Valgar Gunnar - Comics' Greatest Hero.

*So, you like those EC comics, do ya? You thought that Grant Geissman book was pretty cool, and you’re ready to drop some cash, but you just can’t find those gigantic b&w slipcase sets or any of those pamphlet reprints? Russ Cochran has some good news: a brand-new “EC Archives” project, targeted at chain bookstores and the mass market (as opposed to the fan market), in full color, in hardcover format, much like the Archives books that DC has been putting out. More on this as it develops (and I kind of hope it’ll be at a lower price point then those DC books).

The Flames of Gyro

A career retrospective is a career retrospective and censoring parts of that career show a contempt for the subject of the retrospective and its readership. I'd sure as shit publish Garbage Pail Kids in the Art Spiegelman retrospective (heck, and a page from "The Viper" too) and I hope that when Gary and/or I go, people don't sweep THE FLAMES OF GYRO, AMAZING HEROES and Eros Comix under the carpet.”

- Fantagraphics Vice-President Kim Thompson, on the Comics Journal Message Board, responding to criticisms as to the selection of reprint materials in the recent Will Eisner tribute issue.

No, don’t worry, nobody has died or anything. But I’ve decided that I simply have to spend the final waning moments of this sunny Sunday talking again about “The Flames of Gyro”, which according to my research (and Tom Spurgeon’s memory) was the first ever original comic published by industry heavyweight Fantagraphics, way back in 1979. Often, probably for the sake of simplicity or recognition, books like “Love and Rockets” are cited as the ‘beginning’ works of Fanta; but before all of that, there was this $2 magazine-sized b&w space opera from writer/artist Jay Disbrow. Seeing as how Thompson puts this on the same level as Fanta’s forays into superhero magazines and pornography, surely a closer look into these Graphics of the Fantastic is warranted.

As you can see from the cover art, Valgar Gunnar is a bold, blonde, old-school space hero, determinedly aiming his laser pistol at something off-panel as a throwback brunette balances on her right tippy-toe and kicks backward, the universal posture for Girl Distress. The evil fellow whose giant head is hovering over the titular flames is Wolfrung Zarocca the 40th, noted man-about-town, spy-master, beneficiary of some vague source of wealth (an intergalactic trust, mayhap?), and prospective Dictator of the Universe. His distant ascendant, the first Wolfrung Zarocca, actually was the terror of a thousand planets, his evil grip unbreakable, largely due to his enchanted medallion, which was forged in the deepest fires of Planet Gyro and charged with all of the darkest mysteries of the universe. “At last! The power of the universe is centered in my hands!” exclaims Zarocca, setting up the book’s peculiar style of dialogue, which generally feels like a fair-to-good translation of something originally presented in another language. Anyway, Zarocca gets way too hammered one night on Callium (the wine of the gods, we’re assured), and one of his subordinates steals the trinket, but the wicked power of the medallion is too much for him and he falls off a tower or something. Anyway, a whole bunch of years pass and now Emperor Flan Gammeron (Flan... what’s with the food motif?!) wants the heroic Gunnar to toss the medallion back into the Flames of Gyro, which is the only way to destroy it. I suspect you’re starting to feel the itch of familiarity here.

Yes, basically the book is Flash Gordon starring in an interstellar stock production of “Lord of the Rings”, except it’s only 32 pages long. It’s kind of tough to criticize; the book is so open and blatant about its many steals (again, your attention is directed to the Flash Gordon box on the cover) that it seems like kicking a puppy to complain about it. Gunnar even gets teamed up with a hazily-defined Fellowship, some of whom are traitors, though none of them get more than a few lines of dialogue each, leading to their inevitable deaths accomplishing just about nothing. Also, we get the world’s most unnecessary romantic subplot, as the lovely Princess Wendra tags along with the team despite being entirely useless and fretty. We’re told that she’s been hypnotically implanted with the directions to the titular flames, but why couldn’t someone a bit more competent be similarly implanted? Answer: because a pretty girl is needed, even though I quite explicitly recall Dale being able to at least fire a gun back in those “Flash Gordon” strips, but never mind!

Another thing I recall about “Flash Gordon” is clothing constantly getting ripped off, characters sweating and punching and groaning in pain. There’s also none of that here; I became unreasonably distracted by the fact that nobody’s clothing gets even remotely rumpled or dirty at any point in the proceedings. Coupled with the stiffness and awkward posing of Disbrow’s character art, every scene comes off as having been photo-referenced from action figures standing on planetary play-sets. And that goes double for the dinosaurs and monsters… oh! Did I mention that there’s dinosaurs? And that they look like plastic toys?

But all of this is irrelevant. I’m sure you know how this story ends already (hint: it involves a certain medallion-crazed villain following the bauble down into the inferno). It’s the little moments, the panels that feature Gunnar socking a villain accompanied by a caption screaming “With all the power in his mighty thews, Val strikes his opponent…” that make all the difference. It’s a silly book, a stiff book, an almost astonishingly derivative book, but a compulsively readable thing. Maybe a bit too much of the entertainment stems from the fact that, well, Fantagraphics got its start in publishing original comics in this way, and one can’t help but imagining Maggie and Hopey and Buddy Bradley and Jimmy Corrigan as the children of plastic, unsweating Valgar Gunnar, keeping the spaceways safe for twenty-six years of innovative comics without mussing his hair one bit. So why not spend a quarter (the princely sum I surrendered for this tome) or a dollar or whatever to enjoy the birth of a new era, rising up from the flames as the a medallion of old stores goes down, down into the pit.

And after that, there’s plenty of Monster Comics still to come!