ZX-5 is a freelance agent.
You likely noticed no country was mentioned in that opening line. That is because the nationality is sort of blurry and will change without any real mention of why. He is touted often, especially a lot after about three dozen adventures are finished, with being an "international spy" which certainly feels right because sometimes he comes across as working for the British and other times the Americans.
The initial dozen adventures dealt with ZX-5 working on behalf of the (probably) European country of Chesterland which has two neighboring countries wanting very much to conquer it. These two nations were Transovania and Regovia and each tries more than once to menace Chesterland with Transovania being the more fervent opponent. Chesterland is also threatened from further away but no troops ever made it inside the borders.
The action shifts to America in the 13th adventure when ZX-5 is seen in a naval base in Newport and must defeat a foreign spy/genius from destroying the battleship USS Montana. Then it is back to Europe for more action. From then on, there is no predicting where ZX-5 will go next with Africa, Central and South America, and the Far East calling for his help on occasion. As the war years of 1940+ arrive, though, his concentration will be in Europe going up against the "dictator states" at first and later more specifically Nazis and Fascists.
ZX-5 is a man of mystery whose real name is never mentioned and likely never known by anyone other than himself. At first it is implied that no one has any real idea what he looks like but his fame is such that soon everyone, it seems, can recognize him on site and his name alone is enough to energize people, some to action and some to cower.
ZX-5's appearance will change a bit over time but for the most part will be a man likely in his early 30's with light brown wavy hair kept cut short and a pencil-thin mustache.
Another thing that will change a lot over time is his relationships. Very early on we learn that he is engaged to a lovely young woman named Manya Massal who not only knows what he does for a living but actually helps out a couple of times, even saving his life. Then mention of her stops completely and we never hear of her again. There would be no serious attraction to another female for some time, unless you count the various beautiful femme fatales who often are quite saddened with the need to kill such a fine man as ZX-5, though they do not let their emotions sway their decisions. With the War years engaging him, ZX-5 will enjoy a few fun adventures with a beautiful French Resistance operative named La Martinique but there is nothing to indicate that how deep the relationship went.
ZX-5, who is called just 'ZX' by his companions starting roughly halfway through his time of service, is a very resourceful and successful agent. That does not mean that he is the perfect agent. The number of times he is knocked unconscious and taken prisoner, requiring him to find a way to escape before coming up with the solution to the mission is impressive. He does not get snatched in every adventure but it does seem like it.
ZX-5 is an excellent fighter and extremely quick to use that as a tactic. He is also a terrific shot with a pistol. He has a lot of experience underwater and does not mind a long swim in the least. His skills at flying aircraft is also quite impressive and he can be seen in the pilot seat of a variety of aircraft, friendly and otherwise. Jumping out of planes is also something he does a time or two.
Though I found no mention specifically of his being a master of disguise, he definitely is one as he is quite frequently taking the role of enemy soldiers or common laymen. He even, during the War years, pops over to the Far East and has taken up the disguise of a Japanese soldier or big-wig more than once, something a bit remarkable considering his so very Caucasian features and height. Also not stated as such, his abilities with languages has to be very good because operates in disguise in several different European nations as well as in the Philippines, China and Japan.
After 79 hair-raising adventures all over the world as a secret (and not so secret) agent, and the War now over, ZX-5 changes professions. "With offices on the twentieth floor of the Empire Office Building, ZX-5, world renowned secret operative, will now accept cases require special investigation." Or does he? In a very strange story in #80, an imposter who looks just like ZX-5 opens the office in question. When the real ZX-5 reads about it in the paper and goes to check it out, well, read for yourself but at the end the true ZX-5 has an office and a new mission in life which will occupy him for another 50+ cases. A couple of those will show that he is still very much on call for action needed by American Intelligence.
"If I'm caught I'll be killed so I'm not to be trifled with!"
The daughter of one of his enemies comments after he unceremoniously carries her out an exploding building and then races off, "Well, I must say he is an impetuous young man!! He is nice though!"
When the publication Jumbo Comics hit the newstands in September 1938, it contained several new series in an anthology style as was the norm in those days. The best remembered member of the inaugural class was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle but even she, who would go on to headline the comics in a few issues and then get her own magazine, as well as a couple of television series and a movie, was relegated towards the back pages at first. ZX-5 was even further in the back.
The initial format of all the different stories was that of reproduced comic strips; two to four panels of equal height on a row, three or so rows to a page. Several of these, like those of ZX-5, were serialized as well. The first ZX-5 adventure was a long one with 19 pages spread out over six issues. The second adventure was slightly shortly, 15 pages, presented in 4 issues. After that, though, the serialized aspect of all the magazine was replaced with a one-adventure-per-issue style.
ZX-5 would last an impressive number of issues, sticking around until #140 in October of 1950. The magazine itself would disappear two and a half years later. There were two issues that ZX-5 did not appear in, #52 in June 1943 and #78 in August 1945.
The first few adventures of ZX-5 were, IMHO, horrible. I believe the only way that the character survived to mature was the people creating the stories were also the ones in charge of picking which ones made it to the issues.
The problem was, again IMHO, the fact that the enemies and the situations in which ZX-5 had to operate were totally fictitious and therefore had nothing on which to ground themselves. Both the size on which ZX-5 operated and the peoples he was ordered to spy on were totally made up and no real effort would be done to give either any semblance of realism. Whole armies or navies could appear on the horizon without warning (too spy craft there, fellas!) and then be vanquished in a trice. The jobs that ZX-5 were asked to do were therefore ridiculous and when he pulled them off, I couldn't care less.
It was the 21st story that saw the first mention of a real enemy, the Nazis, and saw the change of direction for the series. The time period was Summer of 1941 and while the U.S. would not enter the War for another half year, it was fully in swing in both Europe and the Far East. This meant that the writers/artists had reality to provide much needed stability and the stories improved greatly.
From then on, the countries that ZX-5 traveled to and the people he worked with or against were based in reality and made total sense. The plots also were a lot more intelligible and therefore far more interesting. The missions were short because for the most part only 6 pages were given for set-up and resolution but that was just enough to make reading them enjoyable.
Even after the War was over and ZX-5 transitioned into a private detective role, the stories were good ones and my interest remained. I do not know why ZX-5 was retired so abruptly, though. The Cold War was about to begin and he would have had a field day with it.
One point of personal amusement. Despite the fact that the real name of ZX-5 was never, ever even hinted at, I did find it amusing to see people get familiar with him enough to just call him "ZX".
My Grade: B+
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