It would be far easier to discuss those relatively few aspects of sci-fantastical fiction which haven't been in any way influenced by Alex Raymond and Don Moore's Flash Gordon. Even those genre creators who reject the associated traditions which Flash Gordon helped to shape are to a lesser or greater degree still reacting to the omnipresence of the strip's innovations. Yet the inspirational DNA that's shared by a host of sub-genres from space opera to the superhero is so saturated with Raymond and Moore's storytelling that it can be hard to notice just how influential they still are. After all, when the evidence of a team's achievements can still be seen in so much of what's current some 80 years later, it's all too easy to take the source material for granted. As such, re-reading the first three years worth of Raymond and ghost writer Moore's Sunday strips - as reprinted in Titan's Flash Gordon On The Planet Mongo - can all too easily become a process of noting how much of their achievement has appeared elsewhere in the stories of subsequent generations of creators. To be suddenly faced with the ur-text again is to counter-intuitively run the risk of losing sight of its importance, with the storytelling on the page being all too easy to reduce to a game of spot-the-influenced. There is, after all, no greater compliment than for an innovator's work to become a significant part of the taken-for-granted template for how a particular type of story is told. Yet that same process can also create the sense that the very best of work is all-too-familiar and unremarkable.
It's not just that the raw material of these stories has been used over and over again to represent Flash Gordon to new generations of consumers in a series of different mediums. (Anyone familiar with the 1980 movie, for example, will recognise a great deal of the narrative from 1934's strips that are reprinted here, although there's much - from the savagery of the Hawkmen to the shocking degree of racism - that will also be new to them.) Yet far beyond the Flash Gordon industry itself, Raymond and Moore's ideas and techniques are indisputably still at work. (Raymond is quite rightly remembered as the genius of the partnership, and yet there's no doubt that the quality of Flash Gordon improved once Moore came on board in August 1935.) That influence is nowhere as obvious as it is in the superhero book, where no month passes without scenes appearing which seem to be little more than a spit'n'polish update of the team's mid-Thirties triumphs. That the first few waves of comic book creators idolised and emulated Raymond is of course well known. To look again in particular at the earliest pages by Kirby and Kubert, Eisner, Fine and Kane is to see how adored and imitated Raymond's storytelling was. Yet even today, strange flashes of what he and Moore once created appear, as in the clear conceptual lineage which links the very first costume that Flash adopted on Mongo and Jamie McKelvie's inspiring new costume for Captain Marvel;
Yet no matter how familiar much of Flash Gordon now appears to be, the phenomenal pace at which Raymond's work in particular developed helps to constantly jolt the reader out of any sense of complacency. Though much of the subject matter, and indeed some of the specific sequences, are so recognisable as to be almost invisible, the enterprise as a whole is powered by the most remarkable sense of ambition and progress. To read these stories is, as with few other strips, to recognise that the grammar of the adventure tale was being developed in ways which few other creators had ever pursued, let alone equalled. The 17 months which separated Raymond's first competent, promising steps on the strip and the unsurpassed comic-strip wonder that's the Hawkmen's attack upon the army of Azura - below - seems far, far too little time for the artist to have developed from admirable craftsman to master storyteller.
|Just a detail of the Hawkmen assault referred to above, I fear. But the original can be in all its original, innovative glory on page 107 of On The Planet Of Mongo|
Just as fascinating as the extraordinary improvement in Raymond's skills are the less obvious, gradual changes in the attitudes which Flash Gordon appeared to represent. Of course, these are not stories which project anything of what today would be regarded as a liberal agenda. At times disturbingly racist and misogynistic, the Flash Gordon of this period was repeatedly the kind of cartoon whose values Fitzgerald's Tom Buchanan would endorse even as he condemned the vulgarity of the form itself. Yet there's a distinct if only partial decline in the most explicit aspects of the strip's attitude to race and gender over the years covered in On The Planet Of Mongo, and that's perhaps most obvious in the changing way in which Raymond and Moore presented Dale Arden;
|21/1/34:- Both Gordon and Arden are to prove irresistible to the opposite sex of the various Mongian aristocracies that they encounter. There's just something about elite white Americans which entrances the various stereotypes - racial or not- who the Earth-folks run into. The Princess Aura - Ming's daughter - the water-breathing Queen Undina and Queen Azura all fall for the very sight of Gordon, while Arden captures the heart of both Ming and King Vultan, who lays aside an entire harem of Hawkwomen for her after a good leer and a single conversation. The solution to these various entanglements will - during this period - typically prove to be Gordon's derring-do or the quick thinking of one of his distinctly male sidekicks. While both are adored and often captured by their would-be lovers, one is forced to wait to be rescued while the other is perpetually the rescuer.|