Know Thy History: Flash Gordon
Alright everyone, let’s talk about a man.
Just a man. With a man’s courage. He knows nothing but a man, but he can never fail. No one but the pure in heart may find the golden grail.
He’ll save every one of us.
He’s a miracle.
King of the impossible.
He’s for every one of us, stand for everyone of us. He’ll save with a mighty hand, every man, every woman, every child with a might flash.
I’m talking, of course, about Flash Gordon.
Flash Gordon was created by Alex Raymond in 1934. In those days, a space-faring fellow named Buck Rogers was all the rage. Rogers, Rogers, Rogers! Rogers was boffo! Boffo! It’s what the kiddies wanted. What the kiddies demanded. Well, King Features Syndicate wasn’t going to take all this lying down. Who was this man from the 25th Century to swoop in and steal their thunder? So they approached Mr. Raymond about getting their own space hero.
Mr. Raymond created a number of strips that spanned multiple genres. He illustrated Jungle Jim, a comic strip about an adventurous hunter who braved the jungles of southeast Asia. He illustrated a spy comic called Secret Agent X-9, which was written by none other than legendary detective fiction writer Dashiell Hammett. And he created Rip Kirby, a comic about a smart private detective who solved mysteries with his brains rather than his fists. That comic won Raymond the Reuben in 1949.
Flash Gordon, though, is Mr. Raymond’s most popular creation. It’s popularity eventually eclipsed that of its rival, Buck Rogers. Buck’s comics were episodic but with little tying any of the story arcs together. Flash Gordon, on the other hand, was epic. And better drawn, to boot. It was a comic strip filled with sweeping alien vistas, eye-popping costumes, and larger-than-life characters.
If you’ve seen the Flash Gordon movie, then you’re pretty familiar with the origin story, which it follows pretty closely. Well, except for Flash being a football player. That was just stupid. I mean, granted, the Flash of the comics was also an athlete, but there is so much more sophistication when you’re a polo player and a Yale grad. Less so if you’re the QB for the friggin’ unsophisticated New York Jets. Comic strip Flash was more Buckaroo Banzai and less Mark Sanchez.
Flash and his lady friend, Dale Arden, are off on a jaunt in their airplane when catastrophe strikes Earth. Their plane crash lands on an area of land owned by Dr. Hans Zarkoff, a paranoid schizophrenic who, by the way, has built his own rocket ship. He takes the two to be spies, and he forces them to board his rocket in the most diplomatic way possible … by gunpoint.
I should point out that this comic was writen by Don Moore, and he was not exactly Dashiell Hammett.
They crash land on the planet Mongo, ruled by an iron fist by the one and only Ming the Merciless. Ming is a despotic ruler, enforcing his will through his death rays, his war rockets, his robots, and all sorts of sci-fi geegaws and doodads. Ming would take a liking to Ms. Arden. Flash would have to rescue Dale. And the battle would continue with Flash defending the citizens of Mongo from Ming’s … um … merciless rule.
Now the depiction of Ming has gotten more and more controversial over the years, especially since some see him as a racist Asian caricature. (I should note, by the way, that Buck Rogers’ enemies were way, way more racist. Bucked teeth, slanty eyes, the slurred language where “r”‘s are “l”‘s, and everything.). Recent depictions of Ming have tried to downplay his character design. A recent cartoon version has Ming as a lizard man. The most recent adaptation, a live action show on the SciFi Channel, had Ming us supposedly based on Saddam Hussein, if Saddam was a blonde Caucasian dude.
I’m Asian myself, so I suppose I should be offended by Ming. But goddamn if he wasn’t the smoothest mofo I have ever laid my eyes on. I first encountered Ming’s character design when I was a kid, and I’d picked up one of those “How To Draw Cartoons” book. One of the pages featured what I imagine was one of Alex Raymond’s designs for Ming. Good Lord was it eye-catching. Those arched eyebrows. That stylish collar. That fantastic beard. He’s a guy who was clearly evil, but who you couldn’t help but be awed by at the same time. I guess I was never really offended by Ming because while he may be an Oriental stereotype, he’s the Oriental stereotype who had enough intelligence, resources, and ambition that he conquered an entire planet. That is a man who deserves your respect.
Flash would be joined by several allies, such as the seductive Princess Aura. She’s Ming’s daughter and Dale’s rival for Flash’s affections. I guess everyone wants a piece of that Yale polo player, if you know what I’m sayin’. Flash and company would voyage to the various environmentally themed worlds of Mongo. They would meet Prince Barin of Arboria, a kingdom that seems to have based its principles on the Adventures of Robin Hood.
They would voyage to the sky City of the Hawkmen, ruled by Prince Vultan. There was a jungle kingdom named Tropica. An undersea kingdom of Shark Men. And there’s the kingdom of Frigia, which, despite being located in a very icy region, seems to have discovered the secret of see-though clothing.
Incidentally, Flash does spend quite a bit of this series in the state of undress. (Which goes a long way to explaining why Princess Aura … ahem … “falls” for him in the first place… as seen below). Questionable as the movie’s fashion tastes were at times (which, by the way, were very faithful to the original comic strip), I’m a little surprised that they managed not to accurately replicate Flash’s shirtless grappling with Ming’s soldiers. We got Flash demonstrating his high QB rating skills instead while wearing a dopey shirt with his name on it.
Flash Gordon was enormously successful. It inspired several popular movie serials starring Buster Crabbe, and an early TV series in 1954 starring Steve Holland. Oddly, Frederico Fellini once claimed that he worked on a bootleg Flash Gordon strip in Mussolini’s Italy when American comics were banned there, but that turned out to be a complete fabrication. Still, it’s not much of a stretch to believe that Fellini was hugely influence by Flash. Raymond’s style proved to be a huge influence in comic books, with a veritable litany of titans citing Raymond as an influence: Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Joe Schuster, Dave Sim (who wrote a comic entitled Glamorpuss examining Raymond’s career), Joe Kubert, Jim Aparo, Dick Sprang, John Buscema, and many, many more.
Alex Raymond’s life, though, would be cut tragically short when he was killed in a car crash at age 46.
George Lucas wanted to make his own Flash Gordon movie, but he could not afford the rights. So… he made Star Wars instead. (The candy-colored visuals of Episode 1, in fact, sorta hearken to Mr. Lucas’ original vision.) The person who could afford the rights was one Dino De Laurentiis (a.k.a. Giada’s granddad). Despite getting some pretty damn good reviews (a 83% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and positive marks from prominent critics such as Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Leonard Maltin), it was a huge flop. (I personally blame the awful performance by Sam Jones, who played the title character.)
However, despite its performance, Flash Gordon has become something of a cult classic. Importantly, though, it resisted the trend of sci-fi at the time and went the campy route rather than a more realistic take (i.e., SciFi’s Flash Gordon). As a result, the original spirit of Flash Gordon can be preserved, to the point where you can pick up some of the old comic strips and go, “Hey! I remember that from the movie!” Vultan is suitably rotund, and he’s wearing his nifty winged helmet. Hans Zarkoff looks exactly like the hunched-over Rasputin-like mad scientist. And the rocket ships all look like the retro-30’s design from the original.
Which brings me to the most memorable moment of the movie… and what you’ve all likely been waiting for… Queen’s Flash Gordon Theme!
I was very tempted to use the version from the movie intro, which heavily incorporated a lot of Alex Raymond’s celebrated illustrations. That version, though, does not have Brian Blessed’s fantastic reading of, “Gordon’s Alive!”