Sci-Fi January 2018
Flash Gordon #32
He’ll save every one of us!
"The Movie, Part 2”
Script – Bruce Jones
Art – Al Williamson
Colorist – Rick Veitch
Gaudy but charming.
How else do you describe this version of Alex Raymond’s titular science-fiction action hero? Raymond’s original creation of Flash was as a serious science fiction hero that might compete with the ongoing and established Buck Rogers comic strip. Like Buck Rogers, the Flash strip had a serious adult tone even as it dealt with things like a villain named Ming the Merciless, floating cities, and creatures like birdmen and mermen.
One thing it wasn’t was a comedy or a campy play at a space opera. Just two short years after Flash’s birth, Universal Pictures created a 13 episode serial based off the strip starring Buster Crabbe. It had all the hallmarks of the series with birdmen and art-deco rocketships, all the high dramatic tone too. The serial was an inspiration for many directors to come and became selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registy by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Filmation created an adaptation In 1979, that I remember extremely fondly. The rotoscoping they were famous for was used in the cartoon to very good effect. I haven’t watched it since I was a child, but it was one of those seminal moments in my life. The writing was better than most with heavy emphasis on solid action pieces. If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself HERE.
1980’s retread of the same story in two hour movie form won’t be selected for preservation for any of those reasons. Although the film did homage the art and set designs of the serial version with everything from ships to cities to backdrop, by now we lived in a post-Star Wars universe. All of it seemed a bit too cheesy when viewed through the lens of an audience jaded by watching beat up, rust crusted X-Wings attacking the Death Star while looking more like fighter jets than luxury space yachts.
And the jokey, campy tone dictated by Executive Producer Dino De Laurentis via Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s screenplay wasn’t an instant hit with audiences at the time. Even with a hugely talented case featuring Max von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Melody Anderson and Italian star Ornella Muti wasn’t enough to save it from a disappointing box office take.
Of course, the film has garnered a cult following in the years since. Given the level of garish parody, the amazingly ear-wormy soundtrack by Queen, and some of the best, over the top scenery munching ever to grace the screen, the film found its spot in the hearts of many geeks everywhere. Oh, it’s bad alright. So bad that it’s good.
I myself couldn’t rightly judge the film due to the two female leads being TOO attractive for my pubescent, hormone driven teenage self to ignore. I loved Melody Anderson’s Dale Arden and lusted after Ornella Muti’s Princess Aura. Those sexy, revealing costumes not helping matters one bit either.
Not that the series changed in having beautiful women in it, as the prior serial version shows.
I missed the unintentional camp and the value of performances like Brian Blessed’s amazingly spot-on Prince Vultan, the actor biting into the role with a gusto and perfect comedic timing. While wearing gladiator armor and giant wings, I might add. Blessed’s Vultan extruded a barbaric warmth and bombastic personality that leaves an indelible mark in the film.
Likewise, I missed the future Mr. Bond’s suave Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin. Dalton coming across as just as sharp and dangerous on Mongo as he later would drinking a martini, shaken, not stirred. Not to forget Chaim Topol as Dr. Zarkov putting the “mad” into mad scientist and adding that dash of crazy to start the film running right off the rails.
And Sam J. Jones as Flash. He showed up for every take. What more can be said.
Actually, the more wooden Sam Jones was the better the movie became. With a stronger lead it might have turned out worse. I say that because it is easy for an audience to dismiss Jones’ performance, which ends up giving more chance for the other actors, sound engineering, set design and special effects to shine. Jones doesn’t get in the way of everything around him, but nor does he detract from it.
Alex Raymond and Al Williamson are the true heroes in this story though. Their art was the guiding light that drew people to Flash, in all ways eclipsing the Buck Rogers stories and strips it was meant to emulate. Williamson said his take on Flash was always paying homage to Raymond, treating his creation with respect and dignity to the best of his ability. And it really shows, winning Williamson the 1966 National Cartoonists Society Award for Best Comic Book for his work on the series.
The Flash Gordon property was a literal hot potato among comic book companies, beginning in 1936 with reprints of the news strips in books from King Comics. It lasted to issue number 155 and the year 1949 at King, running concurrently with a second series of reprinting those same strips under the Dell Comics banner from 1945 through 1953. Havery Comics had the property for five issues in 1950, Gold Key got a one-shot reprint of Dell’s Four Color banner issue 173 in 1965.
Annnnnd then it’s back to King for 11 issues from 1966 to 1967, Charlton took over at issue 12 keeping the numbering and the storyline going until they ceased publishing the title in 1970. Flash languished for eight years until Gold Key took a stab at him again using the prior strips numbering. Issues 19 through 27 bore the Gold Key logo and then it switched to the Whitman comics sidebar for issue 28 to 37, ending publication in 1982.
And that’s where we will stop for a bit. Sure DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Dynamite have all taken stabs at the character since, but this is the meat of our hero’s journey and the place where we find ourselves. Part 2 of Flash Gordon The Movie adaptation is actually Issue number 32 in Whitman’s run.
We open with a splash page showcasing Al Williamson’s incredible artwork that lovingly renders the cast of the film in the style that has more in common with Raymond’s serious sci-fi space opera than the campy nature of the movie. The rest of the book is the same, where Williamson’s pencils translate silliness into spectacle and scene chewing into gripping visuals. It is the same story, but the tone has been reset back to the strip and Raymond’s vision of the character, and that is for the better as you can’t overact in a comic book.
Our story starts on the next page, with Dale having escaped from Ming’s harem, but she is pursued by his guards. A shadowy figure lurks in the darkness behind her. Who might it be? And is it friend or foe?
