Thursday, April 20, 2006

Flash Gordon -- Planet of Peril

On January 7, 1934 Alex Raymond forever changed the "comic world" when he created a new comic strip character to compete with the extremely popular Buck Rogers comic strip. Flash Gordon offered all the excitement of the typical Buck Rogers adventure, but with two significant improvements. Raymond's art was far superior to that of the Rogers title and was better able to transate the excitement of "cliffhanging adventure." Second, the Flash Gordon universe was more fantastic that scientific.

Buck Rogers as a title has always demanded a modicum of scientific plausibility. The adventures of Buck Rogers (the comic strip) told of a future America where World War had changed governmental structures and a future China had come to rule the world.
Flash Gordon has never had limitations restricting it to the plausible. Flash was truly the adventures of the mind. Buck Rogers is a character who one could imagine Isaac Asimov writing a story about in adventures filled with political struggles as well as physical. If one were to imagine any classic science fiction author drafting tales of Flash Gordon, the first name to leap to the tongue would have to be Edgar Rice Burroughs. The adventures are too fantastic, too scientifically implausible, to wild, and too swashbuckling for any other author. Flash Gordon shares as much with modern tales of Fantasy as he does with science fiction.

Flash, Dale, and Zarkov inhabit a universe where there are self propelling planets, swordfights, and magic powers and, not surprisingly, Raymond's influence has extended into modern movies as well. A Gordon comic fan cannot help but see honest homage to Raymond's creation when he watches the Star Wars films. Both contain the aforementioned "moving planets" (Mongo vs. the Death Star), evil emperors (Ming vs. Palpatine), and magic powers (the Force and Ming's Magic). Both also contain princesses (Aura vs. Leia), anthropomorphic animistic friends (Thun the Lion Man vs. Chewbacca the Wookie), and roguish allies (Prince Barin vs. Han Solo). The list of comparisons above is far from exhaustive and is not meant to detract from Star Wars in any way. Star Wars easily deserves its place beside Raymond's creation, but the influence of Flash Gordon on a young Lucas is almost undeniable. One of the reasons for the enduring legacy of Raymond's creation was his attitude toward the medium itself:

I decided honestly that comic art is an art form in itself. It reflects the life and times more accurately and actually is more artistic than magazine illustration -- since it is entirely creative. An illustrator works with camera and models; a comic artist begins with a white sheet of paper and dreams up his own business -- he is playwright, director, editor, and artist at once.

It is wonderful that Checker Book Publishing is releasing the strips in a series of collected editions . So far there are five volumes in the series.

As you can see be the illustrations below the artistic quality is higher than one would expect from a 1930s newspaper strip. I think the art speaks for itself today and deserves a place in art history as well as in the history of popular culture.

Flash Gordon quickly leapt from the newspaper page and onto the big screen. In 1936, Alex Raymond's eponymous Polo player/Savior of the Planet Flash Gordon, played by the charismatic Buster Crabbe, first entered the sparkler powered rocket to the planet Mongo. Once there Flash would face numerous dangers and begin his battles against the evil emperor Ming, battles which would last for many years.

Thanks to You Tube, you can watch the first episode "Planet of Peril." Two warnings. First, the file is big so if you want to watch it, you had better have a high speed connection. Second, if you like it, rather than hunting down all the episodes as streaming video, do yourself (and the IP owners) a favor and buy the Space Soldiers DVD box set. I know, why buy when you can download? might just prompt someone to make a quality film that is a true adaptation of the material. We Flash Gordon fans are in dire need of a good adaptation, I can only watch Sam Jones so many times. Though I can sing the Queen song all day...Flash! Ahhhhhhhh!

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