This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the cult classic live-action film, Flash Gordon. The 1980 movie had no chance of beating The Empire Strikes Back at the box office that year, but its bright, campy aesthetic and instantly memorable Queen soundtrack made it stick in the memories of many. By the time the film came out, Flash had already been battling Ming the Merciless for more than forty years across comics, radio, film serials, TV, animation, novels, and even a World’s Fair ride. Here’s a look back at the long rocket ride of Flash Gordon, and how there might be some more fuel in the tank for a new generation.
Flash Gordon owes his existence to Buck Rogers. Rogers made his debut in the 1928 novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. in the pages of pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Rogers is put in suspended animation in a 20th century accident, and wakes up nearly 500 years later to become a hero for an Earth under siege. The popular story jumped to newspaper comic strips a year later and was a huge success for the National Newspaper Syndicate. Rival King Features Syndicate wanted their own science fiction hero strip and recruited cartoonist Alex Raymond to create one for them; their only guidance was that they wanted “fantastic adventures” like in the books of Jules Verne. Inspired in part by the then-new novel When Worlds Collide by Post contributor Philip Wylie, Raymond conceived of a trio of Earth adventurers who try to stop an alien attack on the planet. The group would feature scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov, heroine Dale Arden, and the title character of the strip, the athletic and determined Flash Gordon.
Appropriately enough, the Sunday strip took off like a rocket. Raymond’s detailed and exciting visuals brought a quality to the comic that make it look like nothing else in the newspapers. Much of the appeal came from the characters; in addition to the relatable heroes, Raymond populated the alien planet Mongo with a variety of habitats that featured their own communities and heroes. There was Prince Barin, a sort of sci-fi Robin Hood; Vultan, king of the hawkmen; and Thun, prince of the Lion Men, among others. And of course, Raymond introduced one of the all-time great villains in Ming the Merciless (whose rebellious daughter, Princess Aura, would become another Flash ally). In the next few years, Flash’s popularity would result in a daily comic strip and character merchandise, but that was only the beginning.
Flash jumped to both radio and film in short order. The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon hit the radio waves in 1935. The 26-episode show ran weekly and featured one of the first franchise crossovers when Flash and friends met one of Raymond’s other comic strip characters, Jungle Jim, on a trip back to Earth. A second radio series, The Further Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon, ran for another 60 episodes; the four-day-a-week show aired until 1936. That same year, Flash made it into film serials; between 1936 and 1940, Universal Pictures made three serials featuring Flash. The lead role was played by Buster Krabbe, an Olympic swimmer and gold medalist who would also play Tarzan and, later, Buck Rogers on the screen (Krabbe’s portrayal of both Buck and Flash would create confusion surrounding the characters for years, much in the same way that people confuse elements of Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade because Humphrey Bogart played them both).
In the 1950s, Flash’s popularity rested largely in the comics, although there was a single season television series from 1954 to 1955. The comic strip drew some of the best writers and artists in the business, maintaining the high level of work that Raymond had originally brought to his creation. Harry Harrison, known for the beloved Stainless Steel Rat series of science fiction novels, as well as his book Make Room! Make Room! (the inspiration for Soylent Green), wrote the strip for six years between the ’50s and ’60s. Al Williamson’s art adhered to Raymond’s high standards. Dan Barry had a remarkable run, drawing the daily strip from 1951 until 1990, while also handling the Sunday installments from 1967 till 1990. Original strips would continue until 2003; some papers still run old strips in their comic sections.
Around the time of the 40th anniversary of the character, Flash got a moment in the spotlight again. This was due in part to the enormous popularity of Star Wars; creator George Lucas freely admitted that he owed a lot of his inspiration to Flash Gordon, and had created his own space saga after failing to obtain the film rights to Flash. The stratospheric success of Star Wars in 1977 paved the way for multimedia reboots of Star Trek, Buck Rogers, and Flash himself. A top-notch animated series, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, ran on NBC in 1979 and 1980. That was followed by a big-budget feature film that would become a cult classic.
Released in 1980, Flash Gordon was directed by Mike Hodges, who was known for films like Get Carter and had admirers in the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. The producer was Dino De Laurentiis who, despite having some terrific successes in a career that featured over 500 films, sometimes struggled with tone by leaning too much into camp. He pushed for the film to be comedic, something that its screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., felt was a mistake. Semple had serious and acclaimed work on his resume, like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, but had also worked extensively on the Batman TV series of the 1960s. De Laurentiis and Hodges embraced that campy tone. The upside is that the film looked largely faithful to Raymond’s art, with bold color and some designs that seemed lifted straight from the page. The downside for some audience members was that it was hard to take seriously. And while many loved the rock-and-synth soundtrack by British rock legends Queen, the arch approach to some musical elements signaled “comedy” much more than “space adventure.” The film received mixed reviews amid a generally respectful box office, but star Sam J. Jones had a falling out with De Laurentiis before the film was even finished and quit, icing initial talk of a sequel.
The character primarily stayed alive in the strips and in animation in the 1980s and early ’90s. Flash, along with other King Features characters The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, headlined the popular Defenders of Earth cartoon in 1986. A 1996 animated series reimagined Flash and Dale as teenagers. The comic strips halted new stories in 2003, but a 2007 live-action series would run single season on Sci-Fi (now SyFy); the earlier episodes were panned by critics and fans, and while the show did improve, it was cancelled after its initial run. Various original comic books have appeared over the years, with some companies reprinting the newspaper strips and others as diverse as Marvel and Ardden creating original material. Publishers Dark Horse, Kitchen Sink, Checker, Titan, and others have done archives of the comics over the years, while Dynamite began producing new comic book material in 2011. A proposed feature-length animated film was scrapped in 2019, though interest in reviving the character and his stories remains high.
It’s easy to see why Flash Gordon appealed to people in the early days. Culture is filled with stories of regular people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Raymond’s gift was offering a vision of space that no one else had articulated before, with ruthless villains, interesting aliens, and exotic locales. His work left a blueprint for others to follow. Marvel co-architect Jack Kirby said that his own art was influenced by Raymond, which is another direct channel from Flash to the pop culture of today. Given the fervent interest in reboots that persists in today’s entertainment industry, it’s only a matter of time until the right talent connects with the material and lets everyone know that “Gordon’s alive?!”
Featured image: Kraft74 / Shutterstock
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