Gordon's Alive!

Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo
Alex Raymond
Titan Books, 2012

Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo by Alex Raymond.jpg

Way back in the beneficent 1950s – in 1954, to be exact – there appeared on the metal spinner-rack of Trow's Paper Goods (in a sleepy little Iowa town with neither bookstore nor library) a slim thing of wonder: a new comic book called Jungle Action #1. For the asking price of 10 cents, the reader could thrill to the exploits of Leopard Girl, Jungle Boy, and an enormous and bad-tempered Gorilla named Man-oo the Mighty. But for the real connoisseur of jungle adventure, the star of the issue was a muscular young man named Lo-Zar, Lord of the Jungle.

Lo-Zar's creator, a hack named Don Rico, didn't expend much mental energy bothering his readers about exactly why Lo-Zar was Lord of the Jungle, beyond the obvious facts: he was white, he was clean-cut, he seemed grimly purposeful, and in a pinch he could call on elephants and lions to get him out of tights spots (and boy, did he have his share of tight spots! He spent more time tied up than Harry Houdini). For a precious handful of adventures, Lo-Zar traipsed around the jungle in a loin cloth and shampooed hair, thwarting gun-runners and poachers and then swinging off into the sunset in (apparently) virginal self-satisfaction. Then Jungle Action folded, and the veldt fell silent. 

Lo-Zar had never been an entirely happy creation, for one simple reason: he was an echo, a knock-off, a pale (-skinned) imitation of the real Lord of the Jungle, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes. He could break up all the spy-rings he wanted, but at the end of the day, tourists would still point at him and say, “Hey! Are you that Tarzan guy?”

It's a common affliction among pulp characters – just ask the Fighting American how he feels about Captain America, or buy Captain Marvel a beer while he complains about Superman. And the big boys aren't free of it either – the Man of Steel certainly wouldn't like it if you mentioned Philip Wylie's novel The Gladiator, even though oft-read copies of it were on the nightstands of his two boy-creators, Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster. The point, as entrepreneurs like Don Rico would be quick to point out, isn't originality: it's what you do with what you've got.

This is no doubt a great consolation to Flash Gordon, the subject of a gorgeous new set of hardcover omnibus reprint volumes from Titan Books – because we should be honest about this upfront: Flash Gordon started his life back in January 1934 as an imitation-with-slight-variation of a character whose comic-strip debut happened five years earlier, in January 1929. That character was Buck Rogers (his original moniker was 'Anthony' but we need not dwell on that), a tough-guy veteran of World War I who gets trapped in a mine collapse and exposed to radioactive gas that throws him into suspended animation for five hundred years. He awakens in AD 2419 to a chaotic and slightly enfeebled world where his rough, bruising ways impress the locals.

The character was a huge hit. Novels, comic strips, breakfast cereals, belt buckles, radio shows, and movie serials followed in quick order. The hustlers and con men running King Features didn't need a house to fall on them; they approached artist Alex Raymond about creating a rival character to take some of the liquid helium out of Buck Rogers' jet pack. The move was crass and purely capitalistic – it would have been fodder for contempt except for one important detail: Alex Raymond was a full-blown artistic genius. 

He didn't start out that way. Geniuses hardly ever do. In those first Sunday comics in 1934 – brought gloriously back to life in these beautiful Titan pages – his style was cluttered, rough, and clunky. Like everybody else at the time, he had very little concept of how to draw advanced technology, mainly because advanced technology didn't yet exist in the world.  Science fiction – what pioneering science publisher Hugo Gernsback called “scientifiction” – paved the path for reality, as it has ever since (your cell phone is a Star Trek communicator; your iPad is a Star Trek data-padd) Raymond's earliest readers would have nodded comfortably at the appearance of a bi-wing prop-plane passenger flight, but today's readers will nod just as comfortably at the sight of alien war-fleets composed essentially of fighter jets – and when an entire city on Mongo is annihilated in a single instant of blinding light and heat, 21st Century readers will shudder with a recognition mercifully spared their 1934 counterparts. 

Raymond couldn't foresee any of that, of course. He was given one simple task: out-do Buck Rogers. To do this, he came up with an opening scenario that would later become a staple of the genre. He imperiled the world in order to call forth a champion.

In the first strip, we see a newspaper headline: “WORLD COMING TO END: Strange New Planet Rushing Toward Earth – Only Miracle Can Save US, Says Science.”  Raymond gives us glimpses of all the peoples of Earth praying for salvation as a huge rogue comet plunges closer and closer. We cut to the astronomy laboratory of Hans Zarkov, who's trying to devise some sort of global protection. He's a scientist, but he's quickly turning into a mad scientist: “His great brain is weakening under the strain!”

