Comics have always been about second acts. Not only are the characters kept in the perpetual danger essential to any dramatic second act, they’re also subject to the departure of fan favorite or definitive creators. Few creators were as definitive as Alex Raymond. In 1934 Raymond, along with writer Don Moore, created Flash, Ming the Merciless, Dale Arden, Hans Zarkov, and all the characters populating the world of Mongo in the Flash Gordon comic strip.
Raymond illustrated the strip until 1943 when he joined the Marines, after having previously been exempt from the draft due to service in the National Guard. To give his successor time to meet the rigorous deadlines associated with a weekly comic strip, Raymond built up eight full weeks of stories to give to King Features, the strip’s syndicate. This allowed Austin Briggs, the man chosen to follow Raymond, time to hit the ground running.
Briggs was no stranger to following Raymond. Not only had he provided inks and fill-in strips while Raymond suffered a bout of pneumonia, he followed Raymond on both the Secret Agent X-9 and Jungle Jim Sunday strips.
Flash Gordon volume 4: The Storm Queen of Valkir collects the first four years of Briggs’ run on the strip. At first, Briggs’ work feels like a simplified version of Raymond’s, the boldness of the characters’ figures and poses replaced by understated charm. Within a year on the strip, Briggs comes into his own, with Flash and Dale and the villains of Mongo looking as if they’re lifted from a photograph.
Sometimes they were. Briggs’ use of photo reference is often as stunning as his predecessor’s. The fluid image of Kang the Cruel from the 6 October 1946 installment shows a typical melodramatic villain pose, rodent-like and shrinking from the light. The deceptively simple lines of Briggs’ rendering leave no doubt that that this is a villain, no room for the moral ambiguity of today’s gray-scale comic creations.
Briggs maintains a relatively strict five- to-six panel layout for the strip, where Raymond pulled back his point of view more and more over time. In Raymond’s rendering, the the reader was often treated to vistas of Mongo, almost panoramic views of armies during battle, and our heroes posing like gods. Briggs’ use of smaller panels gives the story room to breathe, allowing for more movement and reducing the workload required for each panel. The action and frenetic pacing that is a hallmark of the strip remains unchanged.
Another thing which remains unchanged is the creators’ reliance on a handful of rusty plot devices. Looking for narrative complexity in a five panel weekly comic strip from the ’40s might be like looking for notes of apricot and oak in a bottle of Mountain Dew, but a little variation would benefit these stories greatly. As Flash and Dale chase the deposed Kang the Cruel across the wilds of Mongo they encounter one queen after another or invariably falls in love with Flash while ignoring the advances of generals, guards, and princes. Flash welcomes the advances of each queen long enough to get out of whatever jam he’s been thrown into, proclaims his love and loyalty to Dale, then moves on to the next place.
The strip’s treatment of women is very much of its time, of course, but even someone reading it in real time must have been frustrated by Flash’s constant disregard for Dale’s feelings. It’s his name in the title, though, which I suppose is license to be a pig. These incidents are scattered throughout Briggs’ run (and Raymond’s, for that matter) and are the only times the strip appears to be on autopilot.
One other unfortunate feature of this run is its attempts at comedy. It comes in the form of Talky, a giant talking parrot that serves as the court jester and companion for Queen Ala of Birdland. Despite being an attempt at comic relief, Talky is neither, and considering all George Lucas plundered from the Flash Gordon mythos it’s not impossible to imagine Talky as an inspiration for Star Wars’ dreaded Jar Jar Binks.
Today, Flash Gordon is known to most people today for being 1. the subject of a bombastic song by Queen; 2. the subject of the campy 1980 film; 3. being a progenitor of Star Wars. The tyranny of Dilbert, 15 years of denial of Charles Schulz’s death, and a continued decline in circulation numbers has resulted in mass amnesia for a time when the comics section was the only reliable bright spot of any newspaper.
Collections like this are more than than just reminders of what we’ve lost. The stories are completely unbelievable, the characters operating somewhere between fully-formed and cardboard, but there is beauty and magic in the way the forms and figures of this world work together, no matter who’s sitting at the drawing board.