Flash Gordon Zeitgeist

Earlier this year, at Wild Wild West Con, I had the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones who played the title character in the campy 1980 film Flash Gordon. At the time, I bought a beautiful poster based on the movie illustrated by comic book legend Alex Ross. The poster was quite nice and made me curious what other Flash Gordon illustrations Alex Ross had done. That led me to discover the comic Flash Gordon Zeitgeist, which was published in 2013 by Dynamite Entertainment. Alex Ross served as art director and illustrated many of the covers. The series was written by Eric Trautmann and the interior art was by Daniel Indro.

This version of the Flash Gordon story endeavors to combine the best parts of the 1980 movie and the 1979 animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. This version is set in 1934 as World War II is getting off the ground. The Earth is being subjected to natural disasters and Dr. Zarkov believes he’s found the source. Yale-educated Polo player Flash Gordon is on a mission to find the good doctor. A plane accident strands him and cartographer Dale Arden on Zarkov’s doorstep. From there the story proceeds in a familiar direction. Zarkov, Gordon, and Arden climb aboard his rocket ship and blast off to the planet Mongo to face all manner of strange creatures along with Ming the Merciless.

In this version, as with the 1979 cartoon version, Ming is using Hitler as a puppet to aid his conquest of the Earth. A new element is that a faction from Mongo has traveled to Earth and is working to stop Hitler.

There are several elements I quite like in this version of Flash Gordon. I liked the historical setting and the whole connection to World War II. In this version, Mongo is in a different universe and Ming’s plans are being executed using beams that allow him to connect his universe to ours. There’s a nice sequence where Flash goes through some of his early gladiatorial contests on Mongo and reflects back on his athletic and academic career, seeing this as a next step in his life. Flash has never been a particularly deep character, but this little extra piece of character building was a nice touch. We get some good background on Dr. Zarkov. The machinations of General Klytus and Princess Aura were fun to watch as they worked to unseat Ming from the throne and gain it for themselves.

I did feel this version suffered from some uneven pacing. That said, I’ve always imagined that pacing comic books must be a real challenge because of the protracted release schedule. Even so, some plot lines seemed to resolve very quickly, while others were given time to breathe and develop. As happens too often in versions of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden doesn’t get much to do. Making her a cartographer was a great and interesting choice. She also has an awesome ending to her story arc in this version, but in between, she mostly serves as the eyes for Dr. Zarkov. Dale Arden deserved better, but at this point, I think the best written version of Dale is in the 1980 movie where she actually gets to do (a little) more than fawn over Flash.

Comparing all these different versions of Flash Gordon has actually been a rather interesting exercise. Alex Raymond’s original comic strip was arguably one of the earliest, popular space operas and studying what works and doesn’t work in different versions helps me think about my updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series which I hope to start working on later this year. That series was always intended to have a certain “retro-future” appeal, heroes who were larger than life, and both men and women with more than a little sex appeal.

If you want to check out Flash Gordon Zeitgeist while waiting for the updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series, a graphic novel edition is available in print. Ebook editions are available through Amazon and Comixology. Unfortunately, the 1979 animated Flash Gordon was never released on video, but I found it on YouTube, just search for “Flash Gordon Filmation” and you should find it.

Gordon’s Alive!

This weekend I’m at El Paso Comic Con in El Paso, Texas. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. For most of the weekend, you’ll find me at booth A77 in the Vendor Hall. You can learn more about event at http://elpasocomiccon.com/

Just over a month ago, I mentioned having the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones, who played Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie of the same name. I bought this lovely Alex Ross poster based on the movie and he signed it for me.

Ever since then, I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with Flash Gordon. I first discovered the character watching the serials on Sunday afternoon television. I remembered them fondly enough that I was eager to see the Dino De Laurentiis film in 1980. The problem was, I was exactly the wrong age for the film. At that time in my life, I took my science fiction way too seriously. I loved Star Trek because of its serious approach to the future. Star Wars was fun, but I almost found it a guilty pleasure. The camp approach of Flash Gordon was just way over the top for me at the time.

Over the years, the 1980 Flash Gordon has grown on me. I’ve come to appreciate how fun the film is, especially with Max Von Sydow and Topol chewing the scenery as Ming the Merciless and Dr. Hans Zarkov respectively. In my most recent viewing, I even spotted a young Robbie Coltrane, best known to most people today as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films in a bit part. In a bit of twist, given my love at the time, Deep Roy who plays Keenser in the new Star Trek films even has a bit part in Flash Gordon.

Since watching the movie, I found a lovely collected edition of Alex Raymond’s original comic strips from the 1930s. I’ve been pleased to discover that the 1980 movie is, in many ways, a very faithful adaptation of the material. Really, my one disappointment is that Prince Thun of the lion men gets such a tiny moment in the film, and he’s not much of a lion man.

