[30 July 2013]
Let’s go ahead and assume you’re not going to get that jet pack or flying car you’ve always wanted. While we’re at it, let’s also assume that the likelihood of a sports hero becoming an accidental astronaut is basically nil. In many ways, the fantastic future imagined by the great minds of 20th century science fiction hasn’t come to pass. Thirty years removed from the real 1984, the darkest dystopias have been proven wrong. (Well, mostly. I’m looking at you, NSA.) The sky is still blue, still devoid of any verifiable UFOs, and Earth remains humanity’s base of operations rather than its jumping off point.
Progress has been slow, hampered by politics and practicality. Does it matter, though? The future in which we find ourselves is filled with strange gadgets and people wearing strange clothes. It’s a weird and fun world, even if we’re not all flying around in jumpsuits and jet packs.
In his introduction to this collection of Flash Gordon comics, Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons writes that, more than any other genre, science fiction is “an almost evolutionary method of accustoming us to novelty and change [that] gets as much wrong as it ever gets right.”
Flash Gordon prepared its readers for Star Wars, and hand-held communicators, but its primary mission was escape. Speculating, extrapolating, and completely abandoning the principles of logic and physics ruled Flash’s world, especially when the world went to war.
And so it was that in September of 1942, Flash Gordon’s world turned upside down. While fleeing the army of “Bloody” Brazor, King of Tropica, Flash, along with Dale Arden, Hans Zarkov, and the exiled Tropican Queen Desira, enter a cave whose gravitational field has been altered by a meteorite on the surface. Or something. It’s fuzzy comic strip science and wouldn’t likely hold up to any peer review, but it’s the effect which counts.
As they travel deeper into the cave, gravity is weakened, then reversed, and our heroes end up walking on the ceiling. The text retains its normal orientation, but Flash and company hang from the ceiling like stalactites, their faces mirroring the expressions likely found on the strip’s readers upon its publication. This wasn’t the first time readers’ jaws might have dropped, or formed wordless O’s of delight.
Since he first appeared in 1934, Flash Gordon’s popularity spread from the funny papers to radio and movie serials. Much of this was due to Raymond’s incredible art featuring equal parts graceful action and bonkers pre-space age design. There’s plenty to marvel at here in Titan’s third collection of Flash Gordon reprints. These stories, the last Alex Raymond would do for the character he made famous, carry the same visual flair, the same dramatic poses, and breathtaking fantasy landscapes.
At the same time, there seems to be something missing, the great heart beating at the center of the strip. It’s more than just the loss of its central villain. Ming, the Merciless, is finally defeated (in this iteration, at least), and Flash, Dale, and Zarkov soon return to Earth, only to find their world at war. Raymond and writer Don Moore substitute with an amalgam of the Axis powers called the Red Sword.
Though the set up is the same as the stories set on Mongo—there’s a woman who’s sweet on Flash, some sort of traitor, and Flash saves the day—on Earth, Flash is kind of boring. It reads like Raymond and Moore wanted to give their readers a story of real world heroics, but realized their skills were better suited to fantasy. Their story doesn’t mirror the real world so much as it weakens their own. After all, in 1942 the real world was in more trouble than even Flash could handle.
Flash and his friends have to go back to Mongo, not only to fetch radium to power ray beams which “would make freedom forever safe against attack”, but because without Mongo there is no Flash. At home he’s beholden to the chain of command of whatever branch of the military he falls into, but on Mongo he is a legend. Things pick up again after our hero’s return, as Flash and company fight to help Queen Desira regain her throne from “Bloody” Brazor.
Again, Raymond and Moore inject their story with real world elements like concentration camps and secret police, and they linger on their horrors. Prisoners are made to stand half-slumped in tiny cells, and dissenters against Brazor’s government are rounded up and killed. Instead of the obvious, flat portrayals of fascism on Earth, Brazor’s tyranny reaches the level of true villainy, and once again rises to face it.
Alex Raymond left the strip in 1944, but neither the character nor the strip died. His nine years on the strip created the template for every iteration of the character to come after, from monthly comics and the 1980 feature film to the short-lived TV series in 2007. Raymond’s art is Flash Gordon: heroic, beautiful, and not quite at home on this planet.