Comics Review: "Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo"
- by Ninja Ross, 31 August 2012
Everyone has at least some knowledge of Flash Gordon. Whether it's from the movie, the comic strip, the surprisingly fun Syfy 2007 miniseries (starring Eric Johnson) or the Queen song. But how much do you know about the comic strip by artist and writer Alex Raymond? The upcoming “Complete Flash Gordon Library – On The Planet Mongo (Vol. 1)” provides a perfect occasion to get into the hero’s origin!
Originally starting out as an attempt to compete with Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon has become a worldwide phenomenon and has seeped its way into pop culture since January 7th 1934, influencing pretty much all sci-fi since then. Elements of it pop up all over the place, some of it obscure and some painfully obvious.
Reading the book, it's visible how much this influenced some of DC's superheroes. Hawkman and Flash being the obvious ones, but Krypton greatly resembled the planet Mongo for quite a while in the early Action Comics.
The art is one of my favourite aspects of the book. Flash Gordon was one of the most detailed books of its time and is still more detailed than some of the greats in comics, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It's more dazzling and diverse than a lot of art in comics now, too. Where else do you see yellow and red space ships, unicorn donkeys, red snakes with green masks, blue cavemen and red monkey men? That's a whole lot of colour!
So what about where it all started? Does the legacy obscure our view of the source material? Or is Alex Raymond's original Flash Gordon really all that?
Ok, you may or may not know I haven't had much exposure to older comics (as evidenced in my Daredevil issue #1 & 2 review). The 1960s is pretty much as far back as I've ever gone in comicbook history, so I was pretty wary when it came to Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo from Titan Books, a collection of the original strips.
There was a nice section written by Alex Ross at the beginning to help me get hyped up, ready to read the whole book. He talked about how much the series influenced him and many other sci fi artists and writers, like George Lucas. In fact, the Star Wars franchise came about when Lucas was looking to remake the 1930s Flash Gordon serials.
So my scepticism was in check while I began reading the actual strip. And it was nice to be pleasantly surprised! I found that reading this was a lot easier than reading anything from the 60s. It reads a lot like more modern Sci Fi books but with more sexism and a hint of racism in places. Although, not nearly as much racism as you’d expect. And even the racism that IS in there is just old timey stuff like “blacks” and what have you.
The first strip starts off pretty miserably. And by miserably, I mean morbid. We learn that cultures all over the world are preparing for a planet to crash into earth and destroy everything. An unlikely scenario, but still.
We meet Flash on an eastbound aeroplane with a young woman named Dale Arden. Their plane is hit by a small meteor. Thankfully, though, they get to a parachute and land outside Dr Hans Zarkov’s observatory! Old Hans may be a little crazy, though; since he waves a gun at them and tells them to get in a rocket he’s going to use to knock the incoming planet off course.
And that’s the end of the very first Flash Gordon strip! It’s in the second one that one of my few criticisms comes in. Suddenly Hans isn’t the one who wants to sacrifice the three of them for the sake of all humanity. Instead he decides to flip out, forcing Flash to punch him in the face, knocking him out. He then, despite his protests in the first strip, decided to fly the rocket towards the planet, completing Hans’ plan.
They crash, turn out fine and... Ok, my biggest criticism of this book is the crappy science. Come on, this rocket is supposed to knock a planet off course? And they both survive this? And there’s oxygen? The natives speak English? Anyway... Now they are on Mongo, a planet ruled by MING! EMPEROR OF THE UNIVERSE!!! Who wants the sexy Dale Arden as his wife! And Flash is crap compared to his army! “The young man shall be slain” he commands. But you can’t keep Flash down. Flash has stuff to do. Manly stuff. He has a Queen song to write!
But I noticed pretty early on that Flash isn’t really the star of the show, here. He’s simply a vessel for the story, in a way. He’s a tough guy and smart when he needs to be but has no real personality. Instead, it’s easy for the reader to project their own personality onto him while the background and supporting characters do all the story telling and character development.
And that’s your introduction to the universe of Flash Gordon. The rest of the book is filled with insane adventures, awful science and surprisingly good storytelling. No especially good story telling, this is still 1930s newspaper strips we’re talking about. It’s fun and it’s pulpy. Also, it has lizards, hawkmen and a hairy lion man!
So, if you want to see a man lead armies against Ming The Merciless, fight Hawkmen, ride unicorns and raptors, have a chat with cavemen and just do some really colourful stuff, you should pick this book up when it comes out in September.
Also, Flash helped create one of the best scenes in Seth McFarlane’s Ted. So, you can thank Alex Raymond for that.