It strikes me that it’s very fitting to rekindle my interest in Flash Gordon at a steampunk convention. Flash Gordon really epitomizes what we mean when we talk about “retrofuturism.” Reading the original comics is a view of the future as people saw it thirty years before I was born. The 1980 movie worked to recapture that retrofuturistic perspective.

I also see a lot of the high octane excitement that fuels my adventure stories whether they be set in the future or the past. Hopefully I do slow it down a little bit. Whereas I try to make sure something exciting, or at least interesting, happens in each chapter or section of a chapter, the comics literally work to assure something exciting happen in every panel. It’s a little stunning to see how often the word “suddenly” appears leading a panel of narration.

I should note, these strips are as much or perhaps more over the top than the 1980 film. I nearly lost it when Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov are suddenly beset by Squirlons—flying squirrels from the Planet Mongo whose bite induces madness! Also near the end of this volume, Flash Gordon goes on to don essentially the same outfit Zapp Branigan would wear in Futurama. Reading the comic also informed me that Jabba the Hutt makes Princess Leia do a Dale Arden cosplay in Return of the Jedi. Dale wears almost exactly that infamous outfit throughout the first half of the book.

It’s clear Flash Gordon flying around in rocket ships with fins and battling dinosaurs, dragons, and shark men isn’t serious science fiction, but it sure is fun. As I’m writing Owl Riders, I hope to emulate some of that fun as ornithopters and air ships fill the sky and Apache battle wagons give the cavalry trouble in Arizona. In the process, I hope to make it just a little more plausible so you might wonder if it really could have happened. Meanwhile, I hope to use a few less adverbs in the process. Although I might have to sneak in at least one “Suddenly” as a tribute.

The Wild West I Wished For

Today, I’m excited to be at the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. It’s a free event, so if you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. I’m participating in two panels this weekend and will be available after both to sign books.

Last weekend, I was at Wild Wild West Con, at Old Tucson Studios where many classic westerns were filmed. When I grew up, my parents were big fans of westerns. My mom, in particular, was always delighted to find a good “shoot-em-up” on television during a Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a fan of westerns, at least not at first. It wasn’t until I discovered TV series like The Wild Wild West and Kung Fu that westerns began to click for me. As a kid, I loved science fiction and the former mixed tropes I found familiar into the western backdrop, which helped me take notice. The latter took the clash of cultures that often happened in the west seriously and I could see similarities between that world and the multicultural world of Southern California I lived in at the time.

A lot of these elements come to life at Wild Wild West Con. The event started for me on Thursday night at opening ceremonies, where I got to catch up with some old friends from other steampunk conventions. The next morning, I drove out to Old Tucson Studios to unload books. This year, the authors were housed in the building where they filmed the exteriors for the show High Chaparral. Here you see my Smart Car parked out front!

One of the things I love about steampunk conventions is getting to see the wonderful things people have built for costume or display. This year, outside of High Chaparral, was a display of steampunk vehicles. I thought this one could almost be a reinterpretation of Larissa Crimson’s invention from Lightning Wolves, or an evolved version of the vehicle.

The person who built this amazing vehicle is David Lee, principal artist of Hatton Cross Steampunk. He’s also the man behind the mask of Steampunk Darth Vader in the short films Trial of the Mask and Mask of Vengeance. Perhaps it’s not surprising that every now and then people confuse the two of us in correspondence. So it was a pleasure to finally meet David Lee and I was delighted to find him a pleasant person, as many people in the steampunk community prove to be.

In addition to meeting Steampunk Darth Vader, I also had the opportunity to meet Sam Jones, who played Flash Gordon in the campy 1980 movie. I also enjoyed meeting the creators of the comic book Proteus about steampunk fish people who live in the sunken Atlantis. The creators are all cosplayers and came dressed as their characters.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about steampunk is how it sometimes imagines a more civilized version of Victorian and Wild West times. One of the ways that manifests is through the sport of tea dueling. In a tea duel, participants dunk a cookie in a cup of hot tea for a set amount of time. The last one to eat the cookie without it falling apart and soiling their clothes is the winner. At many steampunk events the masters of ceremonies are Madame Askew and the Grand Arbiter. Here we see them with my daughter who is a tea dueling contestant. Not only was my daughter a contestant, she proved to be Wild Wild West Con’s tea dueling champion!

One of my goals as a writer is to inspire the imagination of people who play in steampunk worlds. What’s more, going to steampunk events helps to inspire my creativity. Wild Wild West Con came at the perfect time as I’m moving into the middle portion of my new novel Owl Riders. For me, that’s right about the point I need a little boost to keep the energy flowing. Right after Wild Wild West Con, I learned that my first steampunk novel was released as an audio book, narrated by Edward Mittelstedt. The book is available for download at Audible.com. If you’re a fan of audio books, I do hope you’ll join me for a journey into the wild west I wished for.