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Flash Gordon

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Character, Comics, Film, Radio.

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1. US Comic strip created by artist Alex Raymond for King Features Syndicate. Flash Gordon appeared in 1934, at first in Sunday, later in daily newspapers. Its elaborately shaded style and exotic storyline made it one of the most influential sf strips. It was taken over in 1944 by Austin Briggs, then in 1948 by Mac Raboy, and since then has been drawn by several artists, including Dan Barry (with contributions from artists Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood and writer Harry Harrison), Al Williamson, Gray Morrow, and Kevin VanHook. The daily comic strip ended in 1992; new Sunday strips were produced by writer/artist Jim Keefe from 1996 through 2003, when the strip was discontinued.

Various episodes have been released in comic-book form – including a nine-part series from DC Comics written and drawn by Dan Jurgens (1988), a two-issue series written by Williamson (who did the covers) for Marvel Comics (1991), and a seven-part series from Ardden Entertainment written by Brendan Deenan with art by Paul Green (2008) – and also in book form.

The scenario of Flash Gordon is archetypal Space Opera. Most episodes feature Flash locked in combat with the regular Villain, Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo. Flash's perpetual fiancée, Dale Arden, and the Mad Scientist Dr Hans Zarkov play prominent roles. (In later episodes Zarkov's craziness was played down and he became a straightforward sidekick to Flash.) The decor shifts between the futuristic (Death Rays, rocket ships) and the archaic (Dinosaurs, jungles, swordplay) with a fine contempt for plausibility, rather in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs's romances. Although begun quite cynically in conscious opposition to the earlier Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon quickly developed its own individuality, emphasizing a romantic baroque against the cool technological classicism of its predecessor, to which it is artistically very much superior.

The strip was widely syndicated in Europe. When, during World War Two, the arrival of various episodes was delayed, the strip was often written and drawn by Europeans. One such writer was Federico Fellini (1920-1993).

The Flash Gordon comic strip has had many repercussions in other media. It led to a popular Mutual Radio serial, to a short-lived pulp magazine (Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine), and in the late 1930s to several film serials starring Buster Crabbe; later came a television series and a film (see below). A full-length film Parody, Flesh Gordon, appeared in 1974. The radio serial exactly paralleled the Sunday comic strip, so you could see in the paper the Monsters you'd heard on the radio.

An early Flash Gordon novel (preceded by Big Little Book adaptations of the strip) was Flash Gordon in the Caverns of Mongo (1937) by Alex Raymond. A paperback series of five Flash Gordon short novels, based on the original strips, with Alex Raymond credited, consisted of Flash Gordon 1: The Lion Men of Mongo (1974), Flash Gordon 2: The Plague of Sound (1974), Flash Gordon 3: The Space Circus (1974), Flash Gordon 4: The Time Trap of Ming XIII (1974) and Flash Gordon 5: The Witch Queen of Mongo (1974). The first four were "adapted by" Con Steffanson, a House Name; #1-#3 were the work of Ron Goulart; #4 was by Bruce Cassiday and #5, also by Cassiday, was published under his fiction pseudonym Carson Bingham.

2. Serial Film (1936; vt Space Soldiers; Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers). Universal. Directed by Frederick Stephani. Written by Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Ella O'Neill, based on the comic strip. Cast includes Buster Crabbe, Priscilla Lawson, Charles Middleton, Jean Rogers and Frank Shannon. 13 two-reel episodes; total 245 minutes. Black and white.

The film Flash Gordon was the nearest thing to Pulp-magazine space opera to appear on the screen during the 1930s. In the first episode, Flash, Dale and Zarkov travel in Dr Zarkov's backyard-built Spaceship to the planet Mongo, because the latter is on a collision course with Earth. Ming the Merciless (a wonderfully hammy performance from Middleton) is behind it all and plans to invade Earth. Our heroes spend the next twelve episodes surviving various exotic hazards before outwitting Ming in the final reel. Though more lavish than the average serial (the budget was a record $350,000), Flash Gordon has the cheap appearance of most: unconvincing special effects, sets and costumes borrowed from a variety of other films, and plenty of stock footage. However, it remains great fun, romantic and fantastical. Ill-edited versions of the first and second halves were released theatrically as Spaceship to the Unknown (1936) (97 minutes) and Perils from the Planet Mongo (1936) (91 minutes). The serial version was designated a cultural treasure in 1996 and entered into the National Registry of Film, the only sound serial to be so honoured.

The follow-up was Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938; vt Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars; Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars), directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F Hill, with the same leading actors – Ming is back again – and Beatrice Roberts as the evil queen who turns humans to "clay people". 15 two-reel episodes. Written by Ray Trampe, Norman S Hall, Wyndham Gittens, Herbert Dolmas. The setting is changed from Mongo to Mars. The 99-minute edited-down version was The Deadly Ray from Mars (1938). This was later retitled Mars Attacks the World when it was released after Orson Welles's Radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938).

