Monday, May 11, 2009

Flash Gordon

Unlike Buck Rogers, who began life as a pulp character but found greater fame in the funny pages, Flash Gordon made his first appearance in a comic strip and later made a brief foray into the pulps. Alex Raymond had been ghosting Tim Tyler's Luck for King Features when he learned that the syndicate was looking for a science fiction strip to compete with Buck Rogers, which was distributed by a rival syndicate. His first idea was rejected, but he reworked the idea with the syndicate and Flash Gordon first appeared in the Sunday pages on January 7, 1934.

The first panel of the inaugural strip shows the front page of a newspaper, the headlines blaring, "WORLD COMING TO END—STRANGE NEW PLANET RUSHING TOWARD EARTH—ONLY MIRACLE CAN SAVE US, SAYS SCIENCE." In the succeeding panels, the narration informs us: "In African jungles tom-toms roll and thunder incessantly as the howling blacks await their doom! The Arab in the desert resigned to the inevitable faces Mecca and prays for his salvation! Times Square, New York—A seething mass of humanity watches a bulletin board describing the flight of the comet! The scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov works day and night perfecting a device with which he hopes to save the world—His great brain is weakening under the strain. Aboard an eastbound transcontinental plane we have Flash Gordon, Yale graduate and world renowned polo player and Dale Arden, a passenger. Suddenly, a flaming meteor torn loose from the approaching comet, roars past the plane shearing off a wing—The plane flounders helplessly and dives! Flash takes the girl in his arms and bails out. His 'chute opens with a crack! They float earthward. Landing near Dr. Zarkov's great observatory, Flash frees himself of his parachute. A dishevelled wild-eyed figure confronts them..."

The dishevelled, wild-eyed figure (with an unfortunate comb-over) is Dr. Zarkov, of course, and he's holding a gun. Fearing that Flash and Dale are spies sent out to thwart his plans, the distraught scientist forces them into his rocketship, determined to blast off in an attempt to deflect the onrushing planet from its course and save the Earth. However, as his rocketship approaches the new planet, Dr. Zarkov has a sudden change of heart. Fearing that they'll all be killed, he tries to swerve his rocket away from the oncoming planet. Flash, realizing that they are Earth's only hope, struggles with the mad scientist and knocks him unconscious. Roaring over a beautiful city on the surface of the new planet, the rocket crashlands on the side of a mountain, the force of the impact apparently being sufficient to jar the planet into a new orbit.

On Mongo, for such is the name of the new planet, Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov come under the baleful influence of Ming the Merciless, Emperor of the Universe. In the course of their improbable and breathtaking adventures they meet Princess Aura, Ming's daughter, Prince Barin, the rightful ruler of Mongo, Thun, Prince of the Lion Men, Vultan, King of the Hawk Men, Azura, the Witch Queen of the Blue Magic Men, Fria, Queen of the frozen kingdom of Frigia, and countless other friends and enemies—all beautifully illustrated with the lush, sensuous artwork for which Alex Raymond is so justly remembered.

Flash Gordon

lash Gordon was an immediate success, and King Features soon sought other means to capitalize on the strip's growing popularity. Flash's exploits were adapted for radio in 1935, and 1936 brought the first novelization of Flash's adventures, Flash Gordon in the Caverns of Mongo, along with the filming of the first of three Flash Gordon movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. Also in 1936 came the publication of the first, and lamentably only, issue of the Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine.

Aimed at a juvenile audience, the Flash Gordon pulp story faithfully retained the three main comic strip protagonists, the stalwart, natural leader of men, Flash Gordon, the voluptuous and occasionally petulant Dale Arden, and the brilliant though slightly unstable Dr. Hans Zarkov—but the majority of the action inexplicably takes place on Mars, and the villian, Pwami, Master of Mars, is little more than a country cousin to Ming the Merciless. Nevertheless, The Master of Mars, attributed to the otherwise unknown James Edison Northford (spelled "Northfield" on the contents page), was a rousing pulp adventure, with nearly every chapter ending in a seemingly inescapable cliffhanger—much like Raymond's Sunday pages and Buster Crabbe's serials.

As longtime pulp collectors may know, Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine's chief claim to fame is that it included full page four-color illustrations done in the comic strip style. Although the color illustrations that appeared in the pulp were done by an artist named Fred Meagher, the plot had apparently been constructed to parallel events that had taken place in the comic strip. For example, early in the pulp adventure, the evil Pwami has Flash thrown into a pit, where he is menaced by a thirty-foot long Martian Pythocra, which just happens to resemble the Constrictosaurus Flash faced in a similar pit on Mongo in the comic strip published on December 29, 1935.

