Ten Minute Guide to Flash Gordon (2008)


Ah, Death Ray, how fruitful plundering your corpse is for my blog… This article originally appeared in Death Ray 08, back in 2007, as part of our insanely crammed “Ten Minute Guide…” series. These were among my favourite articles to write; packed full of detail, and no transcribing involved. I’ve put this one up as my review of the Flash Gordon TV series of 2007/2008 is one of the most viewed articles on this site by a long, long way. General searches for “Flash Gordon” take people there, so curiosity about this primal member of the modern SF heroic pantheon still abounds.

Flash Gordon: Perennially popular cosmic adventurer

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Golden-haired saviour of Earth, Flash has been protecting us from the art-deco hell of Ming the Merciless’s Planet Mongo for 70 years, often in a pair of tight trunks. In a word: Pulp.

Flash’s adventures are ones of swash-buckling, over the top, Prisoner of Zenda style derring-do in space. The stories are simple stuff, simply told, their enduring popularity down to the sumptuousness of Alex Raymond’s art and the on-screen extravagance it inspired. If scantily clad slave girls, finned rocket ships, weird alien kingdoms and decadently luxuriant palaces are your thing, step this way…

Back in a Flash

Flash Gordon’s had more incarnations than Buddha, his adventures having thrilled generations of Americans. Though a comic character, he’s not as set as the superhero greats and many men have dipped their pens in Alex Raymond’s original creative funpot, redrawing Flash’s origins, background and supporting cast to their own design. But the basic story remains the same – Flash is a gifted sporting playboy who, along with sweetheart Dale Arden, finds himself accompanying the less-than-stable professor Zarkov to the planet of Mongo. Here Flash’s natural leadership abilities come to the fore as he battles evil despot Ming the Merciless across Mongo’s myriad, mysterious kingdoms. In most versions Ming wants to marry Dale, Ming’s daughter Aura is hot for Flash, and a number of Mongo princelings try to help or harm the all-American golden boy.

What are they all about?

He’s a bit of cypher is Flash [1], nothing more than the thin skin of a WASP rolled over a fictional embodiment of the uncompromising confidence of the young American nation. In his first incarnation he was a polo star and Yale graduate. Naturally good at everything, if you went to school with him you’d probably hate him. If you were trapped on a planet infested with animal-headed freaks, however, you’d be glad to have him on your side.

Zarkov [2], on the other hand, is not so socially acceptable, disgraced in some takes, a borderline nut in almost all. It is he that invents the rocket ship that takes Flash and Dale to Mongo, though in the latest version he’s a snot-nosed sidekick to Flash’s missing dad. [2] Dale’s basically a babe, whatever level of socially appropriate empowerment she exhibits. She’s also inclined to be a bit feisty.

10 Critical Questions

1. Who created Flash.

Flash was created by cartoonist Alex Raymond in 1933 as a rival to Buck Rogers.

Designed as a syndicated newspaper cartoon, Flash’s first weekly adventure was published on Sunday January 7, 1934. Raymond originally wrote the strip, but passed on scripting to other writers as he took on illustration duties for other strips. A daily Flash Gordon strip was launched in 1940, which was drawn by Austin Briggs. He took over Alex Raymond’s Sunday strip in 1944 when the creator joined the marine corps.

Many people have drawn or written Flash over the years, but Raymond’s vision remains the definitive, and the strip was taken back to his continuity several times.

2. What is Mongo?

Planet of Ming, the Mongo of the comic strips is about half the size of Earth, though its density is only slightly less. It possesses a lower gravity, and this means Terrans are stronger and hardier than they are on Earth.

Mongo is described as a young world in the strip, with towering mountains, sparse vegetation limited to “isolated areas of botanical giants”, and much volcanic activity. Its capital is Mingo City.

Mongo in maps resembles a stereotypical fantasy world, with kingdoms named Frigia (icy), Arboria (wooded) and Tropica (um, tropical). Even with so much technology kicking about, much of Mongo remains unexplored. In the film the kingdoms are imaginatively portrayed as moons floating against a swirling sky of coloured inks.

In the initial comics, Mongo hurtles into our solar system like a comet, putting the Earth at risk. The 1980 film has it on the other side of a wormhole, and in the new TV show it is in another dimension, accessed via a portal.

3. Who lives there?

Mongo is inhabited by a diverse array of human offshoots with animal characteristics – Hawkmen, Sharkmen, Lionmen, Lizardmen etc. – who exhibit an equally, and frankly unbelievably, diverse array of technology. Some, like the Hawkmen, live in hi-tech splendour, while other creatures struggle on barely above the level of cavemen. A large variety of deadly giant reptiles, including the terrifying “Constrictosaurus”, are also to be found on the planet.

4. Was Flash Gordon the movie’s Sam Jones really dubbed?

Nobody knows. He insists “no”, saying that a few of his lines were redubbed with another actor’s voice as he was not available when they were completing the soundtrack. The debate rages on.

5. What’s with Ming’s changing face?

Ming the Merciless has been depicted in a number of ways, each new version of him moving further and further away from his racially insensitive “evil Asian despot” roots. The 1979 cartoon version of Ming had green skin, DC’s 1988 version was gray, though both retained his mandarin’s ‘tache, while the 1996 cartoon version was a lizard.

6. Where’s Flash at now?

King Features, the American company that syndicates all kinds of newspaper comic strips across the US, finally discontinued the Flash Gordon strip in 2003. His final adventures, by artist Jim Keefe, is still run as reprints in some newspapers.

This summer saw Flash return to the screen on the SciFi Channel. But this low-budget, anodyne version has met with a furious slating.

