This is the first volume of a new collection reprinting the classic Flash Gordon comic strip by Titan Books. This collection starts the journey of Flash Gordon from the very first Sunday comic strip published on January 7 1937 on this very day, some 75 years ago today. When young adventurer Flash Gordon and fellow passenger Dale Arden crash land near Doctor Zarkov's rocket ship set to intercept a flying planet about to crash on Earth, the trio is sent on a never ending adventure on the strange world on Mongo where they will have to find allies in their quest to survive the might of the evil emperor Ming.
I remember reading these very comic strips as a kid, borrowing them from my local library. The stories felt so familiar even though I haven't watched many Flash Gordon serials or animated cartoons in my days. As I was crunching through this book which I admit was released a few months ago, I was surrounded by a feeling of reading material that had shaped my imagination as a kid and which today, some 79 years later has not aged a bit.
Alex Ross provided the introduction to this first volume which Titan Books planned as the new definitive collection of Flash Gordon material. I found Ross's introduction well-researched and beyond what I would have expected from a non-academic. Ross knows his comic book history quite well and how to express the wonder and importance of the material to follow.
If you are familiar with Flash Gordon, there is no need for me to explain what happens therein. It is classic comic strip material that sits at the core of comic book historiography. If you are not familiar with this material and wonder why you should pay attention to this material, here is a reason. Ross said it best and over the years I've read similar comments from many comic book creators and experts. Flash Gordon is at the origin of the modern super hero. Practically half of the Justice League was influenced by the material artist Alex Raymond and unaccredited writer Don Moore created for several years. You'll find echoes of Flash, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Adam Strange, Aquaman, Magnus Robot Fighter and more in these stories.
But what Raymond contributed to Flash Gordon which very few artists at the time did was above average illustration that was steeped in a tradition that had not originated from the comic strip. The fine illustration Raymond created were of their times, with fine inks and complex composition and linear body forms as well rendered as if drawn by a student of Michelangelo. Flash Gordon was the very archetype of the great hero and his many wars and constant survival despite remarkable odds betrayed the story of the end of a colonial system that Americans had benefited from although it had been carried out by European powers.
Ming was of course the yellow emperor of the East with his mighty empire who ruled over coloured people of all shapes and abilities who lived in dense forests, caves under water and in the most arctic locations of planet Mongo. The first few strips were mostly filled with exotic creatures of varying colours. Only later in the story did other white people start to populate the stories of Flash Gordon and offer him princesses and Queens that might possibly steal his heart from his lovely Dale. Ming's daughter, the ever-scheming princess Aura loved Flash Gordon but never had any chance.
There is a conventionality about the possible love relationships characters in Flash Gordon were allowed to have that betray strict racial codes and rules supported in the society that read these comic strips. Yet, allies and friends about and soon the mad Doctor Zarkov would become a precious ally of Flash Gordon.
Flash Gordon was designed to compete against Buck Rogers by taking over the science fiction aspect of that other strip but ended up creating the kind of mystical world infused with technology and science that seems so normal when watching something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Flash Gordon was an Aryan prototype before such models were questioned during the postwar period following the decolonization of Asian and Africa. This strip offered the average American who read it the last glance and attempt at dreaming of a world empire ruled by smart white people before the rebellion of colonized people.
Yet, the colonialism apparent in these strips showed that various oppressed people were quite happy to rebel against Ming and his armada. Perhaps Flash Gordon was a precursor of the American will to contain the Japanese empire that was spreading in Asia and threatening America in the long run. Ming, however, was clearly a Chinese man influenced by such characters as the oriental and evil Fu Manchu figure that has existed for so long in American popular culture.
The other aspect of Flash Gordon which is of interest to historians is the treatment of women. Here, they are ostensibly objects to be paired with a heroic or an evil man. Princess Aura, the most feminist and independent of all, was still often nothing but a damsel in distress, though she caused many of her dire predicaments through her own guile. Dale Arden is the love struck Earth woman who is the only one worthy to be paired with Flash Gordon. However, she is an object meant to be rescued constantly and although with a mind of her own, she was less than a sidekick, like Doctor Zarkov. She was beautiful and desired by every men and ruler. But at the first instance, she would jump to Flash Gordon's feet or his embrace.
My criticism is not meant to trash Flash Gordon at all. I appreciated the revisiting of so many stories but realize that in 2013, they remain product of another era although their entertainment value has not declined.
The actual original material used for the reprint in this volume is not as optimal as could be wished. The strips are not well-preserved. Volume Two of this series seem to have better reproductions.
Alex Raymond seemed capable only of drawing exotic creatures that had reptilian and serpentine features. It's interesting because it sheds a lot of understanding about what he would have considered alien. His design of men and women from various worlds felt like they were plucked from Antiquity instead of any other period. That is when Flash Gordon did not sport mesh armour that looked like it came from the Middle Ages.
The design of the figures was simple as Raymond was more interested in presenting well-designed anatomies rather than imagining storytelling that obfuscated realism. His storytelling was still clear and strong enough that readers will not need to read every captions to understand the action happening. Illustrators such as Alex Ross cannot pretend the same.
If you are interested in sequential art history, I suggest you pay attention to this collection and start collecting these huge books from Titan Books. Volume One, at just above 200 pages printed on sturdy and great paper collects three years and a half of comic strips, ending on April 18, 1937.