Illustration by Fred Meagher, published in
Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine

Panel by Alex Raymond, published
on December 29, 1935

Special thanks to David, a longtime Alex Raymond fan, for the use of the Meagher illustration.

Likewise, at one point Dale finds herself confined in Pwami's sky gallery of Eros, a predicament remarkably similar to the one she faced in Vultan's tower harem on Mongo. Later, Flash finds himself underwater in one of the canals of Mars, fighting for his life against the Shark Men of Mars, who appear to be closely related to the Shark Men of Mongo. Perhaps the original intention had been to adapt Raymond's comic strip illustrations, similar to the adaptation that had been done for the cover (see box at the bottom of this page). If such is the case, however, the plan was regrettably abandoned, as Meagher's drawing skills weren't in the same league as Raymond's.

Dale Arden

As The Master of Mars progresses, Flash rescues Dale from Pwami's sky gallery, finds himself in the company of Illana, the beautiful Princess of Jupiter, is stranded with her in the magnetic mountains on the planetoid Tyron, rescues Dr. Zarkov from the prison asteroid Ceres, and is caught up in a titanic struggle between the forces of Earth and an invading fleet of Martian spaceships. All solid pulp science fiction adventure—that unfortunately failed to catch on with the reading public.

Dr. Zarkov

It isn't clear as to why Flash Gordon failed to successfully make the transition from comic strips to the pulps, other than to note that no attempts to adapt comic characters to the pulps had ever been successful. Sheena, a popular comic book character published by Fiction House, failed to survive her first pulp issue (other than a brief guest appearance in the final issue of Jungle Stories, also published by Fiction House). In any event, Flash Gordon's second pulp adventure, The Sun Men of Saturn, promised in the back pages of the December 1936 issue of Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine, if it was ever actually written, did not see publication.

Ironically, the Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine is now highly sought after by collectors. Although copies are seldom available, a copy was recently up for auction on eBay with a starting bid of $400. More affordably, underground reprints of the story can be had, or so I am told, for about $6.80 including postage.

he 1936 novelization, Flash Gordon in the Caverns of Mongo, published by Grosset & Dunlap, shared a similar fate with the pulp magazine—it had not been successful enough to result in a continuing series. Also aimed at a juvenile audience, the novel was published as being written by Alex Raymond, though there is no reason to think that he was the actual author. The cover illustration, end pages, and frontispiece were done by an illustrator named Robb Beebe, and the actual author of the book didn't really have a feel for Raymond's characters. At one point, the author appears to be unaware that Hawkmen could fly, and with the (premature) fall of Ming, the author has made Vultan the King of Mongo, whereas Raymond's storyline had made Prince Barin of Arboria the rightful heir.

Another good reason to believe that the novel wasn't actually written by Alex Raymond is that soon after beginning the Flash Gordon strip, Raymond turned the script writing duties over to Don Moore, a former pulp editor. Since Raymond was drawing Secret Agent X-9 and Jungle Jim at the same time he was doing the Flash Gordon strips, he didn't have the time to do his own writing. The main reason to doubt Raymond's authorship, however, is that even as a juvenile adventure story the book simply isn't very good.

The book starts out promisingly enough, with Lovecraftian references to "half-man, half-god things that inhabit the underworld" of Mongo, but the story quickly breaks down to a remarkably tedious battle between the forces of the upperworld and the pallid minions of the evil King Gonth of the netherworld. About halfway through the book, Flash is led to believe that Mongo and his friends have been lost, and in despair he flees to the moon Titan, which the author mistakenly believes to be in orbit around the planet Jupiter! On Titan, story "B" takes over as Flash becomes involved with the beautiful Princess Lahn-een (there aren't any plain-looking female royalty in Flash's universe) and her power struggle with the evil High Priest Oghr. After story "B" is more or less resolved, Flash, accompanied by Lahn-een and her forces, returns to Mongo and finishes up the nearly forgotten conflict from story "A" through a rather unique application of genocide. Except for Flash Gordon completists, this novel is best avoided, and it probably isn't something you'd want to read to your children.