Thankfully it is Dr. Zarkov, not quite the pawn that Ming’s mental conditioning should have left him. The pair catch up and General Klytus overhears Dale state that Flash Gordon is alive. While they escape, Klythus and General Kala inform Ming of this news.
And while Ming invests his generals with the broad powers it will take to bring Flash and his co-conspirators to heel, the object of his ire and his daughter Aura arrive at the camp of her lover Prince Barin.
They watch this bizarre “coming of age or die” ritual which ends in the lad Darwining himself. Life in the forest of Arboria is cruel indeed.
Barin is happy to see Aura, but less so to find her in the company of a hunky prisoner that Ming just tried to execute.
But Aura convinces Barin to hide Flash, although for Flash’s sake that doesn’t appear to be the safe option that Aura thinks it is.
Al Williamson knocks one out of the park while showing us Dale and Zarkof’s escape from Ming. There is so much amazing beauty and balance to his panles that I wish this copy had been taken care of better. I’m sure on crisp white pages this would have been insanely stunning.
Likewise, the top of the following page, where Zarkof and Dale are grabbed by Prince Vultan’s hawkmen. Rick Vietch throws around the colors more liberally than I would like, but that does little to detract from the line art.
And back at the palace, we find that Aura has been taken by Klythus for her role in Flash’s escape.
Flash, meanwhile, is about to be drowned in the swamp by Barin, who feels it is his right to get rid of his competition for Aura. In true hero fashion, Flash doesn’t plead for his own life, but uses his last breath to try rallying Barin against Ming.
Aura learns Ming knows of the interrogation which destroys any remaining loyalty she had for her father. They don’t show Kala actually whipping Aura, which is a more family friendly choice and the leave in the movies metal version of Hamburger Helper’s “helping hands” as the clamps holding Aura to the torture slab. It’s the little details that count.
Barin begins to have doubts about killing Flash so obviously and his second comes up with a “better” plan: allowing Flash to escape into the deadly forests of Arboria to meet his fate there. Barin must have approved off camera because next we seen the assistant doing just that.
At that moment Dale and Zarkof arrive at the floating city of the hawkmen and are greeted by their great bear-sized ruler, Prince Vultan…
…and here we get Brian Blessed's most famous catchphrase ever…”Gordon ALIVE?”…as the Prince learns of Flash’s whereabouts in his rival’s kingdom.
Although Dale might be a bit premature with that statement about Flash being among the living, as at that moment Barin and Fico’s trap is sprung. Once free of the cage, they have plans for Flash that don’t include freedom.
They force Flash to undergo the test of the wood beast, which as we saw earlier, is fatal. Barin believes he can tell Aura that Flash was poisoned by a wild wood beast after he fails the test. And it appears Flash is struck. He pleads with Barin to end his life with his sword instead of undergoing the painful effects of the wood beast’s deadly poison.
Of course, this is all a ruse to get Barin’s sword away from him and attempt an escape. An escape that might be worse than staying, it appears.
Barin arrives and surprisingly saves Flash from the creatures clutches. He claims it’s only so he can have the pleasure of killing Flash himself.
However, Flash’s execution is interrupted by the appearance of a squadron of hawkpeople. Is that right? Or is it a flight of hawkpeople? A gaggle of hawkpeople? Whatever it is, their being nabbed is fortuitous, since Klythus arrives soon after to take them both into custody.
At Vultan’s palace, Barin reserves the right to trail by combat, choosing Flash as his opponent. They are placed on some floating disk suspended miles above the surface and given weapons. Vultan announces the fight will be to the death!
The campy, silly fight in the movie…
…looks way more serious under Williamson’s steady hand with the tilts and spikes going all out in looking dangerous and deadly.
Of course, in the end Flash saves Barin’s life, earning his alligence. But before the men can do more than share a handshake, Ming’s battlecruiser Ajax arrives.
Impulsively Flash kills Kythus in a fit of rage, leaving Vultan’s kingdom in a vulnerable position.
As the hawkpeople flee the wrath of Ming, a guy not known for his mercy, Barin, Zarkof, and Dale are once again taken prisoner by Ming. Flash is left on the deserted floating hawk-city, where Ming meets with him. Since they are alone, Ming makes him a surprising offer.
But even being given his own kingdom is not enough to make Flash betray Earth. He rejects Ming’s offer and is left on the city to perish with it.
But in a moment that befits harken back to the Flash serials of old, as the cliffhanger of what happens to our hero as the missiles destroy hawkcity and the beams holding it aloft fail, we see him fall down a shaft only to land in the driver’s seat of a flying speedboat thing. As the city explodes, Flash flies away, ready to carry the fight to Ming himself to save Dale, Earth, and the entire universe.
What a great book, eh?
Already I know what I’m doing this weekend, which is going to Half-Price to procure a copy of the movie on blu-ray. My 13-year-old son hasn’t seen it and it is time to rectify the discrepancy. In truth, I haven’t seen it in years, either and I need to give it another look. At the time it came out, I’ll admit to my disappointment that the movie wasn’t played straight. I had an affection for that animated take on Flash which tonally had more in common with the serials than the movie did.
However, this version when not held to the standard of being a realistic drama is SO MUCH FUN. It’s easy to see the cult appeal as scenes just make you burst out in a smile at their earnest goofiness. On paper much of the real menace and drama are restored, and as I’ve gotten older I find that there’s space in my head for both. For a version of Flash Gordon that is a gritty, realistic sci-fi franchise and for one that is a funny, over-the-top fantasy-parody with its tongue firmly held in cheek.
Highly recommended on all levels, guys. And pick up the movie while you are at it.