The final Flash Gordon movie serial was Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940; vt Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe; Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe), directed by Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor, with the same leading actors except that Carol Hughes replaced Jean Rogers as Dale Arden. 12 two-reel episodes. Written by George H Plympton, Basil Dickey, Barry Shipman. This, the weakest of the three, kills off Ming (again) at the end. In the final chapter, a maniacal Ming declares himself to be the universe. Thus when Flash conquers him at the end, he has (as Dr Zarkov helpfully points out) "conquered the universe". The 87-minute edited-down version was Purple Death From Outer Space (1940).

The three Flash Gordon film serials continue to have a cult following and are regularly revived on television and in the cinema. The three serials were retitled for television broadcasting in the early nineteen-fifties as Space Soldiers, Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars, and Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe, respectively, to avoid confusion with the Flash Gordon television series (see 3 below).

3. US/West German/French tv series (1954-1955). Inter-Continental Film Productions/La Telediffusion/Lüdecke Productions. Syndicated/Dumont Television Network. Produced by Edward Gruskin and Wenzel Lüdecke. Directors included Gunther von Fritsch, Wallace Worsely Jr and Joseph Zigman. Writers were Bruce Elliot, Bruce Geller, Gruskin, Earl Markham. Based on characters created by Alex Raymond. Cast includes Henry Beckman, Irene Champlin, Steve Holland and Joseph Nash. 39 25-minute episodes. Black and white.

In the year 3203, Flash (Holland), Dale (Champlin), and Dr Zarkov (Nash) are agents for the Galactic Bureau of Investigation under the supervision of Commander Richards (Beckman). They travel the galaxy in their Spaceship the Sky Flash, dealing with various menaces including invading Aliens, Mad Scientists, assorted planetary despots and (twice) an evil ruler from a kingdom within the Hollow Earth. Time Travel and Androids also featured.

While this German-American production featured the iconic trio of Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr Zarkov, it was otherwise quite different from previous incarnations of the character, modelled more on other sf series of the early 1950s than the original Comic strip and serials. Since it was filmed in West Germany, the series at times had an unusual look – one episode made effective use of a still-unreconstructed area of West Berlin as a setting – but was otherwise consistently silly and melodramatic, very comparable to the contemporary series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954). Despite being a low-budget affair using much stock footage, it proved popular in the US. Syndicated repeats played well into the 1960s, although as with many other 1950s Television series, most episodes appear to be lost. Thirteen are known to exist; several which fell into the public domain are now available at the Internet Archive.

4. Film (1967), referred to in English as Flash Gordon's Battle in Space (original title Baytekin – Fezada Çarpisanlar), starring Hasan Demirtag. This obscure, and very low-budget, Turkish production has been described as laughably awful in all respects. The hero was renamed "Baytekin" when the original Comic strips were translated into Turkish.

5. US animated tv series (1979-1980), sometimes referenced as The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. This Saturday-morning cartoon series was generally a faithful adaptation of the 1930s serials and initially followed their format of an extended plot before shifting to short, separate episodes in its second season. Some episodes were edited as the tv movie Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982).

6. Film (1980). Columbia/EMI/Warner. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Directed by Michael Hodges. Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, based on the early episodes of the comic strip by Raymond. Cast includes Melody Anderson, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton, Sam J Jones, Topol and Max Von Sydow. 115 minutes. Colour.

As a producer, De Laurentiis has always had a weakness for over-the-top, fantastic Parodies (sometimes successful, as in Diabolik [1967] and Barbarella [1967]) but here his instincts let him down badly. Apart from the fetishistic costumes (leather, spikes, etc) there is little of interest in this tongue-in-cheek, lurid fantasy, which tries to make a Comic-strip virtue of wooden acting. The plot is largely derived from the 1936 film serial, and the rushed special effects similarly recall the ludicrousness of that film. The romantic elements are subjugated to a rather listless kinkiness.

7. Canadian animated tv series (1996), which transformed most of the characters into teenagers and provided them with hoverboards while emulating the comic strip and serials in other respects.

8. Canadian-American tv series (2007-2008). Production companies included Flash Films and Reunion Pictures for the Sci Fi Channel. Created by Peter Hume. Executive producers include Robert A Halmi, Peter Hume and Matthew O'Connor. Directors include Mick McKay, Paul Shapiro and Pat Williams. Writers included Sheryl J Anderson, Melody Fox, Gillian Horvath and James Thorpe. Cast includes Karen Cliche, Gina Holden, Eric Johnson, Jody Racicot and John Ralston. 22 episodes. Colour.

This version was subtitled "A Modern Space Opera" and was modernized almost to the point of unrecognizability, in a generally disastrous attempt to "update" the character. Flash (Johnson) travels through a Wormhole to the planet Mongo to find his father but discovers the planet (which is in another Dimension) is ruled over by the tyrant Ming (Ralston), who maintains control by monopolizing the supply of potable water. Flash; his former girlfriend Dale (Holden); Baylin (Cliche), a bounty hunter from Mongo; Dr Zarkov (Racicot), a nerdy computer Scientist who serves as comic relief; and other characters travel back and forth between Earth and Mongo through artificially generated space-time rifts, to deal with ensuing interplanetary problems. Flash's attempts to find his long-missing father eventually culminate in a revolution to overthrow Ming. Reviled for its terrible acting and weak scripts, this series was cancelled after one season, although it did show some improvement as the series progressed. [PN/JB/JP/GW/GSt/LW]

see also: Cinema.


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