The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Titan Books), Review

Beautiful hardcover volumes reprinting the incredibly influential early adventures of Flash Gordon! Volume Two just hit stores this week, so now is the perfect time to check out these classic stories.

Flash Gordon. Why don’t we talk about him more? Maybe it’s because Alex Raymond’s classic Flash Gordon strips haven’t been readily available in attractive editions for so long. Titan Books is changing all of that with The Complete Flash Gordon Library, the second volume of which, “The Tyrant of Mongo,” just hit stores. Flash’s comic roots are ofen overshadowed by the spectacular 1980 feature film with the unforgettable Queen theme song, but the character is such an essential part of the DNA of superheroes and modern science fiction that it’s impossible to ignore him for long. When discussing the roots of superheroes, you could trace our current crop of capes all the way back to Gilgamesh if you had the patience. But really, when it comes down to the four-color roots of superheroes, the character that gave them their form-fitting, brightly colored aesthetic is Flash Gordon. Superman may have been inspired by Doc Savage, and The Shadow brought us Batman, but it was Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon who gave them both their visual flair. The first Flash Gordon strip ran in January of 1934, over four years before the debut of Superman. The influence on the visual sensibilities of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster was profound. The brightly garbed, muscular Flash Gordon could be, with a change in hair color, a ringer for the Superman seen in the early issues of Action Comics in 1938. The sleek rocket ships and cityscapes of Mongo are almost identical to those that would be portrayed in comics for decades to come, not to mention those we’ve continued to see on screen to this day! Flip through either of these volumes and you’ll spot panels that were later reproduced by other artists to create Golden Age Superman or Hawkman tales. Almost eighty years later, Alex Raymond’s work is still otherworldly, and once you spot his lasting influence, you’ll see it in virtually every corner of the superhero or science fiction universe. For years, the only way to read these early Flash Gordon strips was via the smaller editions published by Checker Books. While the Checker collections were adequate (and were my first exposure to the earliest Flash Gordon stories), each volume only reprinted a few months worth of the Sunday strips, as opposed to the three years worth collected in each Titan volume. The Checker editions were printed on slicker paper, with brighter colors, but the contrast occasionally appeared wrong, reds appeared orange, and the line art wasn’t always as sharp as I might have hoped. I prefer the matte paper of these new editions, and while the colors aren’t as bright as the earlier reprints, they at least appear to be more in line with what originally saw print.The first volume of The Complete Flash Gordon Library, “On the Planet Mongo,” is about as iconic as it gets. While the stories in this volume are nearly eighty years old (it reprints strips from 1934-1937), even a casual fan will recognize much of the story from the Dino De Laurentiis production, which duplicated, not just the plot, but many of the costumes and character designs as well. This is the quintessesntial Flash Gordon tale, in which the “Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player” is whisked off to the Planet Mongo to do battle with Emperor Ming, where he encounters all manner of colorful alien antagonists.The earliest strips in the volume were originally published at tabloid size, and rather than break them up across multiple pages, they’re compressed to one, and consequently, the art occasionally appears a little muddy. This lack of sharpness is particularly apparent in a few strips which are (again, because of the format that the strip itself originally ran in) stretched out over two pages. It’s an understandable and necessary trade off. While I’d love to see these reprinted at full size, I’m sure that would have caused additional formatting compromises to be made for the rest of the strips that occupy the majority of the book. Once Flash Gordon‘s format changed permanently to a more consistent size and layout, then we really get to see Raymond’s art shine. The world of Flash Gordon, despite its super-scientific trappings, is one of breathtakingly detailed realism, and you can see Raymond’s style evolve with virtually each turn of the page. The second volume, “The Tyrant of Mongo,” which collects the Sundays from 1937-1941 is even more impressive. By 1937, Flash Gordon had settled into a consistent format of 6-8 large panels per installment, and it’s here that we really get to experience Raymond’s breathtaking artwork. Freed of the format changes which plagued the earlier strips (and must have driven the editors of Volume One mad), Volume Two of The Complete Flash Gordon Library becomes the more appealing and consistent of the two from a visual standpoint. “The Tyrant of Mongo” opens with full-blown war having broken out between Mongo and Arboria, and we’re treated to pages and pages of bizarre war-machines doing battle on alien worlds. George Lucas has repeatedly cited Flash Gordon as a primary influence on Star Wars, and that becomes increasingly clear as the strip develops. However, the influence of Flash Gordon on Star Wars goes well beyond rayguns and rocketships. They also share a  breakneck pace which jumps you from planet to planet in the space of pages. From the battlefields of Arboria, to the frozen wastes of Frigia, to the factories of Mongo, you’ll barely have time to catch your breath. While not perfect, The Complete Flash Gordon Library is by far the best representation I’ve yet seen of these seminal strips. They’re attractively packaged and bound, and at 200 pages each, are weighty and substantial additions to your classic comic library. Most of these strips are more storybook than comic book, and each panel is heavy with text as well as beautiful art. The introductory essays by Flash Gordon expert, Doug Murray (with a bonus essay by Alex Ross in Volume One), about the cultural impact of Flash Gordon during the eras these strips were produced are a nice touch. I don’t know what kinds of sources that Peter Maresca was working from when he restored the art, but he did a marvelous job. If your only exposure to Flash Gordon has been through other media, whether it be film, animation, or more recent comics, do yourself a favor and pick these up. The Complete Flash Gordon Library is the Rosetta Stone for any fan of science fiction or superheroes. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!