“The long reach of Alex Raymond’s legendary creation, Flash Gordon,
leads to almost every modern incarnation of science fiction and comic book superhero...”
– Alex Ross, introduction to Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo
Reading this lovingly produced and visually stunning collection, which features all of Raymond’s Flash Gordon (fully restored, by the way) strips from 1934 to 1937, was like witnessing the birth of science fiction. Doug Murray’s excellent piece at the beginning of this collection – fittingly entitled “Birth of a Legend” – depicts the America in which Raymond (who was born in 1909) grew up in:
Railroads crossed the nation, making it possible to travel from coast to coast in days rather than months – but nine out of every ten Americans still lived their entire lives in one place, never leaving, never seeing any part of the world outside of their hometown.
But shortly after WWI, the future did arrive – in spectacular style.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927 enthralled millions and left them craving more “death-defying adventure.” It was also the beginning of the Golden Age of pulp fiction – and science fiction. Around that same time, Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories, the first magazine dedicated to “Scientifiction.” In ’29, the first science fiction comic strip debuted – Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. – but in 1934, as Murray writes, “a legend was born” when the very first Flash Gordon strip appeared in print.
Even after almost 80 years, these comic strips were highly entertaining – over-the-top action and adventure in each and every brilliantly illustrated panel: fights to the death with a never-ending parade of menacing foes (Monkey Men, Tusk-Men, Shark Men, etc.), jaw-dropping monstrosities, fantastical locales…
And Dale Arden is an archetypal damsel in distress, created solely as an alluring but essentially helpless victim Flash can save time and time again – so that she can cook him his dinner.
Here’s the dialogue between Dale and Flash in one sequence:
Dale: “We haven’t a frying-pan, so I’ll have to bake these in the coals..”
Flash: “Sounds good to me, sweetheart – I’m starved…”
Much has changed socially since the 1930’s – thankfully – but these outdated attitudes help to showcase just how far science fiction (and America) has come in a relatively short period of time.
Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo was a fascinating read. This is definitely a book that I will keep in my library – not only to show my daughters, when they are old enough, how science fiction evolved to what it is today but to also let them know why it evolved…
Bottom line: This is an absolute “must have” for anyone who considers themselves a comics aficionado or armchair science fiction historian. Reading this almost makes me want to watch the cheesy, Dino De Laurentiis-produced Flash Gordon flick from 1980 – but not quite.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulgoatallen and get all the latest Barnes & Noble book news from @BNBuzz.
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