He took on a high-tech empire decades before Luke Skywalker and his friends challenged Darth Vader and his Emperor. He was leading bands of freemen in guerrilla operations years before Frank Herbert recorded the adventures of Paul Atreides in his classic science fiction novel Dune. Of course, I’m talking about that fictional character whose adventures are the subject of one of the catchiest Queen songs ever: Flash Gordon.
Flash made his debut in newspaper comic strips in 1934 and would go on to become one of the most influential science fiction heroes of all time. His four-color adventures and the movie serials based on them would inspire the creation of landmark science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars. The reason Flash’s adventures had such a monumental impact on popular culture was because of the creators involved: the artist Alex Raymond and the strip’s writer Don Moore. Recently fans in the U.S. have been given a chance to rediscover or become acquainted with Raymond and Moore’s Flash Gordon work thanks to a beautiful series of library edition hardcovers.
The latest collected edition in the series Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo Sundays 1937-1941 collects Moore and Raymond’s Sunday strips which detail Flash’s epic adventures across the planet Mongo and his quest to bring down the empire of Ming, the titular tyrant. The book opens with an informative essay by comics writer and Flash Gordon historian Doug Murray, and then you get your first glimpse of a lavish and beautiful world...
That world, the planet Mongo, is a fully fleshed one, and in The Tyrant of Mongo, readers are given a whirlwind and thrilling tour of it. You visit tree cities, high-tech metropolises, underground dungeons and tunnels, and even ice caves. As you experience these locales with Flash Gordon and his friends, Dale Arden and Hans Zarkov, you really start to get a sense of how influential Raymond’s work was on science fiction and popular culture. It’s like watching the birth of the modern day science fiction franchise.
In the collected edition’s first story “The Beast Men of Mongo” you’re taken to a vast tree city which clearly influenced later arboreal civilizations like the Ewoks’ of Return of the Jedi. There would, of course, be no icy planet of Hoth if George Lucas and the production staff of the Empire Strikes Back had not read the book’s fourth story, “The Ice Kingdom of Mongo.” The locales aren’t the only influential elements though.
Flash himself is a blond-haired man in top physical shape taking on a fascist empire with muscles, courage, cunning, and sense of decency. That’s a good way to describe another famous four-color hero.
Co-created by the legendary artist Jack Kirby, Captain America made his debut in 1941. Kirby was a huge fan of Raymond’s work and you can tell from the way he drew his characters and the technology they would occasionally wield. Raymond’s influence is very apparent in the works of other legendary comic artists like Will Eisner, and Bob Kane, the creator of Batman. So comic book super heroes also owe a debt to Flash Gordon and the work of Alex Raymond.
Raymond’s fantastic imagination and art is the star of The Tyrant of Mongo, but that doesn’t mean the writing is lacking. Don Moore’s five stories in the book are all epic and exciting tales. When you read them together you forget that the stories were told on a weekly page by page basis over several months. They read as grand space operas and each one feeds into the next. So there’s a fun serial feel to the stories, but there’s also plenty of payoff.
The Tyrant of Mongo really does feel like the exploits of one decent and heroic man trying to make a difference on a corrupt planet. Character relationships mature and develop over months and years, and you’re given a sense of just how much Flash Gordon’s heroism means to people. As Flash travels across Mongo, his legend travels with him. When the downtrodden, outlaw, and helpless citizens of the planet meet Flash, they’re ready to do whatever they can to help him out. It’s truly epic and inspiring.
Since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were fans of Flash, it’s no surprise that four years later they, too, would introduce the world to another hero waging a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way: Superman.
If you’re someone who only knows Flash Gordon because of the campy classic 1980 film starring Sam Jones and Max von Sydow, you really need to do yourself a favor and pick up The Tyrant of Mongo. Not only will you get classic adventure stories, but you’ll also be given a glimpse at the origins of pop culture’s most important and influential science fiction and adventure franchises.
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