ther than Big Little Book, Better Little Book, and similar adaptations of the Flash Gordon comic strips, there would be no further novelizations of Flash's adventures until 1974. In that year, Avon Books published the first of six adult Flash Gordon novelizations, the first four attributed to Con Steffanson and the remaining two attributed to Carson Bingham. In reality, the first three, The Lion Men of Mongo, The Plague of Sound, and The Space Circus, were written by Ron Goulart, and the final three, The Time Trap of Ming XIII, The Witch Queen of Mongo, and The War of the Cybernauts, were written by Carson Bingham, a pseudonym for Bruce Bingham Cassiday, a former pulp editor whose only previous writing experience was a novelization of the 1961 UK sci-fi movie Gorgo. The books were sold as being adaptations from Alex Raymond's original stories, but only the first novel is even remotely related to Raymond's work. In fact, all of the books in this series appear to be based on storylines from the Flash Gordon daily strips initiated by Dan Barry in 1951 (for example, The Witch Queen of Mongo is based on a Barry story that began on January 2, 1956). Of this series, the first three written by Ron Goulart are quick, enjoyable reads—although the language is a bit dated and the humor is pretty corny. The three by Carson Bingham are tedious time wasters, and may safely be avoided.

The next attempt at a Flash Gordon series was published by Tempo Books beginning in 1980. Although much better written than the final books in the previous series, this series isn't at all faithful to the Flash Gordon comic strip. In the first book, Massacre in the 22nd Century, Flash is introduced as a widower in his late thirties who is an agent with the Federation Central Intelligence Division. Dr. Zarkov, while still a brilliant scientist, is a frail old man who spends most of his time recovering from near-death experiences—and Dale Arden is his niece! This book and the remaining books in the series, War of the Citadels, Crisis on Citadel II, Forces from the Federation, Citadels under Attack, and Citadels on Earth, basically form an extended story arc in which our heroes get caught up in an ancient galactic civilization that has been at war for over 100,000 years. The earth itself is torn by the struggle between the Federation, the rightful government of the earth's own nascent galactic colonization efforts, and the Trans Federation, a vast conglomerate that has the power to openly flaunt the Federation's authority. It's all pretty standard SF adventure, but the three main characters could have been given any names—they bear little relation to the characters created by Alex Raymond. The books in this series were published anonymously, but were written by David Hagberg, who has also written under the name Sean Flannery, and who is better known for writing thrillers in the Tom Clancy vein.

n other media, Flash has met with comparatively greater success. As mentioned above, there was a Flash Gordon radio series in 1935. Running for 26 episodes between April 27, 1935 and October 26, 1935, The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon starred Gale Gordon in the role of Flash. The series faithfully adapted Flash's comic strip adventures, with the exception of the last two episodes, which took a surprising turn when Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov returned to earth in their rocketship and crashlanded in Africa. In Africa, they meet Jungle Jim, who witnesses Flash and Dale's tribal wedding ceremony in episode 26. Not too surprisingly, the radio series was replaced the next week with The Adventures of Jungle Jim, and Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov faded away—at least for that run. For almost immediately following the first series came a second radio series entitled The Further Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon. This second series strayed from Alex Raymond's original storyline, with some of the episodes taking place in the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, and apparently ran into 1936.

Flash's most successful foray into other media was, of course, the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (AKA Space Soldiers). Starring Buster Crabbe with a blond dye-job as Flash, Jean Rogers as a sexy Dale Arden, Frank Shannon as a somewhat stodgy Dr. Zarkov, Priscilla Lawson as a sultry Princess Aura, Richard Alexander as a pudgy Prince Barin, Jack "Tiny" Lipson as an amusing and easily amused King Vultan, and the excellent Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless, this first Flash Gordon serial produced by Universal Pictures was remarkably faithful to Alex Raymond's storyline, with the set design of some scenes apparently taken straight from Raymond's comic strip panels. While the cheap sets, primitive special effects, and stilted dialogue can cause unwanted chuckles among today's audiences, this serial is a rousing, non-stop actioner that continues to influence filmmakers, most notably George Lucas in his Star Wars series. Despite its limitations, or perhaps because of them, Flash Gordon is the epitome of Space Opera in the grand tradition and remains great fun to watch.

