King of the Impossible: Flash Gordon, the nemesis of evil across the galaxy

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02-Sep-2016

 

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Intergalactic explorer. Intrepid adventurer. The Saviour of Mongo.

The swashbuckling Flash Gordon is all this and a lot more — not to mention the inspiration behind a host of other ‘superheroes’. And of course, the man known as King of the Impossible, for his fantastic adventures and uncanny ability of accomplishing the impossible.

Flashback! (no pun intended).

The year was 1934 and King Features Syndicate was looking for a comic strip of its own to compete with a rival syndicate’s popular strip, Buck Rogers. And like Buck Rogers, it had to be sci-fi and more specifically, Space Opera, a sub-genre of science fiction almost always set in outer space and featuring epic space battles, ubiquitous high technology, melodramatic adventure as well as chivalric romance.

King Features Syndicate approached the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, to purchase rights to another of his classic creations, John Carter of Mars. However, they couldn’t reach an agreement with Burroughs. Thankfully as it turned out, because as a last resort King Features turned to one of their in-house artists, Alex Raymond, who created a hero who would in coming years eclipse not just Buck Rogers, but every other character in sci-fi space opera comics – Flash Gordon. His comic strip would follow the adventures of Flash Gordon and his two companions, Dale Arden, Flash’s perpetual fiancée, and the scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov in their exploits across the galaxy.

Like his space adventurer hero, Alex Raymond’s art, beautiful illustrations and amazing storylines would not become wildly popular but inspire countless other artists over the years. That’s also the main reason why Flash Gordon is counted amongst the most influential comic strips of all time (science fiction or otherwise); inspiring not just Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster to model Superman’s costume of tights and a cape on Flash’s uniform, but also Bob Kane to base his initial drawing of Batman on Flash Gordon.

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The first Flash Gordon comic strip (colourized later), that appeared in 1934. Copyright: King Features Syndicate.

WORLD COMING TO END! These bold letters announced Flash Gordon to the world, whose story begins when Earth is threatened by collision with a mysterious comet. Flash and Dale escape by parachute when their plane is struck by a meteor, only to meet Dr. Hans Zarkov, a brilliant scientist who seems to have lost his mind in trying to find a way to save humanity. Zarkov intends to fly his self-built space ship into the comet, and he kidnaps Flash and Dale to accompany him. They rush towards the comet, only to find themselves arriving not on a comet, but on the planet Mongo, ruled by the insane dictator, Ming the Merciless, who had intended to destroy Earth. Ming imprisons them, desiring to make Dale his concubine. Making good their escape, Flash then allies with the enslaved people of Mongo to overthrow Ming’s merciless reign, in which they succeed, thus returning the rightful king, Prince Barin, to the throne.

The planet Mongo would form the setting for most of Flash’s early adventures. A planet inhabited by various cultures, with technology ranging from stone-age level to highly advanced future tech: the forest kingdom of Arboria, ruled by Prince Barin; the ice kingdom of Frigia Fria; the jungle kingdom of Tropicato; the undersea kingdom of the Shark Men; and the flying city of the Hawkmen, ruled by Prince Vultan (these hawkmen incidentally inspired the costume of the superhero Hawkman by Dennis Neville).

In the 70s, a man called George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon film based on the old films, but couldn’t get the rights

Flash’s story till the overthrow of Ming by Alex Raymond and a few other adventures would be adapted for the big screen within just two years of Flash Gordon making his appearance with a series of films starring Buster Crabbe, the Olympic gold-winning swimmer, who would also go on to portray Buck Rogers on screen.

In the 70s, a man called George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon film based on the old films, but couldn’t get the rights and so went on to do his own ‘Flash Gordon movie’ which we know today as Star Wars.

The Flash Gordon film that finally released in 1980 was originally supposed to be helmed by Italian director Federico Fellini and then by the director of The Man who Fell to Earth, Nicholas Roeg, who left the project over differences with the producer. Sergio Leone was considered, but refused and finally the film was directed by Michael Hodge. Very campy in nature, though quite faithful, Flash Gordon starred Sam Jones as the titular hero and Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, and wasn’t a commercial success but has since gained a significant cult following. The film is also most notable for its soundtrack, which was composed, produced and performed by no less a rock band than Queen.

