Wednesday, 21 November 2012

On Alex Raymond & Don Moore's "Flash Gordon: On The Planet Mongo"

    
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;
        
I'm not suggesting that the new Captain Marvel costume is a homage to that of Flash's. But there does appear to be a clear if distant line of influence, with Raymond's work having helped to establish several conventions for the superhero's costume which are still relevant today. In particular, there's the more-or-less ubiquitous chest insignia in place in the above frame from February 4th, 1934. Of course, the low collars cut from the shoulders to the chest are a far less commonly used element, and that's part - although only one aspect among many - of what makes JM's Captain Marvel costume feel so fresh and impressive.


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;
   
7/1/34: In the first panel in which either character appears, Gordon is given a backstory that's as active as its advantaged. He's highly educated, a famous sportsman and, it seems, a rather privileged and prestigious gentleman too. (Later versions of the character which recast him as a naive, none-too-bright footballer or still-at-home ex-track star do seem to have been scarred off by the original Gordan's elite status.) By contrast, Arden is tellingly described as nothing but a "passenger", though her clothes, her plane ticket and her proximity to Gordon do strongly suspect that she's a wealthy member of the elite too. In the very next panel, of course, the plane's left wing will be sheered off by a comet and Arden will immediately step into her central role, namely that of lady-in-jeopardy requiring Gordon's saving attentions..
14/1/34: By the second strip, Gordon and Arden have been kidnapped by the deranged Dr Zarkov and taken on a suicidal rocket attack against the approaching Planet Mondo. (Academic learning - and it's always a male trait -  is often a sign of some kind of mental perversity in these early tales. The over-stressed Zarkov twice succumbs to mania while Ming's super-science has provided him with a fiendish dehumanising machine and the power to conquer worlds.) Though Arden is never allowed to actually land a blow on poor maddened Zarkov here, she does at least show herself capable of threatening - somewhat unconvincingly - physical harm. But overall, she's all too often the helpless female pining to be the recipient of one of Flash's heroic sorties.
14/1/34:- Just 5 panels later, Arden makes her debut as an unconscious victim needing Gordon's saving. Interestingly, there's a suspicion in this frame that there's already a romance burning between the two. When it started, we're never told, but the two of them are absolutely devoted to each other from this point onwards. It may be they bonded after their escape from the crippled, crashing plane, or perhaps they fell for each other while trapped in Zarkov's rocket-ship. (We're never told how long the journey from Earth to Mongo takes.) For my money, I'd like to think they were already lovers when we first see them, and that they were just pretending not to be intimate with each other while travelling because of the threat of scandal. The celebrity sportsman Gordon caught up in an unmarried tryst with the youthful socialite Arden? It would have been front page news in the quality as well as the gutter press.
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.
11/2/34:- Arden may have at first lacked anything at all of Gordon's heroic powers, but she was always as indisputably brave as she was 100% wet. Only ever begging for her beloved's well-being rather than her own, Arden was absolutely stoic even when chained up and threatened with terrible tortures, as she frequently was. Yet when convinced that Flash was dead, her will to resist the likes of Ming entirely departed. It's impossible to believe that Gordon would abandon all resistance under similar circumstances, but Arden obviously considered life without her beloved to be a meaningless business. Admittedly, Gordon did relax his reserve later in the year and declare to Princess Aura that he'd rather die than live without Arden. Yet, it's still hard to picture him simply giving up and marrying Ming's daughter if his Arden was to die.  (nb: It's worth noting that Ming wants to remove all "kindness, mercy (and) pity" from Arden before marrying her. His driving attraction towards her has nothing to do with anything beyond her "beauty", it seems. As mentioned before, the superior physical allure of the white American carried all before it.)
5/8/34:- It takes almost 8 months for Arden to start to develop beyond her lovelorn passivity. With Gordon cruelly locked up in the torture chamber of the Hawkpeople, Arden decides to seduce silly, brutal King Vultan. (This is not Brian Blessed's beloved rebel leader.) This is the first time that Arden has made use of her sexuality in the strip, but that and her blatant dishonesty are of course ultimately all necessary and virtuous deceptions. For the first time, Arden seems to be relaxed in her own body, playing with her hair and practically slouching. The irony, of course, is that she's a woman who's true character is most truthfully expressed through the use of more formal, demure body language. Though adopting the role of faithless temptress is hardly in itself a blow for equality, it does mark the point at which Arden begins to take an active role in the politics of the madhouses that she finds herself in. (At the same moment as she's beguiling Vultan, the enchained and largely naked Gordon is being threatened by the Princess Aura and a pair of hot-poker wielding state torturers. Arden does appear in less and less clothes from March 1934 onwards, but so too does Flash. The difference is that Gordon tends to loose his clothes during mortal combat, whereas Arden is so dressed by the various reprobates who've control over her.)
14/7/35:- A year has passed and finally Arden is starting to assert herself. Having become the whipped serving girl of the despicable Queen Azura, who's also drugged Gordon into becoming her lover, Arden steps forward and shows not just fortitude, but steel. Up until this point, Arden has been the eternal victim, forever being rescued by everyone from Thun the Lionman to the now-he's-dead, now-he's not Prince Rogo of the dwarfs. As such, this frame marks a considerable turning point for Arden. Though she never becomes anything which might be considered a feminist icon, she does become considerably more argumentative and determined. She's far more likely to complain to or even argue with Gordon, and at moments she's the only member of the cast who'll say a word to cross him. (Given that Gordon - the great American hero - has rather despicably embraced the role of King without a care for democratic principles, Arden actually becomes the closest thing to a loyal opposition, though she too seems remarkably unconcerned for the rights of the folks she lives amongst.) The rare appearance of what might be mistaken for a brief sparring match from a screwball comedy also playfully sparks up the narrative. Similarly, her body language becomes - according to circumstance - both more relaxed and more forceful. Rather than a perpetually passive focus for romantic and sexual longing, Arden finally begins to occupy the role of an individual of sorts rather than nothing but a type.
11/10/36:- Three months pass, and with Flash having finally earned the return of his ability to survive above the waves from Queen Undina, Arden briefly appears to have assumed the role of the strip's shrew. Yet Gordon and her are absolutely in agreement about the need to avoid any more bloodshed, and it's an agreement which quickly recasts her as the voice of sanity rather than the girlish avoider of struggle and, quite frankly, blokeish fun. Comfortably and sensibly clothed as an adult rather than a sex object, Raymond has also provided her with a far less passive, doe-eyed appearance.
6/12/36:- Almost three years after her first appearance and Arden is finally swinging a weapon at the same time as her fellow exiled Earthmen. True, she's wielding the least impressive rodent-skewer on display, but in the last frame of the previous Sunday's strip, she'd lacked even that. (It' had looked as if she'd have to cower behind the menfolk, as she had so many times before.) Furthermore, it's poor Zarkov who proves unable to keep the fearsome flying rodents at bay, and who succumbs to a savage mauling and temporary madness, while it's Arden who survives and attempts to treat his injuries.
10/1/37:- In one of the final strips in this collection, Raymond and Moore present the reader with the evidence of an at-least partially transformed relationship between Arden and Gordon. After all, there's no more symbolic gesture of a sharing of power between the genders than a man being told to throw his gun to a woman so that she can save him. (We may not get to see Arden using the gun, but there's no doubt that she does so.) Though it was Arden who'd originally been caught in the quicksand which now holds Gordon, it's the mutual respect and cooperation between the two which allows them both to survive. This isn't, of course, the arrival of an equal relationship between the two of them, as is indicated by Gordon's attempt to praise a grown woman through the insulting throwaway, "good girl". But it does shows that their relationship, and Arden's character, has come a considerable distance since the strip began some thirty-six months before. As a reader who's not familiar with the strips from beyond this date, I can only hope that the couple's relationship continued to develop in the same way.
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8 comments:

