Review: Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo comic
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A classic comic strip with incredible artwork gets a welcome reprint...
On January 7, 1934, the world was introduced to a new science fiction hero, Flash Gordon. Created by artist Alex Raymond, Flash was inspired by – and intended to be competition for – Buck Rogers, who had been introduced to newspaper comic strips in 1928. Flash was a polo player and graduate of Yale University, and along with Dale Arden (a love interest for our hero) is flown by rocket by the half-mad Dr. Hans Zarkov to the distant planet Mongo, which is ruled by Ming the Merciless. The three spend many years on Mongo fighting Ming in an effort to overthrow his terrible regime and restore peace to the planet.
The book Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo reprints several stories from Raymond’s run as artist, aided by writer Don Moore. The stories start with “The Beast of Mongo”, which began on April 25, 1937, continuing with “The Outlaws of Mongo”, “The Tyrant of Mongo” and “The Ice Kingdom of Mongo”, and concluding with “The Power Men of Mongo”, which finished on January 12, 1941. The stories were run as Sunday comics in King Features Syndicate papers across the country, and are reprinted here with restored color, looking better than ever.
Raymond’s artwork is extraordinary, especially for a newspaper comic strip. The detail given to not only the characters but to the cities, the flora and fauna, and to the many interesting creatures is on par with – if not better than – work that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were doing in their respective comic titles. The writing is very good, if at times a little redundant, but that’s only because certain story structure seems to be recycled pretty often throughout the run. Flash, Dale and Zarkov enter a new adventure, an alliance is made between the trio and their newfound friends, a new woman falls in love with Flash, Dale gets jealous, someone in the group betrays Flash, and then there’s a great battle. While it’s certain Raymond and Moore weren’t out to become the next H.G. Wells, they did create some entertaining stories set in amazing new worlds, and set the standard for science fiction writers to come. It’s easy to see where George Lucas got much of his inspiration reading some of these stories. There are rockets and ray-guns and more types of futuristic weapons and vehicles, as well as strange creatures that would feel welcome in any Star Wars story.
Gordon himself is the archetypical hero, with his square jaw and muscular physique, ready to use his fists but not above negotiating, and often having a bit of a heart when it comes to punishment. In fact, several times friends of Flash’s have offered to execute those who have betrayed the hero, but he always allows them to live, which usually winds up biting him in the ass in the end, as they typically escape and go on with their heinous plans.
Through the stories we are introduced to Prince Barin of the forest kingdom of Arboria and his wife Princess Aura, daughter to Ming. It is hinted that Aura has had – and may still have – feelings for Flash, which causes conflict between Aura and Dale. We also meet Queen Fria of the ice kingdom of Frigia, located in the frozen wasteland of Mongo. Again, another woman who is after Flash’s attention, and again, more conflict. There are also many minor characters that assist Flash and his companions, all aligning against Ming. Everywhere Flash goes, there always seems to be a group of Mongo’s citizens who oppose Ming’s rule, and are ready and willing to fight and die beside Flash, who has risen to the ranks of mythical hero in the eyes of these downtrodden people. In many ways, like other comic heroes, Gordon is a modern take on the Greek heroes of mythology, like Heracles or Perseus: the common man who has become more than he once was, becoming nearly god-like in his actions and deeds. When others around him falter, Flash is usually the last one standing. And in those moments when he is at death’s door, his strength of body and spirit pull him through, and he rises higher than before.
Modern readers may have issues with much that goes on within these pages. Ming the Merciless is little more than a stereotypical Asian underworld leader, with his bald head, Fu Manchu mustache and yellow skin. While I won’t excuse such racism, one must take into account the time that the comic strips were written, and that racism was prevalent in much of pop culture. There is also the misogynistic way that women are written in the strip. Dale is little more than a prop, being there for Flash to love, and to constantly be jealous of any woman that gives him too much attention. Which happens all too often, as any woman they meet instantly falls in love with the man. Worse yet is how the other women play upon that jealousy in order to try to pry Flash out of Dale’s arms and into their own. And like clockwork, Dale throws a tantrum, and Flash walks off, mumbling about how he will never understand women (and if a hero can’t, what chance do the rest of us have). And of course, there are the outfits these women are given, which many times aren’t much more that what Carrie Fisher was given to wear in Jabba’s Palace. Then there are the suitors of these women who instantly set out to do away with the competition in any way possible. This isn’t so much bad writing as much as it is standard characterization for the time, and writing for the intended audience of young boys. While by today’s standards this seems to be setting civil rights and race relations back several centuries, it was par for the course, and if one can overlook it, they can find a very entertaining sci-fi romp. If nothing else it serves as a time capsule, not only for early twentieth century science fiction, but for society in America during that time.
Another drawback is the fact that this is the second book in the series, so we begin already in progress. The trio have been on Mongo for some time, and there is a lot we’ve missed, so if you have no previous experience with the strip, you may want to go out and find the first book in the series. Again, there was a previous meeting with Aura (before she was married to Barin) which took place before these stories, and so Dale already keeps her at arm’s length, distrusting her throughout the stories. But if you are already familiar with the stories, you will have no problem jumping right in and enjoying the book.
What I found truly fascinating about the stories was how imaginative they are. While the plotlines get reused, the creatures found on Mongo, the buildings in the capital Mingo City, and the various weapons and vehicles are all brilliant in design. You can read the stories and see just what an impact they had on future sci-fi directors and writers, and how much later stories and movies borrowed from these original strips. This is very much a book for any fan of science fiction stories, or anyone who has an interest in comic book history. The artwork is fantastic, with even the smallest of details given extra care. This is definitely a must have for the discerning comic collector.
Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo is available now.
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