No, this isn’t a post about the 1980 cult-classic film, Flash Gordon. And I do apologize if the Queen song remains firmly stuck in your head for a few days — it’s been stuck in mind for a few weeks now as I’ve plowed through Titan Book’s first two volumes that reprint the classic Flash Gordon comic strip drawn by Alex Raymond. I cannot tell you my exact age when I first discovered Flash, Dale, Dr. Hans Zarkov, and Ming the Merciless, but I know it was in elementary school. I had a couple of small paperback books that reprinted early black and white Flash storylines and I was hooked.
I’ve always been a fan of early pulp science fiction. The fins on the rockets, the sweeping curves of the ray guns, the clothing and space helmets… the future they presented never arrived. Every planet was breathable, most problems could be solved with a laser blast, and travel from planet to planet was faster than a drive from home to grocery store. And Flash Gordon had all of that and more. I’ve heard a handful of the early radio shows, and I’ve watched some of the classic Buster Crabbe movie serials, but my strongest memories of Flash Gordon will always be those early comic strips.
When Flash Gordon Volume 1: On the Planet Mongo arrived, I sat down and began reading the 203-page book. I don’t think I stopped until I was well over halfway through the book. Here is the beginning of the story, the arrival of a strange planet and the chaos that it causes on Planet Earth. I tried to forget everything I knew about Flash Gordon and read it as someone new to the strip. It starts off with Dr. Zarkov kidnapping Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player, Flash Gordon, along with Dale Arden. Only Zarkov understands what is happening, and he launches his rocket with all three humans aboard, hoping to hit the planet and deflect it from Earth. (I know, crazy stuff. But remember… the year is 1934 when the opening strip first appeared.)
What follows are 180 more pages, each containing 9-12 panes of action and suspense. At the end of each page, tucked down near the bottom of the last pane, were the words To Be Continued — the cliffhanger that fans of Flash Gordon must have dreaded every Sunday as they were forced to wait another seven days to discover the fate of Flash and the many new friends and allies he would meet as he fought against Ming.
Alex Raymond’s artwork is incredibly detailed — the man is known for using live models to assist him with drawing the many active poses seen in the men and women of the comic. (The female poses are, obviously, typical of an era when women were viewed as the hapless victim and needing to be rescued or as sultry figures looking to seduce Flash away from Dale or his mission at hand.)
The format changed over time, with 9-12 panes being reduced to 6-8 to hold much larger and more detailed images. But the pulp-y fiction never changed. Princess Aura warns her father, Ming, of an impending attack using the Space-ophone. Flash is overcome by a gas-ray. The Destructoplane can instantly locate and blast any aircraft at any distance. Warriors wear helmets with colorful manes. Women wear only the flimsiest of clothing into battle. And Flash seems to always find himself pitted against the strangest of creatures such as Sulpha, Sacred Dragon of the Hawkmen whose very breath is a deadly poison!
These strips are hilarious. They’re entertaining. They’re amazingly drawn. They’re completely over the top in every way. And when I finished Volume 1, I was actually disappointed that Flash’s adventures were over…
But not quite.
I will freely admit that when Flash Gordon Volume 2: The Tyrant of Mongo arrived on my doorstep, I ran the box into the house, ripped it open, and spent about an hour reading through the first hundred or so pages, each providing one of the full-color Sunday single sheets that end with the words Next Week: in the last of the six panels.
Next Week: The Camouflaged City.
Next Week: River of Peril.
Next Week: The Gauntlet of Fire.
And the list goes on.
Volume 2 is another 200+ pages of six-panel entertainment, broken into five sections with titles such as The Outlaws of Mongo and The Ice Kingdom of Mongo. Woo Hoo! If you’re aware of the time periods, you can see a larger storyline that makes Flash look almost like a certain rogue who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, another popular character of the day, and an obvious change to the look and feel of the strip to possibly try to win (or keep) the attention of youngsters flocking to stories of Robin Hood. Later in the book, the costume style changes and moves to goggles and skin-tights, with superhero poses scattered here and there. What I found interesting as I finished Volume 2 was how much I enjoyed the serial nature of the story; today’s television show writers with their season-spanning story-arcs must certainly have been readers of these early comic strips where a storyline could take a year or more to come to a conclusion and keeping the reader’s attention meant releasing information at just the right moment for the strongest reaction.
I loved every page of it. And now it’s over…
But not quite.
How about this for the title of the next book in the series — Flash Gordon Volume 3: The Fall of Ming?
I really don’t know how the story ends! For two volumes, I’ve watched as Ming has fed his enemies into fire pits, vaporized them with power rays, and sent them into the pits to fight horrific monsters. He’s evil, pure and simple, and now I’m wondering if the reign of Ming can truly be ended… I guess I’ll find out in March 2013.
Note: I’d like to thank Tom at Titan Books for the two review copies. Volume 2 will be released on December 18, 2012.