Flash Gordon

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Flash Gordon

The most successful of the Buck Rogers imitators, Flash Gordon began as a Sunday page early in 1934. It was drawn by Alex Raymond, written by erstwhile pulp magazine editor Don Moore, and syndicated by King Features. The strip commenced with handsome, blond Flash and lovely Dale Arden, destined to be his love interest for the life of the strip, taking off in a rocket ship with brilliant, bearded Dr. Zarkov. Due to a miscalculation, they ended up on the planet Mongo, a considerable stretch of which was ruled over by a ruthless dictator known as Ming the Merciless. A combination of all the terrible qualities of Fu Manchu, Hitler, and the villain of a Victorian melodrama, Ming became Flash's prime antagonist. Flash and his friends underwent a series of picaresque adventures that took them, often while aiding local guerilla activities, to dense jungles thick with monsters, to strange arboreal kingdoms, to realms beneath the sea, and to whatever other stock science fiction locales Moore could borrow from the pulps. While the writing, which appeared in captions below the drawings, was stodgy and noticeably purple, Raymond quickly developed into a first-rate illustrator. Within a year the feature was one of the best-looking and most impressive in the Sunday funnies. In those pages, as one comics historian has noted, readers were able to see their "adolescent dreams of romance and adventure … given life."

Flash Gordon soon began being reprinted in comic books and Big Little Books and within two years was also in the movies. Universal produced three extremely popular serials based on the strip. Loosely adapted from some of Moore's newspaper continuities, they starred Buster Crabbe, his hair dyed blond, as Flash. Jean Rogers was Dale in the initial two, Frank Shannon portrayed Zarkov in all three and Charles Middleton, a veteran cinema villain, brought just the right degree of camp to the part of Ming. The first of the chapter plays, titled simply Flash Gordon, was released in 1936. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars came along in 1938, followed by the more flamboyantly titled Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in 1940. Filled with rocket ships, ray guns, mad-doctor apparatus, and young women in skimpy costumes, the Flash Gordon serials aren't noted for their state-of-the-art special effects. Yet they do possess a sort of tacky charm and the performances make up in exuberance for what they lack in dramatic depth.

Such was the popularity of the strip that King decided to add a daily in the spring of 1940. Raymond chose to devote all of his time to the Sunday, while his longtime assistant Austin Briggs, an established magazine illustrator in his own right, drew the weekday version. Never a particular success, it was dropped in 1944. About that time Raymond entered the Marines and Briggs took over the Sunday Flash Gordon. Determined to abandon comics eventually and devote himself full-time to illustration, Briggs never signed the page. He quit in 1948 and went on to become one of the highest paid magazine and advertising artists in the country, as well as a founder of the Famous Artists School.

Mac Raboy, a comic book artist who had drawn such superheroes as Captain Marvel, Jr. and the Green Lama, followed Briggs on the Sunday page, doing a flamboyant and formidable job. In the early 1950s the daily version was revived with Dan Barry, another very good alumnus of comic books, as the artist. Various science fiction writers, including Harry Harrison, wrote the scripts. Barry added the Sunday page to his chores after Raboy's death in 1967; eventually he turned over the drawing to Bob Fujitani. In the late 1990s, Flash Gordon, was once again only a Sunday, appearing in a handful of newspapers and written and drawn by Jim Keefe.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Barry, Dan, and Harvey Kurtzman. Flash Gordon. Princeton, Kitchen Sink Press, 1988.

Marschall, Richard. America's Great Comic Strip Artists. New York, Abbeville Press, 1989.

Raymond, Alex. Flash Gordon. Franklin Square, Nostalgia Press, 1967.

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