The Story So Far…
It’s been sixty-nine years since Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon graced the full color Sunday comic sections of local newspapers. Since that time, Flash has been the subject of movies, Saturday morning cartoons, songs, and fueled countess homages. But time has managed to do what his arch nemesis Ming the Merciless could never do: relegate him to relative obscurity. Ask a baby-boomer and they’ll bend your ear about the exploits of the world’s greatest interplanetary traveler and man of valor. Ask a Gen-X’er and they’ll tell you about Queen, tight white T-shirts, and kitsch. Ask the folks at Titan Books and they’ll tell you about Alex Raymond: Flash Gordon’s creator, its greatest writer/artist, and a run that ran every Sunday for nearly ten years.
Freed now from a tomb of relative pop obscurity Titan Books has put together three volumes collecting Raymond’s work. Each page contains a week’s strip in saturated full-color printed on heavy paper, bringing it leagues away from its inaugural appearance on flimsy newsprint. It is more than a coffee table book: it is a time capsule. Much like Flash’s own narrow weekly escapes, these pages preserve a story rich in sci-fi operatic and fine beautiful line-work from falling into history’s dark corners.
Each installment overflows with rich imagery, expressive characters, and compulsive visual world-building. There are no corners cut in these panels; no black backgrounds and no half-tone filler. Instead we get detailed views of pre-computer schematics, diverse alien landscapes, and tables littered with utensils and discarded missives. This is a world to lose oneself in and study. Raymond invites us to be flies on the wall and witnesses to daring escapades and nefarious plots. We become the hero’s unseen companion and invisible conspirator.
In my favorite series of strips, “Upside-Down World”, Raymond flips the panels as our protagonists find themselves trapped without gravity. The end result leaves us unsure as to whether we should read the panels first or focus on the art. The effect is one that mimics the same strange sense of disorientation Flash and the gang must feel. There are no editor’s explanation or fan forums to detail the rationale, Raymond assumes that we invisible onlookers simply understand it is all part of the adventure.
As the age of Sci-fi serials died and WWII ushered in a wave of existential cynicism, Flash couldn’t keep up. The age of wonder became an age of fast cars, Rock’n’Roll, and superheroes. Without Raymond’s sense of story pacing, his eternal supply of cliffhangers, and precision line-work, Flash appeared even more lost. But Titan has preserved those glory years and transcended time and space. They have given us a crystal clear view into a world many of us never knew existed.