  1. That was so interesting, Colin. I've never read any Flash Gordon strips, and haven't seen the film, but loved the Buster Crabbe serials the BBC used to show. I really fancy this collection, especially give the development of Dale.

    And great spot as regards Carol Danvers' new costume!

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    1. Hello Martin:- Oh, well, if you enjoyed the Crabbe serials - and I certainly do - then you'll certainly like the original strips. They're another order or five of space opera and storytelling up the ladder, of course, but I struggle to see how an affection for the one won't mean an affection for the other.

      Thanks for the kind words. Writing about Raymond and Flash is impossible without repeating what's been said before. I was going to discuss how certain frames in the work of famous comics artists evoke Raymond's work, but I'm sure it's ALL been done, and with scholarly precision, before. In the end, I thought I might as well just charge off on an enthusiastic tangent, as you might when discussing a book with a friend over a coffee and iced bun. I'm glad it killed a moment or too :)

      The costume connection made me smile. It's perfectly appropriate, no matter how accidental, that Flash and Carol's costumes should be connected through comics history, isn't it? I love how Marvel has ditched the cheesecake and is focusing on her as a person.

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  2. "Come with me to the torture chambers!"

    Charles Boyer IS King Vultan!

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    1. Hello Michael:- Can he break the fourth wall for just a moment and give us a Pepe line too, perhaps in the out-takes?

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  3. Excellent work, as always. My primary familiarity with Flash Gordon comes from the film serials that aired on KTLA during my childhood. My knowledge of the original comics are spotty at best.

    Regarding the evolution of Dale Arden, Mr. Raymond married a few years prior to commencing work on Flash Gordon and had (according to Wikipedia) three daughters. I would suggest that becoming the parent is a paradigm shift for even the most enlightened person. It clarifies ones own values by necessity. It seems likely that would go double for an opposite sex child.

