Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo (Titan Books)

The first volume in the Complete Flash Gordon Library collects Alex Raymond’s beloved space-faring hero’s adventures in all their fully restored, large format glory.

 

 

208 pgs., color; $39.95
(W: Alex Raymond, Don Moore; A: Alex Raymond)
 
There’s a lot to say about Titan Books’ new edition of Flash Gordon comics, but the first thing that comes to mind is “Wow!” Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo is the first of several Titan volumes that will eventually bring all the Flash Gordon strips between hard covers. The strips have been restored by Pete Maresca, and are presented in full color in a large format (11” by 10”) volume. They look great, and if the first volume is any indication, this series will be prized by longtime fans of Golden Age comics and new admirers alike.
 
There may be an irony somewhere in so ephemeral a form as the Sunday funnies getting the full-bore art book treatment, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. These are ripping good stories, exquisitely illustrated, and perfect little time capsules of their times (which means they’re not always flattering—more on that later). Just for the sake of amusement, I decided to see what was happening in tonier literary circles in the years 1934-1937, the period covered by the strips in this volume. The #1 bestseller (in the non-illustrated books category) in the U.S in 1934 was Anthony Adverse, a 1200+ page tome by Hervey Allen—I’m sure both the novel and the author are familiar to you. 1935’s #1 selling book? Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas, a book so obscure even the Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for it. The #1 bestseller for 1936 and 1937 was Gone with the Wind, and no doubt you are familiar with that one and its author, Margaret Mitchell, but probably not because it was assigned in your college lit class. By way of contrast, just about everyone has heard of Flash Gordon, if only through one of the dramatizations of the stories, and George Lucas cites the strip as a key influence on his own work. So maybe these comics aren’t so ephemeral after all.
 
The action comes fast and furious in Flash Gordon (creator Alex Raymond’s first work sample was criticized for not containing enough action, and he seems to have taken the criticism to heart). A planet is speeding toward the Earth and all mankind seems to be as doomed as the dinosaurs. In the first of many racism alerts, you can tell the level of the civilization of different ethnic groups by their reaction to this news: in Africa, “howling Blacks await their doom”; the desert Arabs are “resigned to the inevitable”; so it’s up to the white people to save the day, or at least themselves.
 
Handsome Yale graduate and ace polo player Flash Gordon is kidnapped, along with the beautiful Dale Arden, by the wild-eyed Dr. Zarkov and pressed into a mission to intercept the rogue planet. Zarkov’s plan is to fly their rocket ship into the planet and thus save the earth while sacrificing themselves, but they miss and end up on the Planet Mongo, which features both pastel-colored skyscrapers and salivating dinosaurs. Mongo is ruled by Ming the Merciless, who has yellow skin, wears vaguely oriental robes, and is very, very evil. He intends to kill Flash and marry Dale, but not before shooting her with his “dehumanizing machine” so that, like him, she will be troubled by “none of the human traits of kindness, mercy, or pity” that so get in the way of absolute power.
 
Raymond was certainly not lacking in invention—besides the dinosaurs, Mongo features bestial red monkey men, noble lion men, a two-headed beast known as “Tsask, the two-headed guardian of the tunnel of terror,” an underwater city ruled by shark men—you get the idea. There’s a new thrill every week, and if you can take the strip in the spirit of its time, it’s a lot of fun.
 
For the first strips, Raymond wrote the scripts as well as illustrating them; Don Moore began writing the scripts in August 1935, and continued on after Raymond left the strip in 1944 and was replaced by Austin Briggs. What really sets the strip apart, however, is Raymond’s detailed, inventive art—every frame is loaded with information and Raymond is justly famous for his well-planned scenes and detailed ink drawings, which achieve the illusion of dimensionality through feathering. His work was pretty good to start with, but got noticeably better over the course of the strip, and it’s a pleasure to watch his style mature over the run of this volume.
 
Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo will be available on Sept 25, 2012. You can read a bit more about this release on the Titan Books website. Extras in the volume include essays by Alex Ross and Doug Murray, and editor’s notes on the appearance of the comics in the Sunday papers. | Sarah Boslaugh

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