Given the immense popularity of the first serial, it isn't surprising that Universal Pictures rushed out with another one in 1938. Although taking plot elements and characters from Alex Raymond's strip, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars made some significant deviations from the comic strip canon—most notably transferring the action to Mars, reportedly to capitalize on the interest in Mars that was generated by Orson Welles's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and the addition of Happy Hapgood, an annoying journalist unnecessarily added to Flash's crew for comic relief. The plot this time has Ming the Merciless visiting Azura, the Queen of Magic on Mars (Witch Queen of the Blue Magic Men on Mongo in the original comic strip), and colluding with her to focus a deadly ray on the Earth so that he can wreak his revenge for the problems caused by Flash in the first serial. Flash, a disappointingly brunette Dale, and Dr. Zarkov, joined by the hapless Happy Hapgood, suspect that the attack is coming from Mongo, and blast off in their rocketship to thwart Ming's evil plans—but discover enroute that the ray is really coming from Mars and adjust their trajectory to land on the Red Planet. Since the detour to Mars was obviously done for commercial reasons, the scriptwriters had to strain a bit to incorporate Alex Raymond's Mongo-bound storyline, and it's a bit of a surprise when part way through the serial Prince Barin of Arboria shows up for no convincing reason.

Jean Rogers as a blonde Dale Arden in
Flash Gordon

Jean Rogers as a brunette Dale Arden in Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars
Which is sexier? You decide (hint: think "blonde").

Although the sets are a bit cheaper, and some of the special effects shots have obviously been salvaged from the first serial, the acting is generally better than in 1936's Flash Gordon, and all of the main characters are played by the same actors (Jean Rogers had reportedly dyed her hair brown for another film she was making at the same time), with the addition of Beatrice Roberts as Queen Azura and Donald Kerr as Happy Hapgood. It's not as fresh or as exciting as the first serial, but Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is still great fun, and is actually preferred by some fans.

The final Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, was released by Universal Pictures in 1940. Back on Mongo this time, Ming the Merciless has been busily sending spaceships to Earth to poison the atmosphere with dust that causes the Purple Death. So Flash, Dale (this time played by Carol Hughes—who more closely resembles the Dale of the comic strips—but who is no match for Jean Rogers, whether blonde or brunette), and Dr. Zarkov must return to Mongo to once again thwart Ming's nefarious plans. On Mongo, they meet up with old friends Prince Barin and Princess Aura, now married and played by different actors, and enlist the aid of Queen Fria of Frigia to fight Ming, the treacherous Sonja, and the villianous Captain Torch to once again save the Earth. Although the storyline returns to Alex Raymond's source material (with the exception of the aforementioned "Purple Death"), the actors are getting tired and the use of stock footage increases. The costumes are beautiful, however, and this concluding installment in the trilogy has its supporters.

ith the coming of television, many of the old serials were rerun to fill programming time, and one of the most popular was the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. So perhaps it isn't too surprising to discover that Flash's renewed popularity gave rise to a television series in 1954. Independently produced in West Germany by Inter-Continental Film Productions, and broadcast on the DuMont Television Network, the Flash Gordon TV series starred Steve Holland (perhaps better known to pulp fans as the male model used by James Bama for the Doc Savage cover illustrations for the Bantam reprints) as Flash Gordon, Irene Champlin as Dale Arden, and Joseph Nash as Dr. Zarkov. Set in the year 2203 (though the year is reported as 3063 in one episode), Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov are all agents for the Galactic Bureau of Investigation, which operates under the authority of the Galactic Council. Although the characters are fairly faithful to those created by Alex Raymond, Raymond's storyline has been completely abandoned and the series is little more than a knock-off of Captain Video. As might be expected for an independent production, the sets are cheap, the special effects aren't very special, and as an actor Steve Holland makes a pretty good male model. The series gained some notoriety when a childrens' programming watchdog group singled it out before a Senate subcommittee as an example of lurid and violent programming. After 39 episodes (some sources say 52), some of which are available on tape, the show folded and was soon forgotten. It's not great TV, it's Retro-TV—and good fun for cultists.

Flash's next television appearance had to wait until 1979, when The New Animated Adventures of Flash Gordon, produced by Filmation in the limited animation style of the 1970s, was broadcast on NBC. While remaining fairly faithful to Alex Raymond's storyline, this series of thirty-minute episodes was updated a bit to reflect the post-Star Wars tastes of its audience. The series began broadcasting on September 8, 1979, and featured the voices of Robert Ridgely as Flash Gordon and Prince Barin, Diane Pershing as Dale Arden, Alan Oppenheimer as Dr. Zarkov and Ming the Merciless(!), Ted Cassidy as Thun, and Allan Melvin as King Vultan. In the second season, the episodes were trimmed to twelve minutes and a pet dragon named "Gremlin" was introduced for the kiddies. In 1986 Filmation brought Flash back to TV as one of the characters in its Defenders of the Earth series, but Flash was overshadowed in this series by his son Rick.

