One of the most enduring pulp characters from the 1930s, Flash Gordon has stayed in the public consciousness through daily strips—translated into many different languages—radio and film serials, multiple cartoons and live-action television shows, novels, comics and a cult-classic movie. Alex Raymond's original Sunday comic strip ran from 1934-1943, with other artists taking the reins all the way through 2003. For most people, the 1980s movie, starring Sam J. Jones as the title character, Melody Anderson as Dale Arden, Topol as Doctor Hans Zarkov, Max von Sydow as Ming, Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, Brian Blessed as Vultan and Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, comes to mind when you mention Flash Gordon. But a lot of comic books starring the character have been produced from publishers small and large, including King Comics, Gold Key, Charlton, Marvel, Dark Horse, Ardden Entertainment, and DC—who produced one of my favorite incarnations in the late 80's. Now, Dynamite has brought the character full circle with Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist, a throwback to the heady days when pulp was king and characters were larger than life.
1934. When the world, already in turmoil over the rising Nazi threat coming from Germany, experiences a series of unnatural-natural disasters, the president of the United States calls on all scientists to help discover the cause. Flash Gordon is dispatched to contact Hans Zarkov, a theoretical physicist who tried to warn the world of an impending threat but was instead branded a madman by the “mainstream” scientists. Dale Arden is a cartographer and self-proclaimed patriot working for the State Department on a secret mission of her own. When the plane they're traveling on is struck by debris falling from the sky, Flash and Dale must parachute down into the countryside. More debris is falling, though, and they take refuge in a country chalet owned by Zarkov himself. Inside, Zarkov has built a rocket. He forces Flash and Dale into the rocket at gunpoint, and launches the rocket into a vortex he believes is a conduit to an alien world, and the source of the plague of disasters rocking the Earth. On the other side, they find themselves prisoners on the planet Mongo, seat of power for Ming the Merciless, ruler of the known universe. They are immediately split up, with Zarkov taken away to be mind-wiped, Dale to become one of Ming's concubines and Flash sent to the arena to be slaughtered in a gladiatorial exhibition. With Earth's existence on the line, the three humans must escape, build alliances with the various people of Mongo and stop Ming. No matter the cost.
I admit, my first exposure to Flash Gordon came with the 1980s, Dino De Laurentiis flick. A campy cult-classic, the movie reimagined Flash as a professional football player and Dale Arden as a journalist. Add in the soundtrack by Queen, and what's not to love? Well, a lot. But that's a totally different post. This graphic novel, written by Eric Trautmann (The Art of Halo; Perfect Dark) and Alex Ross (Marvels, Kingdom Come) with illustrations by Daniel Indro (Sherlock Holmes: Year One, Green Hornet) and Ron Adrian (Birds of Prey, Merciless: The Rise of Ming), is obviously inspired by that flick. The very first page begins with Min saying, "Klytus, I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today?" From there, the plot is very similar, not surprising given that the movie was inspired by the original Raymond strips.
Some notable differences include Adolph Hitler being tapped as an agent for Ming on Earth. Ming promises Hitler advanced weaponry to conquer the world, and in exchange, Hitler must serve Ming as his proxy. The book packs a lot into 200 pages, but unfortunately, a decent storyline for Dale Arden isn't part of that. Her lack of story and character is my big complaint with this book. She's introduced in the first few pages, and then she doesn't really have any part to play except as set dressing and to act as a MacGuffin for Zarkov, who somehow mind-hacks Mongo technology in order to see and hear through Dale. Add in a completely implausible love story between Flash and Dale, who barely meet each other before they are separated and then are inexplicably in love when they meet again near the end of the book, and it's sad that an otherwise decent re-telling of the core story is marred by throwing away this one character.
The art throughout the book is very comic book–ish, with overly muscled men and barely clothed, busty women. It wasn't a complete turn-off, but the choice in colors—lots of gold and red—tended to blend together and become eye-searing by the end. Flash's motivations are never really fleshed out other than “to survive,” and a digression into Zarkov's past feels like a standalone side-story that would have better been pieced out during his imprisonment by Ming to give the character some depth, rather than as an entire chapter that completely slows the pace of the story to a screeching halt. I enjoyed the book overall (read it through in one sitting), but would have liked a little more character development to provide plausible motivations for their actions. Fans of classic pulp will enjoy this take on the character, though.
The graphic novel includes an Alex Ross sketchbook complete with character and setting designs, and all the covers from the original comics.
Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and Hugo-nominated Podcast producer/host and editor (2013) who lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012 and a 2013 Hugo Award. In addition to his Kirkus posts, he writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal and Functional Nerds.