We then jump to that bi-winged passenger flight, one with only two passengers: Flash Gordon “Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player” (in other words: in yer eye, you uncouth Buck Rogers) and Dale Arden “a passenger” (alas, this summarizes her future role in the series quite neatly). A stray fragment of the approaching comet shears a wing off the plane, and Flash, thinking quick, grabs a parachute in one hand and Dale Arden in the other and bails out (we never hear anything about the pilot, co-pilot, or crew). As chance would have it, they land right on Dr. Zarkov's doorstep, and he approaches them not with warm welcomes but with a crazed look and a leveled pistol. Flash assures him that he and Dale are friends. Zarkov blurts out, “Friends, bah! You're spies! You've come to make my secret known to the world! They shall never know! Come with me!” Without elaborating on what his “secret” is (as far as we know, he's been trying to save the world – did he, I've often wondered, first perhaps do something to imperil it? Zarkov really merited a comic strip of his own, but he was old and fat and book-smart, so that was never going to happen), he leads Flash and Dale to a rocket ship and forces them on board. “I intend to shoot this ship at the comet which threatens the earth!” he raves. “My ship will deflect the comet from its course and save the earth! We three shall die martyrs to science!” To which Flash can only respond: “Good Heavens, man, you're crazy!” 

Crazy or not, he's determined – or is he? Only a few panels later (that is, the following Sunday), Zarkov has suddenly lost his nerve, looking at the rapidly-closing comet with horror and saying “I can't do it! I can't do it! We'll all be killed!”

A sigh of relief and a sharp change of course by Flash? No! It seems his enforced proximity to the beautiful Dale has made him suicidal: he yells “We must! We must save the earth! Let me at the controls!” To which Dale adds, “Oh Flash – look out! He's going mad!” Poor Zarkov – he's nuts no matter how the coin toss goes. These are the first words we ever hear Dale speak. They reveal that at least she knows Flash's name, although we never see him introduce himself. Maybe she's a polo fan.

In any case, there follows a mighty scuffle, in which the older, pot-bellied Zarkov manages to hold his own fairly well against his much younger and more muscular erstwhile fellow-martyr – he succeeds in tearing Flash's shirt half off before the young hero knocks him out, mere instants before their rocket ship is caught in the gravity well of a strange alien world and crash lands. We don't hear anything more about the comet – at the moment, Raymond has far more pressing matters to put before his readers.

Namely, the planet Mongo, where our trio of Earth-people now finds itself. Zarkov is rendered unconscious (or for all we know dead) by the crash, and Flash pays him not the slightest attention – he's too busy getting the unconscious Dale out of the wreckage and beginning the long trek toward a fantastic-looking city in the distance. Before he's gone ten feet, he and the suddenly awake Dale are menaced by not one but two enormous fanged dinosaurs. Flash holds one of them off with his handy switch-blade (even though the thing has scaly armor and is the size of a lake cabin), then the two dragons start fighting each other – and are suddenly strafed by incoming rocket-ships. Once again, Flash and Dale expect a friendly welcome, and once again they're met with pointed weapons.

A more sensible polo player might have concluded that Dale was a big bit of bad luck, but not our Flash: he's fallen irrevocably in love with her. When the two of them are brought before the Emperor of all Mongo, Ming the Merciless (a bald, Oriental-looking string-bean who usually keeps his long-nailed hands hidden in the folds of his sleeves like the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu) (Ming also stole the Evil One's mustache-style), Ming shares the sentiment – he immediately claims Dale for his bride and orders that Flash be thrown to the monkey-men in the arena. The blond-haired boy is now down to a simple loincloth (his shirt, his boots, even his jodhpurs, all gone), and he takes to the arena like a pro, thrashing one monkey-man after another until he's able to stand, alone and unafraid, before a thunderstruck Ming, who orders his guards to execute the unexpected victor. As Flash makes his escape, he's joined by Princess Aura, who's fallen so quickly and irrationally in love with Flash that she's willing to defy her father Ming to pursue the Earth man.

As even so quick a summary makes clear, Mongo is a planet simply bursting at the seams with unrestrained horniness. Not only does Alex Raymond in those early weeks miss no opportunity to strip his hero to skivvies, but virtually every major character is motivated by openly-declared lust. Flash is willing to risk everything for Dale; Ming instantly wants to marry Dale; Princess Aura is willing to risk everything for Flash; the king of the Shark Men tells Flash “I prefer to break your pretty body with my own two hands”; Prince Thun of the Lion Men takes an unconscious Flash in his arms, saying “By the great god Tao! A mere youth – and white!” Fat, scene-stealing King Vultan, ruler of the cloud city of the Hawkmen, orders Flash stripped and tortured, but Dale he promptly decides to add to his harem as one of his – you guessed it – wives. When heroic Prince Barin, one of Ming's yellow-skinned race who'd like to overthrow the emperor, first captures Flash, he almost complacently orders him stripped to his underpants in order to fight “the other white-skinned prisoner.” 