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Art print created by the artist Alex Ross for the 35th anniversary of the film, Flash Gordon featuring the main cast and setting of the movie. Note Brian Blessed as the Hawkman, and King Vultan on the extreme left in skimpy black tights, whose dialogue ‘Gordon’s Alive!?!’ would become both his and the movie’s most repeated, reused, and recycled catchphrase.

There were many other adaptations including cartoons, such as the one in which Flash Gordon teamed up with fellow King Features Syndicate heroes Mandrake the Magician and Phantom, and live-action series, most of which took extreme liberties with the characters, including one that made Flash and Dale hoverboarding teenagers. As with any great character, Flash Gordon has had his fair share of parodies, most notably Flesh Gordon, a 1974 movie politely described as ‘burlesque’ or ‘an erotic spoof’. That said, it is quite enjoyable even in its R-rated version; the same though cannot be said for its 1989 sequel Flesh Gordon meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders.

While most adaptations of the strip end with the overthrow of Ming by Flash on Mongo, in India, it was a different story altogether. Alex Raymond’s run on Flash Gordon was followed by the artists Austin Briggs and Mac Raboy, and then by Dan Barry, who helmed the strip from 1951 until 1990 (with a brief period in between where the sci-fi author Harry Harrison also wrote the strip). The Dan Barry period is when most of India was introduced to Flash Gordon via Indrajal Comics.

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First two panels from the Indrajal comic, Flames of Vengeance, which explains the backstory in brief.

Mac Raboy and Dan Barry would add more locations to Flash Gordon’s universe, many more supporting and recurring characters with adventures taking place in places such as pre-historic Mars, the rings of Saturn and Venusport, Earth’s colony on Venus. After their return to Earth, Flash would undertake another trip to Mongo, by which time Prince Barin has married Aura, Ming’s daughter, and established a peaceful reign punctuated by revolts by either Ming or his many sons.

 

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A selection of some Flash Gordon stories from Indrajal Comics. Note Flash’s ‘Samson act’ in Trial on Mars and a looming Ming the Merciless in Flames of Vengeance. These covers, however, were not by the original artists but by Indrajal’s own artists like Govind and most notably, Shehabuddin.

 

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Dan Barry also introduced another nemesis for Flash Gordon to regularly cross swords and spaceships with, Baron Dak Tula, the space-fighter ace and leader of the Skorpi, a race of shape-shifting aliens whose mission is to conquer the galaxy.

Flash Gordon was last seen from King Features Syndicate in 2003, with Jim Keefe being the last writer and artist of Flash Gordon, whose run from 1996 till the end is currently available online at FlashGordon.com. Gordon also reappears on the big screen in Seth McFarlane’s Ted and its sequel Ted 2 starring Mark Wahlber, with Sam Jones playing himself and reprising his role as Flash Gordon. There are talks of a Flash Gordon movie in the works, but till then we have over 60 years’ worth of comics to enjoy the adventures of Flash Gordon. Many of the classic Indrajal Comics are available as digital scans on Amazon, but they come nowhere close to the experience of the original but out-of-print Indrajal Comics, which once retailed at a few rupees but today cost hundreds, considered as they are collector’s editions.

But that’s not going to stop New Worlds Weekly from helping you get your hands on three of these hard-to-find Flash Gordon comics.

All you have to do is raise a toast to the King of the Impossible in your own words. Take a look at the panel below, which shows events just after Flash has come to the rescue of Lemuria and saved it from being conquered by the alien Scorpi. The Lemurians have just unveiled a statue of Flash Gordon, their new hero.

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Just fill in the blank speech bubble (above) by creating your own toast to Flash Gordon, and if you are the person who ends up writing the most Flash-y and interesting toast, you will get these three Flash Gordon comics delivered to wherever it is that you are. Submit your entries or rather toasts in the comments section below, leave a note on the FactorDaily Facebook page or just tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD.

 

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Until next week then, here’s to living long and prospering!



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