The only newspaper comic strips I read regularly or cared about were funny strips, like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, or one-panel gag comics like The Far Side. I hated the soap opera and adventure strips. In fact, the only adventure strip I read consistently was The Amazing Spider-Man, and then only because it featured a character I already knew from the comics. And still I hated it.
Funny comic strips began and ended within the span of those three to five panels. They’re like a fractal storytelling – part of the whole, and yet the entire concept exists within a single unit. The dramatic strips offered only the briefest fragment of a story, and never enough information to usher new readers into the plot. I never felt guilty skipping Prince Valiant, Apartment 3-G, or any of the others. But Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo, the second volume of Titan Books’ reprints of the original strips, has me reconsidering my clean conscience.
The Tyrant of Mongo collects the color Sunday strips drawn by Alex Raymond and co-written by Raymond and Don Moore from 1937 to 1941, each fully restored by Peter Maresca. The restoration is stunning – the palette shifts effectively between the muted earth tones of the planet Mongo and Flash’s bright costumes, and Raymond’s careful line work and shading are preserved. A disclaimer on the edition page asks for the reader’s patience with variations in quality considering the condition of some of the original art, but any differences I noticed were minor, and never distracted from the reading. And as each strip takes up a full page, the panels blossom to reveal the fine detail and control of Raymond’s art.
Raymond earned his place in the cartoonists and illustrators pantheon, along with Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, and Will Eisner, with his work on Gordon (not to mention Jungle Jim and the detective strip, Rip Kirby) and his influence on Golden Age comic book artists, most notably Jack Kirby, is evident in every strip. And the intricately designed machinery, fantastic clothes and costumes, and use of dynamic close-ups and panel composition on display in the Flash Gordon strips continues to define the look of comic books. And while Raymond’s art could be considered stiff, particularly in contrast to that of Kirby or any number of contemporary cartoonists, it’s just as compelling. Consider that Raymond was producing strips of this caliber on a weekly basis for close to a decade, and the resulting quality is all the more impressive.
Though the storytelling is complex, the story itself is relatively simple. Flash, his paramour Dale Arden, and their friend Dr. Zarkov are brought from Earth to the planet Mongo, where they have a series of adventures and often clash with Flash’s nemesis and Mongo’s ruler, Ming the Merciless. The science fiction setting, sinister tyrant, and romantic tension between Flash and Dale provides a limitless story engine: the gang travels to an exotic location and make new friends; a princess falls in love with Flash; Dale misunderstands and becomes jealous; one of the new friends betrays Flash to Ming; there’s a battle and either the princess or the traitor (sometimes both) perish nobly or ignobly; Flash, Dale and the rest escape. Simple, certainly, but still exciting.
Raymond and Moore work less with characters than archetypes whose bravery or evil is never in question. Those patterns can be stultifying when reading four years worth of strips in only a few days, but the broad strokes are necessary for the fragmented reading experience of a weekly comic strip.
The inevitable consequence of that kind of writing is dialogue, plotting, and character design that sometimes veer into misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism. A second disclaimer on the editorial page warns the reader about “views and…language that some of today’s viewers may find offensive.” Dale’s jealousy is second only to her devotion to Flash as a defining character trait, and then dismissed by the male characters as a woman’s bewildering nature. Every heroic character is given Anglo features, while the villainous characters are racial caricatures. Reading Flash Gordon today, like watching “Looney Tunes” cartoons, requires an awareness of historical context to process those moments without derailing the story, but that shouldn’t let them off the hook. It’s hardly Birth of a Nation, but Raymond and Moore, like many of their contemporaries, deserve to be called out for their bigotry.
Back to my conscience, for a moment. I still don’t feel guilty about skipping drama and adventure strips, in the same way I don’t feel guilty about not having read Harry Potter – there are only so many stories to read, and it’s inevitable that some are going to fall by the wayside. And art of Alex Raymond’s caliber is the exception, not the norm, when it comes to comic strips. What I feel guilty about is dismissing the adventure strip genre as a whole, based on decisions I made when I was a boy. Chances are I won’t go digging into Apartment 3-G every week. But there’s a wealth of drama and adventure-oriented webcomics, and I’m willing to bet at least a handful are as compelling and inventive as Flash Gordon.
And I might just have to check out Fantagraphics’ Prince Valiant reprints.
Similar Reads: The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art by Jerry Robinson; Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: the Complete Newspaper Dailies vol. 1: 1929-1930 by John F. Dille, Philip Francis Nowlan, and Richard Calkins; Prince Valiant vol.1: 1937-1938, by Hal Foster
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]