is constructed following the Brutalist style of architecture. It’s solid, urban, and functional, but somewhat unsightly.
However, Dr. Data’s quotation is also beautifully “meta” and ironic, thus achieving giggling postmodernism. It is in this play that Rip Kirby becomes rather enjoyable. While I won’t spoil the plot, one can’t help but reflect that they are reading something that describes itself as predictable. Whether or not that move was intentional, it does highlight how we still have fun reading these stories we’ve essentially read before. There is always an interest in craftsmanship, even for Brutalism.
In addition to the bits with Rip Kirby, there is also an interesting forward by Bruce Conwell. In the forward, Bruce Conwell situates the serialized strip between filmed media’s episodic nature and the permanence of books. After reading the forward, the volume makes more sense as a work and as a historical object. While it’s not strictly necessary to read it, anyone interested in the history of the detective strip would be interested.
Summing up then, the book is definitely worth reading if one is interested in the genre or the history of strips. If not, then you might enjoy it, but you wouldn’t necessarily miss anything by missing it.