That other white-skinned prisoner has a flabby midsection and hair on his back – yep, it's Doctor Zarkov! The two clasp each other's shoulders precisely as if they hadn't been trying to kill each other the last time they were together. “Dr. Zarkov!” Flash ejaculates. “You don't know how glad I am to see you! I thought you were dead after our rocked crashed on this planet!” And Zarkov shoots back, “I was badly hurt, Flash – I tried to drag myself to the city in the distance but these fellows picked me up and brought me here – they made me cook for them and act as their servant but … well, we saved the earth, didn't we, lad?”

Raymond wants to write a happy reunion, but this is all nonsense. Flash didn't 'think' Zarkov was dead after the crash, he left him for dead without checking or appearing even to think about it, then or since; and if Zarkov has been a kitchen-slave the whole time, he'd have no way of knowing if they saved Earth or not – and in any case, reading the strip now you half-expect Flash to respond with a nervous laugh and “Earth? Oh yeah! Earth! Yes – heh, ahem – we sure did save good ol' Earth!” – because it's painfully obvious he hasn't thought about his home planet for one instant since his adventures on Mongo began. Of all science fiction's early heroes, Flash Gordon is by far the least introspective – in all the decades and decades of his time on Mongo, he never once seems to remember Earth, much less periodically visit it, as his protoype John Carter did. Dale and Zarkov too: these extraterrestrial expatriates never miss the world they were willing to kill themselves to save. The slow realization of it – had they no friends? No pets? No mothers? – makes the three of them somewhat icky company.

Instead of sentimentality, they're all about change. Alex Raymond let his imagination go wild in continually creating the social and political tapestry of Mongo, a feudal place composed of various nation-kingdoms all overseen by one emperor: Ming, who's far from beloved. It's a set-up no doubt mirroring Raymond's conception of pre-WWII Europe with its balkanized petty kingdoms populated by ever more exotic foreigners - a chaotic medieval mess just waiting for a young white American to come along and take charge. There are laws on Mongo that appear to supersede even Ming's authority, and every king and prince knows it. When Flash and Prince Barin fight to a draw in a public tournament, Mongo law says Ming must grant them both their own kingdoms – and when Ming wants to balk, it's Vultan who wags a finger in his face. “None of your trickery, Ming,” he says. “All Mongo, including your own army, stands behind us – proclaim them both kings or, by Tao, we put Flash Gordon on your throne as emperor of Mongo!”

So in short order – by early 1935 – it's King Flash, and along with the jump in our hero's status has come a great leap in Raymond's artistry. Here, in the ornate cross-hatching and architectural detail, in the increasingly elaborate costumes and backgrounds, even in the filigreed lettering, is the visual groundwork for Hal Foster's “Prince Valiant” Sunday comic (which began in 1937 and likewise featured an attractive young man on a series of adventures) and dozens of similar spin-offs that appeared during the pulp-comics boom of the war years. As the months of 1935 and '36 go by, Raymond's increasing comfort with his hit strip shows itself in ever more self-indulgently showy (and gorgeous) pencil-work.

That budding genius – combined with the surge in newspaper consumption (and the canny market-acumen of those King Features intriguers) – quickly made Flash Gordon the very thing he was intended to be: a runaway success, easily eclipsing his rival Buck Rogers. As with the trailblazer, so with his prettier understudy: there were comic books, kids' clubs, lunch boxes, movies and movie serials (starring the incomprehensibly bad Buster Crabbe, who'd earlier played Tarzan and would later play Buck Rogers, and who would never quite manage to win an Oscar for any of it), books, shirts, belt-buckles, stickers, chewing gum cards, children's toys, cartoons, live-action TV shows, and, most famously of all, a 1980 Dino De Laurentiis movie of such epic, towering awfulness that it was instantly clasped to the bosoms of science fiction fans all around the world and is a cult classic of the genre (King Features had earlier spurned the overtures of an inexperienced young director who went on to make his own film featuring a heroic young blond hero fighting an evil emperor on forest worlds, desert worlds, water worlds, and a cloud city). A new Flash Gordon movie – in 3-D, naturally – is in the works. In contrast, nobody's mentioned poor old Buck Rogers in a pitch-meeting for ages.

It's a familiar story of Darwinian competition. In 1972 Lo-Zar, Lord of the Jungle, made a surprising return in an unsurprising venue: a new Jungle Action comic. This time he was hanging out with low-rent trash like Jann of the Jungle and Lorna, Queen of the Jungle, and he was dying his hair red, and it looked like he'd had work done. Where in the 1950s he'd seemed stern, now he was just sadly petulant. In 2012 he's probably working in an auto-shop outside Puerto Vallarta, pot-bellied, boring the locals in pidgin Mexican about how he once foiled a smuggling plot in darkest Africa. He'd suffered the fate of most knock-off characters.

Most, but not all. Gordon's alive!

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.