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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Neutrinos and the Day After Tomorrow

In Episode 178 of the Gerry Anderson Podcast, Chris Dale featured the film The Day After Tomorrow on his Randomizer segment. This is not the 2004 film about climate change. Instead, it was a 1975 segment of an American after school series called Special Treat, which offered educational programming aimed at teenagers. It appeared soon afterward on the BBC. The show was produced by Gerry Anderson and starred Nick Tate, Joanna Dunham, and Brian Blessed. The show was produced between seasons one and two of Space: 1999 and it shares models and props with the television show. One of the show’s goals was to introduce kids to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Anderson apparently had the notion that he might turn this into a series, so wrote it in such a way that more episodes could follow the special.

I was intrigued by Dale’s discussion of the show on the podcast, so decided to seek it out. The episode is available on the DVD The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson, along with several other one-shot gems produced by Anderson. The Day After Tomorrow reminded me of what Lost in Space might have been like without the Robot or Dr. Smith. Two families travel in a near light-speed craft to Alpha Centauri and beyond. Of course, this becomes our “vehicle” for discussing the effects of special relativity. Nick Tate, best known as Alan Carter in Space: 1999, is the captain and he travels with his daughter. Brian Blessed and Joanna Dunham play a husband and wife scientist team with a son. Like the Robinson kids in the early episodes of Lost in Space, these kids are smart, but manage to avoid crossing over into the annoying territory that kids in science fiction shows have been known to do. Since this is 1975 and well before Brian Blessed became known for “Gordon’s Alive!” in Flash Gordon, he delivers a subdued and believable performance as a scientist.

While I was prepared to see the cast to discuss the wonders of Einstein’s theories, there was a moment that truly surprised me about two-thirds of the way into the show. Joanna Dunham’s character, Dr. Anna Bowen, is observing a red giant star when she warns that she’s detecting “massive neutrino emissions from the red sun.” A moment later, the sun explodes into a supernova! As it turns out, the notion that a supernova would be preceded by a neutrino burst is a theory proposed by my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, in a 1966 paper. This theory would finally be demonstrated in 1987 when a neutrino burst was detected just before Supernova 1987A was observed.

Stirling Colgate at the Digitized Astronomy Observatory after the detection of neutrinos from Supernova 1987A

It’s hard to look at the special and say that it was full of groundbreaking or mind-blowing science. Mostly it seemed like a fun, action adventure show that tossed in some tidbits about special relativity. Still, writer Johnny Byrne had done some homework in astronomy to know that it had been theorized that a neutrino burst would precede a supernova explosion. As a science fiction writer, I know story and character come first, but I really do appreciate a moment like this when I see a writer going the extra mile to understand his subject matter.

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.

BraveStarr

Earlier this month, at the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention, I was on a panel called “Space Cowboys” where we explored the title subject. In the panel, I suggested that the TV series BraveStarr was perhaps the purest expression of the idea of the space cowboy.

BraveStarr was Filmation Studios’ last fully developed series to reach the airwaves. I grew up watching Filmation series. Among my favorites were Star Trek: The Animated Series and Flash Gordon. Both respected the source material and presented it accurately within the limits imposed by television executives at the time the series were produced. BraveStarr was an original project that came out during my graduate school years. I remember catching some episodes after a long day of classes while eating a hasty dinner and getting ready for a night of homework.

BraveStarr tells the story of two factions on a planet dubbed New Texas who battle for control of a rare mineral called kerium, which can be refined as a fuel. One faction was composed of legitimate settlers attempting to stake their claims and mine the mineral legally. The other was controlled by an alien creature who seems like a hybrid between a bull and a dragon named Stampede. Stampede wants to run the settlers off and take all the kerium for himself. In the middle of the two factions are the planet’s natives, the Ewok-like Prairie People.

The townspeople petition the Galactic Marshal’s Service to send them a team of officers to bring law and order to New Texas. They send Marshal BraveStarr and Judge JB McBride. In a nifty subversion of western tropes, Marshal BraveStarr is a handsome Native American and Judge McBride is a Scottish woman with a temper. Over the course of the series there’s much tension between the two, both romantic and professional. It’s never a foregone conclusion that the two are “meant” for each other, which is a nice touch in a cartoon from the 1980s.

Another way 80s tropes are subverted is with the Prairie People. They are drawn as cute, cuddly creatures and they have annoying, squeaky voices. In many cartoons of the period, characters in the show would love them and the audience would wonder why. In BraveStarr, most of the townspeople hate the annoying creatures, even though they’re among the most technically competent people on the planet, which in itself is a subversion of tropes. These are no cute primitives. The Prairie People become a great way for the series to explore issues of bias and prejudice.

Perhaps my favorite character on the show is Thirty-Thirty. He’s an alien/cyborg who resembles a terrestrial horse. He fills the good, tough-guy role in this series and often the character with the most “horse sense.” Sometimes he runs along as a horse and sometimes he’s bepedal and packs a big gun he calls Sarah Jane. I’ve often wondered if that’s a tribute to Doctor Who. Marshal BraveStarr also has a mentor, a Native American called Shaman who has magical powers and has imbued BraveStarr with some of those gifts.

As I understand, Filmation wanted to capitalize on the success of their earlier hits, He-Man and She-Ra. As in those shows, our heroes face off against a veritable rogues gallery. Stampede’s lieutenant is a zombie-like cowboy named Tex Hex. It seems to me that Hex likes to shop as the same store as another favorite animated hero of mine, Captain Harlock. Around them are an assortment of bad robots and aliens all looking to make a quick buck.

I recently purchased the DVD set shown above called “The Best of BraveStarr.” It includes the movie that was meant as the introduction to the series plus the five best episodes as selected by fans. I highly recommend the film. While silly at times, it also includes many loving tributes to classic western films along with classic science fiction. I especially love the ship that BraveStarr and JB travel to New Texas aboard. It feels like the ship Captain Nemo would use if he traveled space. There are some good tense moments in the movie and it avoids getting too preachy. I also enjoyed the romantic tension between BraveStarr and JB in the movie.

The entire 65-episode series is also available on DVD, but unless you’re a die-hard fan, the five episodes on the “Best of” disk might suffice, especially since one 80’s trope the series did not avoid was the “moral of the episode” speech at the end. What’s more, the complete series set does not include the film, which would be a shame to miss.

I can tell elements of this series seeped into my graduate student haze. It’s one of the places where I got the idea that I’d like to expand on the idea of the “space western” which I did in my own novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see my take on space cowboys by subscribing to my Patreon page at: https://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Among other things, my Patreon also supports this blog and one of my goals is to give visitors to this blog an ad-free experience. If you have an extra dollar per month, I hope you’ll help me out and you can get some great stories as well!

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.