Red Barry in action. Artist: Will Gould.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1934
Creator: Will Gould
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Dick Tracy hit the comics page late in 1931; and before long, every syndicate had to have a tough-talking, hard-hitting, no-nonsense law enforcer of …

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… its own. King Features' first move in that direction was to hire Dashiell Hammett to write one called Secret Agent X-9, then look for somebody to draw it. Cartoonist Will Gould (no relation to Tracy creator Chester Gould) was one of the applicants, but while he was waiting for the results, Brandon Walsh (who was writing Little Annie Rooney for King), seeing his samples, suggested he try submitting a strip of his own. King awarded its first Tracy knock-off to Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon) and bought its second, Gould's Red Barry, on the same day. Red Barry first appeared in newspapers on Monday, March 19, 1934.

Red was an undercover man for the cops. With only one man on the force, his old friend Inspector Scott, absolutely sure what side he was truly on, Red undertook the most dangerous possible missions — infiltrating the ranks of of deadly gangsters while seldom able to count on the support of the police. At first Red worked alone, but he later picked up a kid named Ouchy Mugouchy. Eventually, Ouchy and a couple of friends, collectively known as The Terrific Three, became major stars.

The Tracy strip had brought new levels of graphic violence to comics, but Barry outdid it. In newspapers where Red Barry appeared, the comics page was almost as violent as the banner headlines. It went so far, King's owner, William Randolph Hearst himself, objected (tho according to comics historian Rick Marschall, Gould suspected the complaint actually originated with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies). Gould tried to tone it down a little, but his difficulty with sticking to syndicate standards became a constant bone of contention. No papers outside the Hearst chain, and not all papers within it, carried Red Barry.

But with or without heavy violence, the stories were fast-paced and exciting, and readers loved the strip — at least, those fortunate enough to live in an area where it was carried. Tho he didn't become a star in the fledgling comic book medium, Whitman featured Red in two Big Little Books. And on October 18, 1938, Universal Pictures (Tailspin Tommy, Tim Tyler's Luck) released the first of 13 episodes of a Red Barry movie serial, with no less a star than Buster Crabbe (Buck Rogers, Tarzan) in the title role.

At first glance, it may seem to have been Gould's skirting the edge of acceptibility that led to the strip's demise. But more likely, as his assistant, Walter Frehm (who later took over the art on Ripley's Believe It or Not), said in retrospect, it was his cavalier attitude toward work habits and deadlines. When contract difficulties arose between Gould and King Features, the syndicate took that as its cue to cancel the strip. It was last seen in 1939.

Because of its low circulation, Red Barry became difficult for comic strip collectors to assemble solid runs of, and therefore difficult to reprint despite its high quality and resonance with the public. Fantagraphics Books (which has also reprinted Prince Valiant, Popeye and several others) printed sequences of Red Barry twice during the 1980s — the first in a 1985 issue of Nemo, the Classic Comics Library, and the second in a 1989 book. Those two editions constitute the only glimpse modern readers have had of one of comics' obscure classics.


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Text ©2004-05 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features.