Monday, 21 September 2009

Gordon's Alive!!!

Way back at the dawn of time--which for me was the 70s--I was definitely a kid of the Star Wars generation. Only 6 when it came out, the space opera phenomena loomed heavily over my childhood and so did its' influence. In the wake of its success, the BBC began regularly screening the great Flash Gordon serials starring Buster Crabbe and the movie came out the same year as the Empire Strikes Back. The Filmation Flash Gordon animated movie and series aired around the same time so I grew up with a great affection for the character. However, like many fans of today's popular comic characters, I had never read any Flash's printed adventures.
I knew Flash's original Alex Raymond-drawn strips were considered classics but were unavailable to me back then. I enjoyed Dan Jurgens' 1989 Flash Gordon miniseries for DC but the title sequence of the live action movie, featuring lovely clipped Raymond images set to that infamous thumping theme tune, made me want to search out the original strips.
Then in 2003, Checker Books started a seven volume set of hardcover full colour landscape format reprints of Raymond's work on the series on glossy stock, starting from the strip's debut in 1934 to its creator's departure in 1944. I snapped the first volume straight up and it has to be said that I was fairly disappointed. These crude pages had none of the grace I saw in the movie title sequences and the plots became quickly formulaic (Flash and co stumble into a new domain, lead uprisings against Ming while fighting bizarre monsters , Dale becoming jealous of any woman glancing at Flash, etc) but there was enough improvement throughout the first back that I continued with the second. Thankfully I did because when Raymond hit his stride in later years, the art becomes beautiful.
Despite becoming more popular than the Buck Rogers strip that it was created to directly compete with, the Flash instalments do suffer when read in chunks rather than in weekly instalments. They were never meant to be read this way though as they were created as disposable entertainment before the strip hit big.
Daily strips followed for Flash intermittently but his main home was the Sunday sections. The strip continued happily enough following Raymond's departure but received a real shot in the arm when famed Captain Marvel Jr artist Mac Raboy took over in 1948. In the wake of the Checker books, I sought out Dark Horse's four-volume set of black and white reprints of Raboy's run, averaging five years worth in each edition. To be fair, the stories are less clunky than the earlier episodes but become similarly repetitious as Flash leaves Mongo (Raymond first had Flash leaving Mongo to temporarily return to earth during World War II) and joins a space agency to travel across the galaxy. As with Raymond's work, Raboy's work elevates the strip into something graceful and beautiful and even though Raboy's final episodes were not as polished as his earlier work (the artist continued working on the strip until he succumbed to cancer in 1967), it's still pretty great throughout.
When George Lucas was developing Star Wars, he clearly based Han Solo's design on the Al Williamson spacemen in the 1950s EC sci-fi comics (which themselves often featured likenesses of Buster Crabbe as the hero). Williamson's work on the Empire Strikes Back adaptation was a revelation to me, his naturalistic style in stark opposition to the Marvel house style and dodgy Carmine Infantino that had preceded it. Williamson had been a huge fan of Flash Gordon and loved drawing those types of strips the best.

As a fan of both Williamson and Flash Gordon, I was chomping at the bit for Flesk's recent collection of every piece of Williamson Flash Gordon art, from the King comics of the 60s, rare advertising and portfolio art, the sumptuous adaptation of the 1980 movie and the 1990s Marvel miniseries. Reprinted on glossy large format pages, the art is a joy to behold, especially the art for the movie adaptation: shot directly from Williamson's originals, the ornate panel ,bleeds carry on further than the crudely printed originals issue allowed and the high quality scans even enable the reproduction of the ink washes used instead of featuring solid blacks, feeling like a true reproduction of the original art and an insight into a master's finished work.
All of this has been leading to the recommendation that if you truly appreciate comic art, do yourself a favour and buy the Williamson Flash Gordon book and you won't be disappointed (though don't expect much of the scripts!)

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