Spend your present Sunday in the past, with Sundays of the future!

Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Vol. 1

Arriving in early 1934, among the wave of adventure and suspense strips that had been storming newspapers across the US at the time, “Flash Gordon” eventually became one of the defining examples of its genre: not merely the science-fiction strip but both the adventure strip in general, and science-fiction in a broader cross-medium sense. As a result of this, the strip is often (from what I’ve observed) remembered for its adaptations and its influence a bit more than for its accomplishments as a singular comic. There have been many reprints of the strip itself throughout the 20th century, though, with Dark Horse perhaps most visibly collecting the Mac Raboy run on the Flash Sunday pages into a recent four-volume set. This book, however, reaches all the way back to the beginning to offer creator Alex Raymond’s own run on the original Sundays.

The book is presented in a hardcover 9 x 12 landscape format, at 96 pages. There appears to be some confusion as to the publication history of the book; from what I can gather, at one point it was slated to be a 200-page softcover, in typical trade-paperback format, which would require some fiddling around with panel arrangements. Before the book’s release it was halved in length and switched over to a more natural layout style, along with the transformation to hardcover. However, even Checker’s site appears to think that the series will collect all of Raymond’s output in three volumes, which seems to be referring to the previous 200-page envisioning of the project. Seeing as how this particular volume covers less than a year and a half of Raymond’s run, it will likely take about six volumes worth of similarly proportioned books to take us to the end of Raymond’s run on his creation, which coincided with his enlistment in the US Marine Corps in 1944.

A then-uncredited Don Moore provided the story for these strips, but “Flash Gordon” is the type of comic that really doesn’t support any sort of serious plot synopsis; it’s enough to send Flash careening from one escapade to another as quickly as possible after his crash-landing on the planet of Mongo with the lovely Dale Arden and the at least partially sane Dr. Zarkov. The niceties of character development are absent from this early volume in the interests of putting Flash into as many tight spots as possible. In the first few months of the strip’s life we’ve already seen Flash face off with adversaries in two separate gladiatorial arenas at the whim of two separate Wicked Despots, most notable among that walking Yellow Peril nightmare figure of Ming the Merciless, his gleaming lemonade skin matched in intensity only by his cruel squinty eyes, permanently locked on the fair form of the beautiful Dale. Of course, one can hardly expect ethnically sensitive outer-space warfare from a strip that begins in its first installment with the caption: “In African jungles tom-toms roll and thunder incessantly as the howling blacks await their doom!” But just as later in that very installment we learn that all of humanity is united in horror under death’s imminent gaze, the strip strains and blends its racially potent imagery into the space-opera batter, until all we can really see are Heroic Rescues and Glorious Warfare and Honorable Respect between sworn foes. Nothing is thought of blasting entire cities of aliens to atoms; to reflect would cause the engine to stall. And besides, there are few civilians in this caffinated an adventure; everybody is a combatant, aching for a physical challenge.

Physicality is the fuel that powers this engine, with lots of wrestling and straining against impossible odds and captions breathlessly tracking the state of perspiration upon Flash’s mostly exposed flesh. The men are just as scantly clad as the ladies on planet Mongo, you see. Even the comparably paunchy Dr. Zarkov spends a good deal of time strutting around shirtless. And by the time the lustfully rebellious Princess Aura clings tightly to Flash, the two hanging precariously above a boiling sea of snapping monsters, she costumed in full harem-girl regalia and he clad in only the finest space-underpants of 1934, well, lets say the subtext won’t require much sleuthing to uncover. But Flash’s eyes are only for dear Dale, and even their own down-time activities are brushed entirely off-panel, with hardly a kiss to be glimpsed; the sexual undercurrents are strong, but they must remain under, as yet another concession made to the optimization of the boys’ adventure.

And it is optimization that sealed the success of “Flash Gordon”. There had been prior sci-fi adventure strips. But Raymond’s conviction brought a new level of lasting impact to the genre, and coupled with the whirligig pacing of the ongoing story the strip became a classic, its travels to the silver screen only feeding its legend and assuring its influence, its hold over a young George Lucas and the ensuing power-grip of the big dazzle movie fantasy spectacular. Look close at those summer blockbusters. The good and the bad, up there on the screen. There’s so much talk today about comics providing a licensing farm for Hollywood. But look there at those CGI struggles, those $200 million time-passers, then look down upon the “Flash Gordon” page.

Do you see it?

Do you see our present in Alex Raymond’s lines?

Adam Strange #3 (of 8)

And speaking of the present, here’s another of this week’s comics. “Adam Strange” is a cool little book, and it looks to be picking up on the bouncing event-to-event pacing of the old “Flash Gordon”. This issue Adam is picked up by an alien race and quickly becomes a pawn in political power-play. Why, there’s even sexual tension between Adam and a forceful alien woman, although we know where Our Hero’s heart really belongs. But as a smooth, contemporary update of several venerable genre tropes, “Adam Strange” continues to succeed better than many books. Go check this series out!