Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo

From the Shadow and the Green Hornet, I turn again this week to a star of 1930s entertainments: Flash Gordon! I've done a pretty decent job of sampling Gordon's adventures in various media, yet I hadn't delved into the original comic strips by Alex Raymond before, despite the many glowing references I'd heard. It finally took Colin Smith's review of Titan Books' Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo collection to break the last of my resistance.

This collection follows the Flash Gordon comic strip from it's beginning in 1934 and into 1937, with each page reprinted in full colour. It details the story of how Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov journey to the planet Mongo, battle Ming the Merciless, befriend Prince Thun, are repeatedly betrayed by Princess Aura, then befriend Prince Barin, then are captured by King Vultan and his Hawkmen, then Flash and Barin each becomes kings on Mongo, then Flash has to conquer the area of Mongo set aside as his kingdom, then Flash is attacked by Azura the Witch Queen, then a war with Ming erupts, then Queen Undina tries to make Flash her consort, then Flash battles Tusk Men and somewhere along the way flying squirrels attacked.

No, I'm not kidding. Flying squirrels. On Mongo, every animal is vicious.

(I'm not as familiar with comic strip history as I am with comic books, so you'll have to forgive me for the forthcoming comparisons to Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. Having just finished IDW's collection of Caniff's Terry the previous week, Terry is my best point of comparison to Flash Gordon, as both were photorealistic adventure strips which began in 1934.)

As I neared the end of reading Caniff's Terry and the Pirates the style of pacing Caniff employed had become very familiar. As such, when the characters would discover a problem, then spend about a week's worth of strips not doing anything to solve it, I would get a little irritated, wishing the plot would advance (especially because I was reading the final volume and wanted as many stories as I could from what remained). Flash Gordon's pacing runs in the opposite direction: too much happens in each strip! While Terry had the advantage of running as a daily strip, allowing Caniff space to draw out every little conflict, Raymond's Flash ran just once a week. Perhaps he felt he had to deliver as much plot and action in one installment as he could manage, since his readers would be without Flash for another week.

Thus, Flash Gordon runs at a breakneck pace as problems compound upon other problems, characters weave in and out of the narrative and danger lurks around every corner of Mongo. Flash's life is such that he never seems allowed to relax; I believe the nearest Flash comes to getting sleep during these first four years is when he's knocked unconscious by various enemies. Boy, Flash must need a lot of coffee to keep going.

One great example of the breakneck pace is the character of Dr. Zarkov. In the very-rushed first strip, he forces Flash & Dale into his rocketship, directing them toward Mongo. The ship crashes on Mongo in the 2nd strip and although Flash carries Dale from the wreckage, no mention is made of Zarkov's fate; the strip seems to forget about him, so you'd imagine Zarkov was dead, but four months into the strip he turns up, alive. Not much time is allowed for the cast to get to know each other, not only requiring Flash & Dale to be suddenly in love, or for Prince Thun to be Flash's most loyal friend within minutes of knowing him, but for Zarkov to declare "I love him like I'd love my own son," after two years of virtually nothing but combat at each other's side. This is super-compressed comics storytelling.

I expected to see Raymond's art change and improve over time (just as Caniff's did across Terry), but I wasn't prepared for how sudden those differences would appear. On July 22, 1934, during his first story with the Hawkmen, Raymond suddenly began dividing his pages into thirds instead of fourths and vastly increased the amount of detailed shading in his art, as well as the volume of speech represented in balloons. Many of the earlier strips read like illustrated novels because of the heavy captions (although this persists throughout Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo). The art shifted again by the end of the year as the characters became even more realistic in appearance and his backgrounds began using a sort of blurry shading effect, which I now realize must have inspired Gene Colan.

There's a lot of imagination within the 200+ pages of Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo and Raymond seemed to be still warming up. It's a small wonder the strip become so popular so quickly!

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