Sunday, 9 February 2014

Comic Review - Flash Gordon: On The Planet Mongo

Flash Gordon – On The Planet Mongo

Published by Titan Books

I first became aware of Flash Gordon in my childhood while I was running around the playground pretending to pilot an X-Wing. I was a huge Star Wars fan and my small world revolved around space battles and lightsabre fights. I remember the black and white serials from the 1930s being shown every now and then on television but the connection to Star Wars was never evident to me.

It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered that George Lucas had created the Star Wars universe as a homage to the serials that he loved as a child, and as he couldn’t secure the Flash Gordon license he decided to create a myth of his own. I was intrigued by this, and as luck would have it the TV was once again showing the old Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe serials. I sat and paid a bit more attention this time as I wanted to see what it was that Star Wars and Flash Gordon had in common. As it happened, it was quite a lot and I immediately understood the charm of the serials and why they were so dear to so many people. There was no pretence, no deep angst or dilemmas of the soul; there was Flash Gordon, and he’d throw a punch at a dinosaur to defend what was right and battle on no matter the odds. He was a big damn hero.

This started my fondness of these serials; Buck Rogers, The Phantom Empire, Radar Men From The Moon, King Of The Rocket Men, Undersea Kingdom… all these and more I watched and enjoyed. As a Star Wars fan I could see where it was that George Lucas and his team had gotten their inspiration and then updated it to suit a modern audience, with modern special effects and sensibilities.

I devoured the lacklustre 1950s show, the camp-but-fun 1980s movie and the excellent Filmation cartoon series but very rarely touched on the genesis of all of this; Alex Raymond’s original cartoon strip that began in 1934. I’d always had a few pages here and there but never a chronologically ordered version. Now, thanks to Titan Books, I have the chance to have all those original strips that Alex Raymond and Don Moore created.

The first volume, containing strips from 1934 to 1937, is a large, sturdy hardback book with excellent binding that allows the pages to sit on the respective pages with no risk of damaging the spine. The cartoons are presented in a portrait layout with some modifications depending on how they were printed in their original newspapers. The front cover has an art deco feel to it, which is very appropriate, and a wonderful image of Flash and Dale adorn the top while ‘Flash Gordon’ is emblazoned across the cover in reflective gold letters. It’s very attractive.

There are two people writing introductions to this volume, Alex Ross and Doug Murray. Alex Ross (comic illustrator) gives a personal account of his love for Flash Gordon – as well as a wonderful and exclusive pencil drawing of Flash for the book - and details Gordon’s influence on the sci-fi genre, especially it’s influence on TV and cinema. He takes us through Flash over the ages, how Alex Raymond’s wonderful artwork broke new ground and influenced artists for decades to come, and otherwise reminds us of Flash Gordon’s legacy. Doug Murray (comics writer) then gives us an account of what it was that led up to Alex Raymond creating Flash Gordon, his history, his influences, his inspirations and finally the genesis of Flash and how he was created as an answer to the popular Buck Rogers strip. Interspersed with these introductions are images from the serials, the cartoon and some wonderful previously unseen black and white Alex Raymond art from the Flash strips.

After this build-up I turned to the first page of the actual strip with some excitement. Was the strip going to live up to all of this?

Absolutely. The full colour strip begins strong and just gets stronger. With little space in the newspaper and only appearing once a week there was little time to go through any long character introductions or motivations; it’s straight into the action with the world in peril, fireballs falling from the sky, crashing aeroplanes, parachuting heroes, gun-wielding scientists, and rocket ships blasting off into the stars… and this is just the first page, thirteen panels of action and adventure. You get an idea of Flash’s heroism and Zarkov’s genius and desperation, but that’s it. Once they blast off to Mongo there’s very little time for soul-searching or character developing – on the second page they fail to stop a comet, Flash punches Zarkov’s lights out then flies over an alien city, crashes the rocket ship, rescues Dale, staggers across the desolate Mongo landscape and gets stalked by a monster; that’s page two, ten panels. The action is thick and fast and continually holds your attention, the sheer speed makes you turn to the next page with anticipation as to what on Mongo is going to happen next and what else can they possibly come up with. I could hardly wait the few seconds to turn the page so I have no idea how they coped in 1934 having to wait for the next Sunday paper.

Alex Raymond’s artwork is, without doubt, wonderful. The panels seem to have been drawn from movie stills as the images are incredibly dynamic with plenty going on. The designs are wonderfully 1930s with rocket ships, ray guns, insane monsters and an eclectic mix of historical ages; the aesthetic seems to move from ancient Roman to medieval to Napoleonic, with plenty of blaster fights mixed with sword duels. If you put a lightsabre glow over the blades you could quite easily put any of the panels in the universe of Star Wars, the influence is evident.

The colour is excellent but there are instances of the print being slightly out of synch with the images but this is a direct reproduction of the originals so it no doubt couldn’t be helped. It doesn’t detract from the adventure, that’s for sure.

There are illustrations that literally sweep from the page. It can be exciting, evocative, and even sensual and brutal but it can‘t be denied how the artwork clearly creates another world and immerses the reader into it; there are panels and pages that would look great in a frame on a wall. My favourite panels are on page 128, here we see Flash and Dale fighting off the enemy in the last panel, and page 66 where we see a huge arena brawl begin.

The writing serves the story well but can be a little stunted and brief as it’s trying to fit into that week’s paper. When it’s describing the action and adventure it’s fine but it falls a little flat when Flash and Dale are declaring their love for one another, but I wonder if this is simply something that hasn’t really translated very well from the 1930s to the present day. In fact, some of the scenes of ‘I‘m a woman in distress!’ followed by Flash coming to the rescue can be a little grating but these are interspersed with other moments that make you wonder what Dale was worried about, as she can obviously take care of herself (which is why I love the image on page 128 so much). Again, the attitude is of its time and some of that might not sit well with a modern audience.

This first volume of the Flash Gordon collection is excellent – I have finally fully experienced the original Alex Raymond strips and learned where the serials and movies I love stemmed from. Alex Raymond’s art is wonderful and I can easily see why so many artists down the ages have been inspired by him. The influence on Star Wars is more than evident and I have to wonder what a George Lucas Flash Gordon movie would have been like; but, let’s face it, it turned out to be a good thing that King Features turned him down.

Very highly recommended.

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