The heroes littered about the 20th century seemed to fall into our laps, but they sprang up from the ground, harvested from the blood-soaked soil of a century of war, invention, and discovery. We now have neat gadgets, but our forebears were like newborns, seeing things for the first time. Artists trying to make a buck, cross-eyed from the new sights and sounds of the this era of milestones, dug deep and found the men and women who would form the foundation of a century’s worth of stories. Their names don’t carry the cultural weight of Batman or Superman—brothers in arms who followed close behind—but they’re well known: Mandrake, Tarzan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon.
What a dichotomy: Gordon is as square as they come, a geek’s name if there every was one (no offense to the great Gordons of the world). Flash, though, that’s more than a name, it’s an announcement. It goes across the wires, urgent, explosive—no, it’s the preamble to an explosion. You see the flash then THAT’S IT!
Flash Gordon debuted on 7 January 1934 with the words, “WORLD COMING TO END” stretched across the first panel, an announcement to readers that, from that moment on, comics would never be the same. This collection follows Flash’s adventures through 18 April 1937, and in that time the story’s panels grew to accommodate the wide screen imagination of artist Alex Raymond. From the very beginning, the story is action-packed, with Flash, Dale Arden, and Doctor Zarkov crashing into the planet Mongo and finding themselves constantly at odds with hostile natives, deadly animals, and the planet’s emperor, Ming, the Merciless. The persistence of these characters gives them their richness today, but the weekly appearances in the ‘30s gave readers time to embroider the characters lives with ideas of their own.
The week between installments also gave readers plenty of time to savor Raymond’s graceful line work, the sensuous bodies, the outrageous costumes. Reading the strips in sequence, there’s a tension between stopping to gawk at all the beautiful art and being propelled along by the nonstop action. Our only insight into Flash prior to his arrival on Mongo is that he’s a “Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player”. That’s hardly the stuff of which heroes are made, but it must have sounded pretty impressive in its time.
Of course, the strip is not concerned with character development as it is story development, world building, and exploring all the weird ways to die on the planet Mongo. It makes sense that the action would be nonstop, given the time between installments—why bother with exploring Zarkov’s secret dreams when folks have been waiting an entire week to find out what happens next?
This book is beautifully presented landscape-style with the strips apparently coming from well preserved scans. The colors are rich and lively, their original beauty intact. There are just enough imperfections in this work to recreate the sensation of lying down on your belly with the Sunday comics spread across the floor, a believer attending the Church of Flash Gordon.
Film, radio, and television brought the characters to a wider audience, spreading their influence and giving them new life. Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming both appeared as if they stepped off the printed page and onto the film set, but in the world of moving pictures Flash never quite reached the heights of his comic strip glory days. George Lucas famously remembered the Saturday morning Flash Gordon serials of his youth and wanted to do recapture the same feeling with sweeping mythological themes. Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI) play on the swashbuckling heroics and adventure in Raymond’s strips, as well as borrowing the famous screen crawl to bring the audience up to speed on the story thus far. The most recent trilogy (Episodes I, II, and III) borrows just as heavily from the strip, only with much less success.
Monocultures like the hawk men and the cave people are fine when they fill a few panels of action, but Lucas populated three films with them, supplementing cardboard characterization with explosions and digital buffoons. Despite having the best special effects wizards in the world on his team, Lucas did not have the luxury of having ARaymond in his corner.
The success of Star Wars, of course, opened the door for a galaxy full of imitators, both worthy and worthless, including 1980’s Flash Gordon feature film, which was perhaps a little bit of both. Flash Gordon is best on the printed page because Raymond brought grace and elegance to cheap newsprint. For many of us today, the world of the early 20th century seemed like it was black and white, but there were bursts of color everywhere, on planet earth and beyond.