7. Did Flash ever beat Ming?

Flash took a break to fight the Red Sword invaders during World War II, then returned to Mongo to finish Ming off. Prince Barin, often put forward as the rightful ruler of Mongo, became ruler and married Ming’s daughter Aura who had been redeemed from evil by love, first for Flash, then Barin.

8. What happened next?

After travelling to other worlds, Zarkov, Flash and Dale go home. Flash joins the World Space Council, and travels all over the galaxy during the Skorpii War. He often returned to Mongo to battle a resurgent Ming.

9. What’s the best Flash Gordon?

Certainly not the new one. The three serials, starring Buster Crabbe, are still surprisingly watchable, while the 1980 film, despite the weakness of Flash, is still a hoot in our opinion. The first three of the six novels released in 1973 are great – Lion Men of Mongo, The Plague of Sound and The Space Circus (give the other three a miss). Of course, you could always pick up a copy of Raymond’s original strips.

10. What influences has Flash Gordon had on SF?

It is said that George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon remake, but could not get the rights so penned Star Wars instead. True or not, Star Wars definitely owes a lot to the Saturday matinée serial version of Flash – its opening crawl very similar to that in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third serial. Flash’s greatest influence, however, has undoubtedly been on the development of comic art.

A Brief history

Raymond’s Alive…? No. But he was extremely influential. He developed an innovative, dynamic style of drawing figures that was avidly taken up by later artists. He perfected the art of feathering in comics – a technique that uses fine parallel lines to suggest contour and shape.

Raymond co-created and worked on a number of other popular characters, including  tropical explorer, Jungle Jim.  After returning from the war, Raymond moved on from his old characters, creating an ex-marine PI named Rip Kirby with writer Fred Dickenson.

He died in 1956 in a car accident.

The Strips

Raymond only worked on the Sunday version of Flash, not the daily, and after 1944 he abandoned Flash. Others who have written or drawn Flash include Austin Briggs, Dan Barry, Harvey Kurtzman, and Al Williamson, among many others. The most famous contributors are undoubtedly Harry Harrison (author of The Stainless Steel Rat) and artist Frank Frazetta. The last original Flash was printed in 2003.

The radio series

Flash had two radio series, in 1935 and 1936. The first, weekly, serial ran for 26 episodes and followed the comics’ continuity until the last two installments, when Flash and co crash in Africa and meet Jungle Jim. The second was daily, and totalled 74 episodes. This took Flash and friends to Atlantis. Gale Gordon filled Flash’s trunks on air.

TV Series

1954-55, made in West Berlin. Steve Holland starred as Flash.

The cartoons

Filmation made a TV movie (1979) that was expanded into a series. The first season was a serial, the second of standalone episodes that introduced annoying dragon Gremlin. 1982 saw the original TV movie released for the first time, fondly remembered, but that might be because no one has seen it for decades. 1986 saw Flash team up with other King Features characters Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom in Defenders of the Earth. 1996’s effort turned him into a hoverboarding teen.

The film

Europudding extravaganza. The first movie to have a soundtrack penned by a rock group. Panned in the US, still in the top grossing 100 films (adjusted for inflation) in the UK.

Chunks O’ Flash

The best Flash adaptations are those that cast their flickering witchlight upon the big screen, but long before the colourful movie of the 1980’s, Flash enjoyed a series of black and white adventures, with cliffhangers…

Buster Crabbe Flash

Back in the days of pre-TV yore, when a trip to the cinema meant a whole morning of fun, it was customary for various shorts to run before the main feature, including the serialised adventures of various heroes. Three Flash Gordon serials were made between 1936 and 1940, all starring swimming champion Buster Crabbe.

The first, titled simply Flash Gordon (1936), followed Flash’s comic strip adventures. Crabbe’s brown hair was recoloured to match Raymond’s hero, and dour actor Charles Middleton played Ming. Jean Rogers played Dale as a blonde, delicate thing in need of constant rescuing, competing with Princess Aura’s (Priscilla Lawson) self-assured voluptuousness for some good Gordon lovin’. The most expensive film serial ever made, it was hugely popular, and is regarded as being of a slightly more adult theme than most of its contemporaries.

1938 saw Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, which relocated Flash’s later adventures, specifically those involving Azura the witch queen of the blue magic men, from Mongo to the Red Planet. This led to some confusion in the story as several characters seemed to lack justification for being on Mars at all. Roger’s Dale becomes brunette, more capable (and more modestly clad), and the show lacked the sexual tension of the first.

Budgets dropped throughout the series and the last serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), suffered for it. A new Dale (Carole Hughes) joined the cast. Its plot bears many similarities with the second series, and it is more than a tad formulaic – with Flash fighting his way through a number of environments themed to the four elements. It also lifted scenes wholesale from the film The White Hell of Piz Palu. Even so, this is regarded as the second best of the serials.

All three were rerun endlessly on TV in the US and UK, sometimes under the Space Soldiers title to avoid confusion with the ’50s Flash, right up to the 1980s.

Classic Camp

Flash_gordon_movie_posterThe international cast of the 1980s Flash Gordon movie

Flash (Sam J Jones): American. Dubbed (allegedly). Picked by De Laurentiis’s mother-in-law.

Dale (Melody Anderson): Canadian. Girl-next-door cute. Long, unmemorable TV career.

Zarkov (Chaim Topol): Israeli. Driven, melodramatic. Great Zarkov

Ming (Max Von Sydow): Swedish. Evil, alien. Great Ming.

Aura (Ornella Muti): Italo-Estonian. Painfully sexy. Evil, but sexy.

Vultan (BRIAN BLESSED!!!): British. Much better than Timothy Dalton as Barin.

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