Of course, no review of Flash Gordon's career can ignore the 1980 feature movie—as much as one might wish to. Featuring a catchy theme song by the rock group Queen, and starring Sam Jones as a mediocre Flash, Melody Anderson as a cute Dale, Topol as an inspired Dr. Zarkov, Max von Sydow as a nearly perfect Emperor Ming, Timothy Dalton as an overly serious Prince Barin, Brian Blessed as a delightful Vultan, and the delicious Ornella Muti as a breathtaking Princess Aura, Flash Gordon is extremely enjoyable as a laugh-out-loud cult favorite, but fails miserably as a retelling of the Flash Gordon story. Although it's fairly faithful in following Alex Raymond's original storyline, poor acting, dated and ludicrous dialogue, phony-looking set design and special effects, and a complete absence of the sense of romance and adventure so prominent in the Flash Gordon comic strip prevents the movie from being seriously considered as anything other than a parody. The only reason one can think of to justify watching this movie more than once is the beautiful and sultry Ornella Muti as Princess Aura. Cult movie lovers (of which I consider myself one) may relish the movie for its sheer badness, and the skimpy attire worn by Ornella Muti appears to defy science, but it would be difficult to recommend the movie to a general audience. Except, perhaps, to have a look at the luscious Ornella Muti—or have I already mentioned that?.

Although there are rumors that another Flash Gordon movie is currently in the works, the lastest production featuring Flash and his friends was another animated series released for syndication by Hearst Entertainment in 1996. To the horror of Flash Gordon purists, Flash and Dale have become skateboarding insouciant teenagers, mistakenly kidnapped by a self-centered and cowardly Dr. Zarkov, who is more interested in going to Mongo in order to win the Nobel prize than in order to save the Earth. In keeping with the PC times, Ming is depicted as being reptilian (reptiles being harder to offend than humans), and Princess Aura is his half-reptile, half-human daughter who still has the hots for Flash. Prince Thun of the Lion Men has been replaced by Princess Thundar, another overactive teenager. There were at least 26 half-hour episodes of this series, and a video, Marooned on Mongo, is occasionally available for aucion on eBay should anyone wish to see it.

Jim Keefe's version
of Flash and Dale.

lex Raymond continued working on the Flash Gordon Sunday strip until he entered the Marine Corps in 1944. Austin Briggs, who had ghosted a few of Raymond's Sunday strips and had drawn the Flash Gordon daily strip since its inception in 1940, assumed duties on the Sunday strip with Raymond's departure. With Briggs' transfer to the Sunday strip, the dailies were abandoned and weren't revived until 1951, when Dan Barry began a new series of Flash Gordon dailies in a less romantic style with a radically altered continuity, assisted by writers and artists such as Harvey Kurtzman, Al Williamson (most notable for his excellent work in various Flash Gordon comic books), Frank Frazetta, Fred Kida, Bob Fujitani, and Harry Harrison. In 1948, Briggs abandoned the Sunday strip and it was continued by Mac Raboy until his death in 1967. With Raboy's death, Dan Barry and his various scriptwriters, ghost artists, and assistants assumed duties on the Sunday strip while continuing the dailies. Dan Barry quit the series in 1990, and the dailies and Sunday strips were taken over by Ralph Reese as artist, occasionally assisted by Gray Morrow, with scripts by Bruce Jones. In 1992 the art duties were farmed out to a studio in Buenos Aires, with writing by Kevin Van Hook and Thomas Warkentin. The dailies were dropped from syndication in 1993, and Jim Keefe took over as artist and writer of the Sunday strip in 1996, and continued up to 2003.

An admirer of Alex Raymond and Al Williamson (for examples of Al Williamson's exquisite commercial artwork featuring Flash Gordon, click here—warning to those with slow connections, this page includes large image files), Jim Keefe dispensed with the ill-advised directions introduced into the series by Dan Barry, and returned Flash Gordon to the continuity established by Alex Raymond in 1934. Although Keefe halted production of new strips in 2003, King Features continues to syndicate reprints of Keefe's work. If the strip doesn't appear in your newspaper's Sunday pages, you'd be well advised to contact the paper's comics editor and request that it be picked up.
Early "Recycling"

The illustration for the cover of the Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine pulp (right) was adapted by Fred Meagher from this panel of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon Sunday strip, published on June 21, 1936.

Flash Gordon

Click the Flash Gordon icon to see the current Sunday strip and a three-week archive posted at King Features Comics.

Subscribe to the Flash-Gordon_Buck-Rogers_comics Yahoo Group to discuss, trade, buy or sell Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers strips with/from/to other fans.