By 1937, the image of Flash Gordon could be found on movie screens, books, toys, and a mountain of other merchandise of varying quality, but he remained best in the Sunday papers. And he was only getting better. Rather, the folks responsible for his adventures, particularly artist Alex Raymond, were getting better.
Raymond, along with writer Don Moore, created Flash’s adventures on the planet Mongo in 1934, and the strip quickly grew from a fun adventure series into a showcase for Raymond’s lush illustrative style. Despite the visual evolution, the stories remained almost anarchic improvisations on adventure, with Flash and his companions Dr. Hans Zarkov, Dale Arden, Princess Aura, and others, constantly in danger of death and defeat from war machines, terrifying beasts, and harsh climates. Heroes are defined by their villains, though, and Flash fate on the alien planet rests in the hands of Ming, the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo.
To view the strip’s evolution from its beginning in 1934 through 1941, where this book ends, is incredible. The plots and characterizations are pulpy and archetypal, but Raymond’s artwork is miles away from where he started. As storytellers, Moore and Raymond pack a lot of information into a limited amount of space. This is the hallmark of any good comic strip, but here the canvas is so broad, so grand, and so completely filled with lovely artwork that one absolutely swoons over nearly ever panel.
In the early parts of the story the characters are given dialogue boxes, but this is abandoned later for a narrative approach similar to comic strip rival Prince Valiant. The illustration handles the majority of the storytelling while the narration fills in the gaps. Aside from the constant adventuring, the strip’s other theme is Flash’s overwhelming desirability. “His presence never fails to quicken her pulse and deepen her color,” Moore writes of Fria, Queen of Frigia, but he might as well be talking of every female in the series, including the romantic lead, Dale Arden.
In fact, the one thing Flash can’t seem to conquer is “the hopeless puzzle of women’s emotions.” All this love triangle business reeks of condescension toward women and a halfhearted attempt to capture a female audience. It’s all a part of the time and culture from which the strip came, of course, but as a story element it’s tedious and tacked on, rarely useful or interesting, never mind exciting. It always leads to “make-up/breakup” scenes with Flash and Dale, and narration like this one, when Dale begs Flash not to go rushing into danger once again: “But men must adventure — and women must weep.”
Raymond’s monsters, landscapes, and retro-futuristic vehicles are always impressive, but his characters are where he really shines. Trapped in the caves beneath Frigia, Flash and company are posed in dynamic and dramatic groups, each face captured in a readable, believable emotion. October 15th and 22nd, 1939, are both particularly striking, two pages of amazing work which draws the eye across both pages before hooking the reader with the story. Raymond’s depiction of the cast peering out at the reader is simply jaw dropping, and his use of live models never more apparent in his work.
Another Raymond touch is his costume design. In Frigia, the gang’s outfitted with see through outfits which act as protection against the cold. They wear it while trekking through the wilderness, one one adventure or another. The characters appear encased in ice, shapely blocks outlining the contours of their bodies. It’s a strange effect, the shimmering surface capture the essence of something so airy, but Raymond brings it across. It’s an odd design choice, one which retains Raymond’s skin exposing costume designs in all weather conditions.
The strip’s biggest drawback is it only seems to reflect its times in the most obvious ways. Many citizens of Mongo, not the least of which is Ming, the Merciless, are drawn in in garish ethnic stereotypes, an effect used to heighten not only their exotic allure but also, given the times in which the strip was created, their capability for evil. That Flash is a swashbuckling white man isn’t surprising for its era — or any other, for that matter — but that he’s a blonde haired, blue-eyed white man attacking ethnic characters in the late ’30s and early ’40s is something else. The stage was set for world war as the first strips in this collection saw print, and by the final strip in January of 1941 the battles were well under way.
Like a lot of science fiction stores, the adventures of Flash Gordon offered readers an escape, but only to more war. Later, perhaps, after the United States’ entry into the war, Flash might have something to say on the subject, but here he keeps fighting as always, because that’s all he knows how to do.