January 1934, 82 years ago, pop culture as we know it received a flash of inspiration- quite literally. Flash Gordon, comic-strip creation of Alex Raymond, debuted in Sunday newspapers and, more than merely an answer to the already established and very successful Buck Rogers strip, it provided a sweeping introduction and blueprint to what we’d come to know as “space opera”.
Raymond was no stranger to comics, having cut his teeth as an assistant to Chic Young on the funny and popular Blondie and as artist for Dashiel Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9 strip. But Flash was something different, with epic stories and dazzling art conveying dynamic action and fantastic worlds and machinery. Raymond drew from life, using live nude models to stand in for his characters to get the look and action he wanted, and worked with ghost-writer Don Moore to construct the plot. The stories by today’s standards seem both stunning and quaint- in the debut tale, alien planet Mongo threatens to crash into Earth with the purpose of takeover; once prevented by our heroes, the action becomes merely a race to prevent evil overlord Ming from committing the heinous act of marrying Flash’s girlfriend Dale Arden. Simpler times and soap opera to be sure, but the stories spoke to thousands of readers throughout the 1930s and beyond, as did the realistic, exotic and sexily-scandalous-for-the-time character art.
The series has enjoyed many writers and artists over the years, especially after the sudden death by car crash of Raymond in 1956 at the age of 46. Perhaps most notably, sci-fi author Harry Harrison (of Stainless Steel Rat and Soylent Green fame) who took over plotting for six years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Comics creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster (Superman), Jack Kirby (Captain America) and Bob Kane (Batman) are among a very long list that admit to drawing inspiration from Raymond and Flash. George Lucas, who originally wanted to make Flash Gordon into a film in 1973 before being thwarted by rights-owner King Features Syndicate (who were holding out for Federico Fellini to helm a version) cites Flash as the major influence in creating his similarly-space-operatic Star Wars saga, and with Flash Gordon’s popularity in toys, books and trinkets it may have unintentionally been the original model for the successful merchandising empire Star Wars has enjoyed.
Flash Gordon spun off into successful radio dramas, wildly-popular film serials and several TV cartoons and series over the decades. The most-remembered culmination of the tale is Dino De Laurentiis’ campy but spot-on Star-Wars-inspired feature-film interpretation in 1980. With newcomer (and Playgirl centerfold) Sam Jones as football-hero Flash and Max von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless heading a cast of actors like Topol, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Robbie Coltrane and even Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson -Jim Carter- in his first feature film, this fairly faithful retelling of the comics has aged well over its 36 years to become a guilty pleasure for fans. The mind-bending Technicolor and squealing-guitar soundtrack by rock gods Queen help reinforce the comic-strip vibe, and today’s modern reviewers award it an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes’ review site, slightly better even than 2015’s Ant-Man.
As sci-fi, fantasy and comics films continue to dominate the box office, Flash Gordon endures. The debt owed by The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, or Avatar is paid its tribute as we line up to enjoy horizon-widening but perhaps slightly dopey popcorn fare. The current resurgence in geek culture, comics and graphic novels, internet radio drama, and genre television can thank Flash for coming before in the 1930s and setting the bar high for decades. To quote Queen:
“He’s for every one of us
Stands for every one of us
He’ll save with a mighty hand
Every man, every woman
Every child, with a mighty
And he looks great doing it, even at 82.