Fans and historians tend to divide comics artists into two categories, with different methods and different ends. For storytellers—Frank Miller, Akira Toriyama, Will Eisner, for example—the primary aim is a coherent narrative flow, often at the expense of fine detail.
Each image is less important in itself than in how it relates to the page as a whole and is sometimes reduced to a symbolic near-abstraction, like a single word in a picture-sentence, less to be looked at than to be read. The apex of the storytelling approach, arguably, is Otto Soglow’s strip The Little King, which plays out entirely in pantomime.
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The “illustrator” camp, by contrast, holds the beauty of the individual image as paramount. Each picture is more or less an independent entity, rather than an element in a sequence. The pictures surrender their narrative function to the words, and heavy captioning is often used to carry the story forward.
The illustrative approach has largely fallen from favor, but it was prevalent in the early decades of the comics medium, and produced some miracles of draftsmanship: Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland; Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant; the Tarzan stories of Burne Hogarth; and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, which is currently getting the deluxe reprint treatment courtesy of Titan Books. The first volume, On the Planet Mongo: Sundays, 1934-1937, is sitting on my desk, and it is a glorious object.
Alexander Gillespie Raymond was in his mid-20s when he started drawing Flash, and his style did not arrive full-blown. When the weekly strip began, in January 1934, Raymond favored a comparatively clean line. In the early months, he even used “cartoony” devices, like motion lines and impact bursts, that he would abandon as his drawing matured. But by autumn of that first year, we see the beginnings of his crosshatched style, influenced by the steel-cut engravings of 19th-century masters like Gustave Doré, where figures and contours are defined by masses of shadow. Raymond began to work heavily from references and live models, bringing a new photographic realism to his work.
And it was sensual. The constant low-grade sexual hysteria throughout the strip—a succession of male villains try to marry the luscious Dale Arden (Flash’s best gal) by force, while the female villains all want to have their way with Flash—was perhaps unsurprising, given that the principals spend most of their time half-naked. Flash and his male cohorts do most of their adventuring around Mongo wearing little but breechclouts and go-go boots, while the ladies—including not only Dale, but the wanton Princess Aura—favor low-slung harem pants, with scanty pocket squares to cover their goodies. Raymond drew the sexiest backs in comics. Flash is often seen from behind, his broad, chiseled shoulders commanding the frame, and the frequent scenes of characters shackled and flogged carry an erotic charge, as well.
The bondage stuff, while jarring today, is very much of its time. And if Flash Gordon On the Planet Mongo is not a perfect reading experience, it’s mostly due to precisely those cultural disconnects—the differences in format and circumstance that separate us from the time of its creation. The formula of Flash’s adventures—encounter a strange new culture whose king wants to marry his girlfriend, fight a lot of dudes and/or a monster, rescue Dale, spare (or save) the king’s life thus winning the king’s eternal friendship, return to start—is lots of fun in weekly doses of a page apiece, but reading it in large doses is a little exhausting.
Even more exhausting and disheartening is the omnipresent casual racism. Not only are Mongo’s Emperor Ming the Merciless and his lackeys depicted as stereotypes of the Heathen Chinee—mandarin-style robes, taloned fingernails, flesh colored a vibrant mustard yellow that screams off the page in Peter Maresca’s vibrant restorations—but racial caricatures are trotted out literally from Flash Gordon’s beginnings. In the very first strip, the population of the Earth is panicked over the imminent collision of our world with the runaway planet that turns out to be Mongo. How does Raymond illustrate this worldwide uproar? “In African jungles tom-toms roll and thunder incessantly as the howling Blacks await their doom! The Arab in the desert, resigned to the inevitable, faces Mecca and prays for his salvation!” In fairness, some of this nonsense doubtless came from Raymond’s editor and co-writer, Don Moore. But Raymond’s renderings certainly don’t elevate the material.
Later interpreters have sought to minimize and mitigate the Yellow Peril underpinnings of the Flash Gordon property, but the ugliness is present and undeniable in this volume. And that’s an awful pity. Flash Gordon is a rip-roaring adventure, lushly rendered and hugely influential on the space-opera genre. It’s a book I would love to be able to give to my children, for both entertainment and historical value. But I cannot, in good conscience, let them read this book until they’ve got the ironic distance and the historical context to take the content for what it is—by which time they will be, by definition, too old to completely give themselves over to it. And that, as much as the racism itself, is a shame and a pity; that such a delicious confection is built around a poisonous center.
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