Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo volume 1: Sundays 1934-1937 (The Complete Flash Gordon Library

By Alex Raymond & Don Moore, with restorations by Peter Maresca (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-154-6 (HB)

By any metric, Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb but cruelly dated Jungle Jim running as its supplementary “topper” strip) as response to revolutionary, inspirational, but clunky Buck Rogers (by Philip Nolan & Dick Calkins and which had also began on January 7th but in 1929), a new element was added to the realm of fantasy wonderment: Classical Lyricism.

Where Rogers offered traditional adventures laced with blue sky science concepts, its new competitor reinterpreted Fairy Tales, Heroic Epics and Mythology. It did so by spectacularly draping them in trappings of a contemporary future, varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances (although there were also plenty of those) and exotic flying craft and contraptions standing in for Galleons, Chariots and Magic Carpets.

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for concise, elegant detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip all young artists swiped from. When all-original comic books began some few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Most of the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (which also began in 1934 – and who will get his go another day).

Thankfully in this 90th anniversary year there are still many collections knocking about, and I’m plumping here for 2012’s hardcover archive from British publisher and keeper of traditions Titan Books, who boldly began a Complete Library of the stellar crusader’s exploits that year. We’re still waiting for its conclusion…

Augmenting the epic entertainment is a brace of photo and illustration-packed introductory essays, beginning with uber-artist/fan Alex Ross’ exploration of ‘The Flash Gordon Legacy’ and continuing with ‘Birth of a Legend’ by comics writer and historical publisher Doug Murray, detailing the fantasy milieu into which the dauntless hero was born…

The immortal saga begins with a rogue planet about to smash into Earth. As panic grips the planet, polo player Flash and fellow airline passenger Dale Arden narrowly escape disaster when a meteor fragment downs the plane they’re traveling on. Parachuting out, they land on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov – who imprisons them on a rocket-ship he has built. His plan? To fly directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it!

…And that’s just the first 13-panel episode. ‘On the Planet Mongo’ ran every Sunday until April 15th 1934 when, according to this wonderful full-colour book, second adventure ‘Monsters of Mongo’ (22nd April – 18th November 1934) began, promptly followed by ‘Tournaments of Mongo’ (25th November 1934 to 24th February 1935).

To readers back then, of course, there were no such artificial divisions. There was just one continuous, unmissable Sunday appointment with utter wonderment. The machinations of the impossibly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet, Flash’s battles and alliances with myriad exotic races subject to the Emperor’s will and the Earthman’s gradual victory over oppression captivated America and the World in tales that seemed a direct and welcome contrast to an increasingly darker reality in the days before World War II.

In short order the Earthlings become firm friends – and in the case of Flash & Dale, much more – as they encounter, battle and frequently ally with beautiful, cruel Princess Aura, the Red Monkey Men, Lion Men, Shark Men, Dwarf Men, and crucially King Vultan and the winged Hawkmen. The epic rebellion against seemingly unbeatable Ming really started with the awesome ‘Tournaments…’ sequence wherein Raymond seemed to simply explode with confidence. It was here that true magic blossomed, with every episode more spectacular than the last. Without breaking step, Raymond moved on to his next mini-epic, as our hero entered ‘The Caverns of Mongo’ on March 3rd until 14th April 1935.

Veteran editor Don Moore was only 30 when he was convinced to “assist” Raymond with the writing, starting soon after the strip first gained momentum and popularity. Moore remained until 1953, long after Raymond had gone. The artist had joined the Marines in February 1944, with the last page he worked on published on April 30th of that year. On demobilisation, Raymond moved to fresh strip fields with detective strip Rip Kirby. Mercifully, that still leaves a decade’s worth of spectacular, majestic adventure for us to enjoy…

Without pausing for breath, the collaborators introduced a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over in the war against Ming’s timeless evil. On increasingly epic Sunday comics pages, Flash and his entourage confronted the ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’ (April 21st – 13th October 1935), found themselves ‘At War with Ming’ (20th October 1935 – April 5th 1936) and discovered ‘The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ (12th April – 11th October 1936). The sheer glorious beauty and drama of the globally-syndicated serial captivated readers all over the world, resulting in not only some of the medium’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, 3 movie serials, radio and TV shows, a monochrome daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books, merchandise and so much more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series was enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s slick, sleek futurism endlessly accessed and refined a picture-perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty. In these episodes Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo wages brutal, bloody war against Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, eventually leading to all-out conflict with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come.

When the war ends our heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City. The never-ending parade of hairsbreadth escapes, fights and/or chases continues as Flash, Dale & Zarkov crash into the huge jungle of Mongo. As this initial tome ends the refugees enter ‘The Forest Kingdom of Mongo’ (October 18th 1936 to January 31st 1937): barely surviving its wild creatures before weathering horrific tunnels of ‘The Tusk-Men of Mongo’ (February 7th to June 5th 1938). Here, struggling through desperate hardship and overcoming both monsters and the esoteric semi-humans they finally reach Arboria, the Tree kingdom of Prince Barin, Ming’s son-in-law. He is not what he seems…

And so the book ends, but not the adventure. Even stripped down to bare plot-facts, the drama is captivating. Once you factor in the by-play, jealousies and intrigues – all rendered with spectacular and lush visualisation by the master of classical realism – you can begin to grasp why this strip captured the world’s imagination and holds it still. To garnish all this enchantment, there’s even ‘The Alex Raymond Flash Gordon Checklist’ and biographies of both creators and this astounding tome’s key contributors

Along with Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), Raymond’s work on Flash Gordon is considered pivotal to the development of American – if not world – comic art. These works overwhelmingly influenced everyone who followed until the emergence of manga and the advancement of computer technology. If you’ve only heard how good this strip is, you owe it to yourself to experience the magic up close and personal.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. Yes, plots are formulaic and some gender and social attitudes need to be embraced on their own historical terms but what commercial narrative medium of any vintage is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the sheer artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out.

Flash Gordon © 2012 King Features Syndicate Inc., ™ & © Hearst Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.