Book Review: FLASH GORDON: THE TYRANT OF MONGO

FLASH GORDON: THE TYRANT OF MONGO
Written by Don Moore
Art by Alex Raymond
Published by Titan Books
Retail Price: $39.95

flashgordoncoverThree years ago, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern published an issue in the form of a newspaper, calling itself The San Francisco Panorama. This “newspaper” included a sixteen page comics section, not so much as a reminder of the glory of classic newspaper comics — since few McSweeney’s readers are old enough to remember such days — but more as a declaration of the possibilities of large-format, mass printed comic art. For those looking to actually revisit some of the glories in question, Titan Books has more recently collected a little less than four years’ worth of Alex Raymond and Don Moore’s Flash Gordon Sunday strips into a deluxe hardcover titled Flash Gordon: The Tyrant of Mongo.

While the modern Prince Valiant preserves the basic Sunday-only serial storytelling of Flash Gordon and similar strips, The Tyrant of Mongo demonstrates that the two don’t really belong in the same category. While Prince Valiant can appear to be bold and realistic in comparison to the other more cartoony strips in a contemporary paper, Alex Raymond’s art explodes from the page. The color and density of detail are a perfect match for the scope of imagination on display. Rocket ships scream across the sky, all lines, speed, and fire. A mounted army rides down a snowy mountain on ostrich-like beasts. Men fight, women swoon, and evil is punished as good narrowly escapes to fight another day.

An unapologetic pulp even in its own day, there’s a lot in these 1937-1941 strips that will strike the modern reader as a little off. Every unmarried woman falls in love with the innocent, oblivious Flash, leading to paroxysms of jealousy from Flash’s girlfriend, Dale.1 Wherever Flash goes, he finds groups of men eager to fight against the tyranny of Ming the Merciless, and these men are almost always killed in battle within a few weeks.2 Flash himself is too pure of heart ever to suspect treachery, and his offhanded forgiveness of those who repeatedly try to kill him is almost comical.

For for those who take such things seriously, there are even a few interesting discoveries. While Ming and the most cruel and ruthless of his soldiers are clearly drawn as the orientalist, foreign antithesis of the pure, blond, European Flash, there’s also some uncertainty in the art over how characters will be racially coded. While the skin of the inhabitants of Mongo starts off with a light green tint, this stops with the August 14, 1938 installment. By March of 1939, the story heads north to discover a previously unknown blond, Nordic kingdom, almost as if to retreat from its own discomfort over the question of whether Flash looks the same as the people fighting and dying around him or not.

Every once in a while it can be a bit jarring as the constant cliffhanger and recaps seem to impede the forward progress of the story, but this, of course, is an illusion. In fact, a collection like this is what every regular reader would have wished for — a feast in individual bites, where only the end of the book keeps you from reading one more strip, again, and again. Pace yourself. You’ll find yourself there sooner than you expect, eagerly anticipating the next installment, waiting for a next week that’ll never come. The only thing to do is begin again.

1. After the umpteenth iteration, Flash’s claim to simply not understand women rings a bit hollow. It’s not really that Flash doesn’t understand women; it’s just that Flash never remembers anything that happens when a woman is involved. It’s not that Flash doesn’t love you, Dale; it’s just that you might actually be a beard.

2. A tendency exaggerated only very slightly by Futurama‘s Zapf Branigan, and his indifference to the well-being of his cannon fodder, I mean, men.

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