The Tyrant of Mongo

Today, I’m at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona. At 3pm today, I’ll be on the “Authors of Steampunk” panel and at 11am tomorrow, I’ll be discussing the Oz novels of L. Frank Baum and related media in a panel called “Oz: A Literary Perspective.” When I’m not at those panels, you’ll be able to find me at my dealer’s table in the vendor hall. If you’re around the convention at all this weekend, please make sure to stop by and say “hello.” It seems fitting to have a post about the original Flash Gordon comics during Wild Wild West Con since I met Sam J. Jones who played Flash in the 1980 movie at the convention five years ago and I still love these comics as a wonderful piece of retrofuturism, which is one of the things Steampunk represents.

Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo

Back in January, when taking my youngest child back to college for the spring semester, we went shopping for supplies at a nearby big box store. I happened to notice two lovely action figures. One was Flash Gordon and the other was Ming the Merciless, both modeled on the characters as they appeared in the 1979 animated series produced by Filmation. As an action figure fan, I was tempted to add these to my collection, but the price tag was enough to give me pause. I thought about it and decided that what I wanted more than a couple of action figures was to read more of Alex Raymond’s original comic strips from the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, I discovered that the earliest volumes of Titan Books’ wonderful Flash Gordon series had gone out of print. After searching a few online bookstores, I finally found the second volume for a price that wasn’t much more than the cover price.

As I expected, the book was a lot of fun. The original Flash Gordon comics appeared in Sunday newspapers and this second volume collects strips from 1937 through 1941. It did give me pause to realize there had been less time between the original publication to my birth than from my birth to today! The comics open with Flash at the residence of Prince Barin of Arborea. The prince has recently married Princess Aura, daughter of Ming the Merciless. A traitor in the Prince’s house tries to steal Aura and Barin’s newborn son, which leads Flash and Barin onto a harrowing rescue mission. Flash’s adventures take him to Mongo’s frozen north where he’s captured by Queen Fria of Friggia and finally into the bowels of Ming’s capital city. All the way, Flash battles giant monsters and slimy traitors while finding friends and no shortage of women who find him irresistible, all to the irritation of Gordon’s companion, Dale Arden.

What I found most interesting reading this book after reading other comics in recent months was the lack of word balloons. They occasionally appear, but most of the time, the story is told in narration panels and dialogue is narrated as it would be in prose. The upshot was that my wife and I had fun sharing the comic because I could simply read it to her while she worked on her crochet. As with volume 1, “On the Planet Mongo,” the real highlight is Alex Raymond’s highly detailed and beautiful artwork. In a very real way, Flash Gordon is less a space story and more an adventure in an exotic foreign land, where people just happen to use ray guns, talk to each other on video phones and occasionally use rocket ships to get around. One thing I liked was that although Dale Arden sometimes falls into the trope of being a femme fatale, she often shows strong will and a lot of competence. She builds things, provides first aid, rescues people, and fires weapons right alongside a lot of the men in the strip. As a writer, perhaps the most interesting thing to see was how well Raymond handled the weekly cliffhanger. When I reached the end of one strip, he made me want to keep going, even though these were meant to be read with a week between each strip.

I loved Titan Comics’ presentation of these strips. The colors are crisp and they were printed at an easy-to-read size. If you can’t find a used copy of this edition, Checker Books also collected the early comics and they seem to be a little more readily available.


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Barbarella

Barbarella

I recently came across Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2014 translation of Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 comic, Barbarella. I was already familiar with DeConnick’s work on the Captain Marvel comic from around the time this translation was released. I mostly knew Barbarella from the 1968 Jane Fonda film which I first watched in college. The film sticks with me as something of a relic from its time and place. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Roger Vadim, it tells the story of an agent from Earth sent to Tau Ceti to prevent a super weapon from falling into the wrong hands. The film is also famous for Jane Fonda’s anti-gravity striptease and the scenes where she learns about the joys of primitive old-fashioned sex, as opposed to the safe sex practiced on Earth with the help of pills.

I decided to give the comic a try. In effect, the story reminds me of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics. Barbarella is an adventurer whose space ship breaks down on an alien world and she moves from adventure to adventure across land and sea to a remote island. From there, she goes to a snow-covered land where she’s menaced by a gang of youths with biting dolls. She escapes from them and acquires a mole machine and turns up at a labyrinth surrounding a castle-like city. Barbarella herself comes off like the female version of the Captain Kirk-stereotype. She’s willing to have sex with just about any good looking male she meets. Although it was billed as an erotic comic back when it was released, it seems rather tame by modern standards, in part because of the simple art style and in part because Barbarella only occasionally loses her clothes and it’s typically only for a panel or two before the next action/adventure scenes start. What I enjoyed most about the sexual part of the story is that it just presented sex as a natural, fun thing for consenting adults to enjoy without bothering to nod and wink. That’s not to say there aren’t innuendos and double entendres. Kelly Sue DeConnick gives us plenty of those, but it’s all presented in the spirit of good fun.

After we each read the comic, my wife and I decided to go back and watch the film again. What surprised me is how much of the film’s plot is pulled from the comic’s pages. We have the labyrinth and Pygar the angel. We have Barbarella menaced by biting dolls. Durand, the old man in the labyrinth becomes Marcel Marceau’s character, Professor Ping. Meanwhile Durand’s name is taken and doubled for the scientist with the secret weapon: Durand Durand. Of course, I was delighted that the venue is Tau Ceti, a real-life contender for being a habitable world. Clearly the movie and comic aren’t for all audiences, but both have fun moments and my wife and I enjoyed sharing them as part of our Valentine’s weekend.