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.
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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