Friday, June 16, 2017

FLASH GORDON PART 1

“ON THE PLANET MONGO” | “MONSTERS OF MONGO”
by Alex Raymond & Don Moore

These initial FLASH GORDON strips, comprising nearly the entire year of 1934 — January 7th through November 18th — introduce us in very quick order to our hero and his situation. And I mean very quick order. The first strip presents us with the news that a newly discovered planet is hurtling toward Earth, and the world’s preeminent scientific mind, Doctor Hans Zarkov, is working to knock it off course. We then meet renowned Yale polo star Flash Gordon and his girlfriend, Dale Arden, aboard an airplane which is struck by a meteor presaging the larger planet’s impact. They bail out, conveniently landing near Zarkov’s lab, and the addled scientist forces them aboard his rocket at gunpoint, then takes off on a collision course with the mystery planet.


I'll repeat: that's all one strip — thirteen panels! Fortunately, subsequent installments are a bit more reasonably paced, and really, it's easy to realize why the story needs to begin in such a seemingly rushed fashion. This isn't a twenty-some page comic book or a novel or a half-hour TV show or a two hour movie. It's half a page in the local newspaper, and it's the very first installment of a new feature. Once the strip is established, it can afford to be more leisurely with its storytelling, but in order to get that far, it needs to hook new readers immediately, and so we wind up with the above.

So — Zarkov’s plan is a success and the other planet, Mongo, is diverted from its crash-course with Earth. But Zarkov himself perishes when his rocket crashes, and Flash and Dale find themselves marooned on Mongo. What follows is a long and winding serial which sees the pair captured, separated, recaptured, escaped, and more, in a series of non-stop, genuinely exciting cliffhangers which introduce them to the varied species which call Mongo home.

Side note: I'm not certain exactly what the division of labor was on FLASH GORDON, but I know that Alex Raymond generally receives all the credit for the strip. So my guess is that Raymond was the plotter and artist, while Don Moore, credited in some places as the writer, was actually merely a scripter. I'll proceed with this assumption going forward.

These initial story arcs give us a lot of what the “Flash Gordon mythology” is built on. The first year of the strip features nearly all of the major characters and locations which would be adapted time and again into Flash’s adventures in other formats. In addition to Flash, Dale, and Zarkov, we also meet their allies, Prince Thun of the Lion Men and Prince Barin, a rebel leader of Mongo’s underground resistance. And of course the resistance needs someone to, uhh, resist, and that’s where Ming the Merciless comes in.


I’ve got more to say about Ming, but I’m saving it for next time. For now I’ll simply note that he is the sinister ruler of Mongo who becomes smitten with Dale shortly after meeting her. On the flip side of this, Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, is just as taken with Flash, frequently saving him from her father’s treachery as she schemes to make him hers. And incidentally, Aura’s infatuation with Flash comes off a little weird here. Where Ming is your typical overbearing tyrant who seems more in lust with Dale than anything else, Aura literally declares that she loves Flash immediately upon glimpsing him for the first time, before she’s even spoken to him. (Not that women can't be in lust either, and maybe that's what this is -- but it's still a little contrived.)

It's clear that Raymond has a very distinct vision for the tone and style of Flash’s adventures, though perhaps not so much with regards to the plot. There are some instances where events become a bit muddled and repetitive. For example, as noted above, Ming wants Dale and takes her captive, planning to marry her. Over the ensuing weeks, while Flash is busy trying to get back to her, Ming 1) attempts to marry Dale in a shotgun ceremony but is interrupted, 2) tries to brainwash Dale in a one-panel scene that’s never mentioned again, 3) attempts to marry Dale again and then sentences her to death when she sides with Flash over him, and 4) sends Dale off to a prison city with Flash, where she will be taught to be a respectful wife and then eventually be shipped back to him.

But I have faith that the plotting will get better, and in the meantime, the real draw to the adventures of Flash Gordon comes in the artwork, the energy, and the sheer imagination Raymond injects into every strip. I have to admit that I’ve not read much vintage science fiction, but looking at this stuff from 1934, I have to believe that a lot of it was new at the time. After all, Flash Gordon would go on to become an enduring pop culture icon for decades to come. That doesn’t usually happen with a derivative work (though it’s not unheard of). It’s no secret that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Flash when he created STAR WARS — he had originally wanted to make a FLASH GORDON film but was unable to secure the rights. And while I have yet to run across any overly blatant STAR WARS precursors in these pages, at the very least the origin of Princess Leia’s metal bikini is readily evident in Raymond’s early work, as Dale is immediately dressed in one by Ming and spends pretty much the entire first two story arcs thusly attired.


I’m pretty sure I also see shades of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE in Flash’s early strips as well! The planet Mongo, at least to my eye, bears a striking resemblance to He-Man’s world of Eternia in terms of its exotic locales — most notably in the fact that we have a floating city of hawk men high above Mongo’s surface, not unlike the city of Avian, home of He-Man’s ally, Stratos, in MASTERS. And from what I've read, the producer of the HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE cartoon series, Lou Scheimer, was a Flash Gordon fan from childhood who adapted the early serials extremely faithfully to animated form not long before production started on MASTERS.

As I said when I announced this project last Sunday, Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON is something I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. I’m only two story arcs/one year into his decade-long tenure on the strip, so there’s a great deal of ground left to cover -- but so far I’m exceedingly impressed with Raymond’s imagination and artwork. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

4 comments:

  1. There's a lot of precedence to be found for these strips in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
    The sub-genre of science fiction is now referred to as "planetary romances".

    Space opera was becoming more popular in the wider world of science fiction around this time. Edmond Hamilton was a major influential figure on the development of space opera, and there are a lot of elements of space opera to be found in Flash Gordon.

    Star Wars is considered a space opera science fiction story, and Lucas was influenced by a wide field of science fiction, not just Flash Gordon.
    Hamilton's wife, Leigh Brackett, was the writer of the Empire Strikes Back script, and she was well-known for her more sophisticated type of space opera plots.

    I wouldn't say that there was anything very original in Flash Gordon, but Alex Raymond did jump in at a time when this type of sci-fi was first catching on and gaining popularity.
    It can all be traced back to Burroughs though.

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    1. Thank you for the information! One of my favorite things when posting about stuff I don't know that well is when people comment to broaden my knowledge. I love learning about stuff like this.

      Could it be fair to say that FLASH GORDON might have been the first visual/sequential art representation of the sorts of "planetary romances" that were popularized earlier by the likes of Burroughs?

      Someday I'm going to read some of the John Carter books. I've had the first one on my Kindle for a few years now and just never got around to it.

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    2. Yes, I believe that is probably a big aspect of its enduring legacy, the fact that it was actually a visual representation of that type of world.
      It would certainly stick in the imagination, with its bright colours and stunning depictions.
      It would have been unique in that sense, certainly.

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    3. Thanks! I hope you'll be around for rest of my Flash Gordon posts.

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