Alex Raymond created Flash Gordon for King Features Syndicate to compete with the successful science fiction strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Raymond’s creation was decidedly more space fantasy than science fiction, combining elements borrowed from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, Alexandre Dumas, and Anthony Hope to great effect. Flash Gordon debuted January 7, 1934 with the strip, “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo” which would be serialized each Sunday through April 15, 1934.
The strip kicked off with an exciting documentary-style depiction of an unforeseen catastrophe assailing our world. An unknown planet mysteriously appears in our solar system and is hurtling rapidly toward Earth. Destruction seems unavoidable. We are quickly introduced to a scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov who is rapidly completing a rocket ship which he plans to man on a suicide mission to try and divert the oncoming planet from Earth’s trajectory.
“Flash” Gordon is a Yale-educated world-renowned polo player (I’m sure we can all name a handful of world-renowned polo players). He and a young woman named Dale Arden are the only known survivors of a plane struck down by a meteor heralding from the approaching planet. Flash and Dale parachute just outside of Dr. Zarkov’s observatory. Paranoid from overwork, Zarkov pulls a gun on the startled plane crash survivors and forces them to accompany him on his suicide mission to space. The first installment ends with Zarkov’s rocket ship on a collision course with the rapidly hurtling planet.
The following week saw Zarkov lose his nerve and attempt to strangle Flash (who now believes their suicide mission is Earth’s only hope). Flash easily overpowers Zarkov while the rocket ship crashes into a mountain not far from a futuristic city. Flash survives, Dale is unconscious, and the reader presumes Zarkov is dead as a dinosaur menaces Flash and Dale as our hero first sets foot on alien soil.
Week Three saw the timely arrival of a second dinosaur to inadvertently save Flash and Dale. A rocket ship arrives from the futuristic city. Flash and Dale are captured by what appear to be Asians who take them to the city where they meet the unnamed Emperor of the Universe (a blatant Fu Manchu clone) who decides to marry Dale and sends Flash to the arena where he is to battle the Neanderthal-like “Red Monkey Men of Mongo.” This first use of the name Mongo makes it unclear that this is the name of the planet as opposed to a continent. The city is a nice mix of anachronisms with futuristic gadgetry existing alongside Roman-style decadence.
Week Four saw Flash easily defeat the Neanderthals only to have the nameless Asian emperor order his execution for embarrassing him by surviving the arena. The emperor’s beautiful, but nameless daughter pleads for Flash’s life to be spared. She plunges through a trapdoor that opens underneath Flash and drops them both into “the Hole of Horrors.”
Week Five sees Flash and the newly-named Princess Aura of Mongo menaced by a pit of dragons. Inexplicably, the dragons obey Aura’s command. The princess locks Flash in her rocket ship intending to keep him imprisoned until her father has married Dale when suddenly, the city is under attack by a fleet of “space gyros.” Aura seemed sympathetic, even heroic in her first appearance. Here, Raymond develops her as a femme fatale although she has not yet shown the influence of Fu Manchu’s treacherous nymphomaniac daughter, Fah lo Suee who becomes Aura’s model before this first strip concludes.
Week Six sees Princess Aura brought before her still nameless father who sends her to Mongo’s equivalent of the Russian front to serve as a common soldier in the bitter cold. The emperor is preparing to brainwash Dale to be his wife when the city is attacked by the saucer-like “space gyros.” One of the saucers crashes into the rocket ship where Flash is imprisoned. The strip ends with a cliffhanger showing a lion-man preparing to behead the unconscious Flash.
The lion-man is the noble Prince Thun who spares Flash’s life when he sees he is not one of the Emperor’s people. We quickly learn that the lion-men are at war with Ming. Thun is the first to mention Mongo’s deity, Tao in the strip. Thun lets Flash communicate with Dale telepathically using a thought-projection helmet in his downed saucer. The strip ends with the unlikely allies encountering a mythological two-headed beast that guards the entrance of a cave leading to the city.
Week Eight sees Flash and Thun defeat the mythological beast, but the lion-man is rendered unconscious during the battle. Flash carries him through the cave but as they enter the city, they are confronted by a pair of stegosaurs.
Week Nine sees Flash and a recovered Thun defeat the dinosaurs and Ming’s soldiers and ends with their stumbling upon the wedding of Ming and Dale. This is the first strip where Mongo’s evil Mongolian emperor is identified by name.
Flash and Thun rescue Dale before her vows are completed. There’s a great bit where the trio push a huge green idol (apparently of Mongo’s god, Tao) down a staircase to crush Ming’s soldiers. The trio escapes through yet another trapdoor into an underground stream.
Week Eleven sees Flash and Dale separated from Thun and captured by the green-skinned amphibious shark-men who take them to their underwater city before the throne of King Kala. Kala is loyal to Ming and intends to return Dale to him. The strip ends with Flash facing two shark-men in an underwater arena.
Flash perseveres in the arena but is imprisoned in a cell that rapidly fills with water. An unseen protector (with suspiciously yellow skin) saves him by providing Flash with an oxygen tank and sword. Flash escapes his cell only to learn that Dale has been abducted from her cell.
Week Thirteen catches up with Thun and we see that it is the lion-man who has rescued Dale. Of course, it’s all for naught as Thun and Dale are quickly recaptured by Ming’s soldiers in a rare installment without Flash.
It was of course Princess Aura who rescued Flash. They quickly realize that Thun and Dale have been captured by Ming’s soldiers. The strip ends with Flash and Aura witnessing the unexpected destruction of the kingdom of the shark-men.
Week Fifteen wrapped up the first storyline with the lion-men bravely trying to liberate Thun and Dale from Ming’s soldiers. Sadly, their space gyros prove ineffective against Ming’s superior technology. Aura’s personality has finally solidified making our newly-buxom Mongolian princess so in love with Flash that she would rather see him die than lose him to Dale. The lion-men are about to rescue Flash from Aura as the first serial ends on an oddly optimistic note.
Dr. Zarkov is apparently intended to have perished in the crash on Mongo and is not mentioned again in this first serial. Likewise, Alex Raymond appears to have forgotten about Mongo hurtling toward Earth as he quickly settled into a routine of unending cliffhangers and nonstop action to menace Flash and Dale.
The thrill-a-minute serial nature of the script makes it easy to miss the enormous influence Raymond had on future generations. Raymond’s influence is most heavily felt on Star Wars with its ice planets, desert planets, forest worlds, and underwater kingdoms closely resembling the diverse nations of Mongo.
Alex Raymond hit on the perfect synthesis of mythology, dinosaurs, adventure tales, and Yellow Peril thrillers in this seminal space fantasy. The artistry and invention of Raymond’s work was quickly absorbed into the last century’s pop culture consciousness. Much like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories (one of Flash Gordon’s strongest influences), Alex Raymond’s work is ingrained in the fantasy and adventure fiction of the present day long after public awareness of the source material has sadly faded.
Checker Books offers the complete run of Alex Raymond’s Sunday strips in full color hardback collections. They remain essential reading for anyone who has ever thrilled to space fantasy or cliffhanger adventures.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). He is currently working on a sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu as well as The Occult Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com