    Regarding the racism of the strip, Mr. Raymond woud appear to have a bit to answer for. The movement of discredited racial thinking into the "harmless" world of science fantasy is one of the least attractive aspects of that genre. Orientalism survives to the present day in the form of Starfire and other faintly "Asian" aliens in superhero comics.

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    1. Hello Dean:- My knowledge of everything is spotty, I fear. Sometimes I try to convince myself that being a jack of quite a few trades brings advantages of its own, but I don't ever manage to make myself believe. And the more I try to read, the more I find I know nothing about at all. That's certainly true for the great newspaper strips, though this year has put something of that to rights. And I'm on the second Flash Gordon Sunday strips collection at this very moment; the way that the work just keeps improving is quite literally stunning.

      I would love to discover that your hypothesis is correct. I have never been a parent, but I found that becoming a teacher, and then adapting to each new year, was a paradigm shift in itself. Don't get me wrong. No matter how fundamentally it changed me - and it did - I know that's nothing like the sweeping changes which parenthood brings. But even from my limited experience, yes, your suggestion sounds convincing. And charming too.

      The racism in Flash Gordon is an unpleasant business, and although the worst of the first 18 months or so doesn't appear to be matched in subsequent strips, it doesn't go away either. Of course, there's a long tradition of racism in what we might call 20th century fantastical fiction, but when a strip as often brilliant and influential as Flash pushes those images and implications, then the contagion is passed on. Now, I don't know what Raymond's stand was later on such issues. I've yet to begin my Rip Kirby reading, for example, let alone the last years of Flash. I hope his work continued to shift into a more compassionate, inclusive direction.

      And yes, you're right, there are still those more-than-trace elements of racism and sexism in the superbook. For gawd's sake, this is the 21st century. How can those editors, publishers and creators who are involved in still pushing that filth not notice, or not care, about what they're doing?

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    2. Hello Colin:

      David Brothers wrote a fascinating piece contrasting the approaches to race and racism between Robert E. Howard and James Ellroy. What struck me was how much of the rules of the fantasy genres were constructed by racists of one stripe, or another, during the founding pulp era. Howard was a racist. Lovecraft was a virulent racist. Burroughs was at the very least a colonialist.

      The major legacy of their racism is an essentialist attitude. The personality of any given alien character is determined (in part or entirely) by their biology. This is trait pervades even liberal franchises, like Star Trek with its Vulcans, Klingons and Ferengi. This is not entirely bad. It can provide an opportunity for thought about race freed from real world concerns. Unfortunately, it can also be a mask for stock racial and ethnic stereotypes.

      Since 20th century pulp fantasy is in the DNA of the modern super-book via fantasy -adventure strips, like Flash Gordon, the essentialist attitude toward aliens is deeply woven into the fabric of the various superhero universes. Moreover, it is utterly unexamined as far as I can tell.

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    3. Hello Dean:- I'll go hunt down that article by Mr Brothers. Thank you for the nudge.

      I think the problem with the arts as a whole is that they've been created and controlled by folks who carried what we'd regard as unpleasant and pernicious beliefs today. With the genres and sub-genres which comprise today's fantastical fction often arising - or at the very least being codified - in the 20th century, we can trace back the work to specific founding - nearly always - fathers. And as you say, what's to be found there is often deeply disturbing. Yet by the same token, there's both those creators who either fought to avoid their own take on what's despicable or who changed with the time and a greater measure of awareness. Regardless of which, it's not just hard to despair when looking back at the genre spinning of the past, but the present day too. I've just been reading the output of one second division company - I'm keeping my powder dry on which one for the moment - that doesn't seem to have the slightest awareness that their books are almost totally devoid of people of colour or anyone other than blokes and the odd beautiful female object of adoration.

      I've only blogged once about the essentialist attitude to aliens in the superbooks, in which I touched on the problem that Earth and human beings, and American mostly white make human beings, are not just the saviors of the universe, but the best of the universe and the reason why the universe exists as it does. That barely strays into the debate you raise, of course. But I do actually feel quite thoroughly sickened by the model which relies on an adoration of humanity in order to generate a sense of nobility for a species which has so far often proved itself capable of anything but.

      It's a problem which of course infests Star Trek, in that the hope for the future tends to be presented in terms of aliens accepting what's presented as human cultural values. It's not just race that's being peddled there, with varying degrees of success and sensitivity, or not. It's a particular construction of culture too. Of course, I know you know this. But to be honest, my feeling is that if I were an alien, I'd be lining up to make sure that we don't get off the planet.

      Of course, that sounds as if I'm defining humanity in terms of some inherent quality or qualities which makes the species not just untrustworthy as a mass, but dangerous. And I fear I am ...

      ... at least until that unprecendented paradigm shift which will apparently occur some time past my life which will lead to the human-established Federation saving everyone, everywhere.

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