“The Witch Queen of Mongo“ was the fifth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between April 21 and October 13, 1935, “The Witch Queen of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the fourth installment, “Caverns of Mongo” left off with Flash and Dale setting out to conquer the cave kingdom that was awarded to Flash following the tourney held by Ming and Vultan.
Writer/artist Alex Raymond benefitted greatly from the contributions of ghost writer Don Moore who developed characterization to bring much-needed balance to the nonstop parade of cliffhangers. The serial quickly sets the tone with Dale’s mounting frustration with Flash’s preference for continued adventures over settling down and marrying her. This development coincides with the introduction of Azura, the titular Witch Queen of the Kingdom of Syk.
Azura is the second of Alex Raymond’s stunning exotic women of Mongo and rivals Aura in complexity and appeal. The Witch Queen’s descent from the heavens on a stair of flames is an iconic image that may have influenced Frank Frazetta’s cover art for Conan the Freebooter three decades later. Likewise, Flash’s Nordic-style horned helmet suggests the strip was a vital inspiration on the depiction of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian pulp hero.
From the very start, the point is made that the Witch Queen’s “magic” is nothing more than advanced technology. The continued juxtaposition of the futuristic with medieval fantasy remained a potent formula for success with the stip.
Naturally, the evil Queen Azura falls madly in love with Flash at first sight and captures Dale to force Flash into becoming her paramour. Part of the appeal of these early strips is Flash’s unfailing resolve when faced with these lustful alien beauties eager for him to stray from Dale. Azura goes one better by drugging Flash to rob him of his identity and make use of the age-old plot device of letting the hero act like a heel because he doesn’t know any better.
Alex Raymond makes effective use of the visceral pleasure of having Azura watch gleefully as Dale is stripped and beaten. The S&M appeal of bondage scenes has a long history in pulp fiction from Sax Rohmer onwards, but it is still jarring to see it in the pages of a Sunday color supplement.
Flash, now Azura’s lover as well as her most loyal supporter, supplants General Tahl as commander of Azura’s army of “Magic Men” (simple soldiers as far as one can tell from the strip) and leads them into war against the Hawkmen who Dr. Zarkov is leading in a misguided rescue mission to save Flash. Alex Raymond renders the swooping host of Hawkmen descending upon the Magic Men’s ranks in stunning visual splendor that recalls the celestial hosts of archangels in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Thanks to Azura’s advanced technology (“magic”) and Flash’s courage on the battlefield, the Hawkmen are defeated and Dr. Zarkov is taken prisoner. Zarkov gets the chance to be the true hero this time around, setting fire to his guards with a flame thrower to gain his liberty and that of Dale and the captive Hawkman, Khan.
Zarkov and Dale successfully restore Flash’s memory and give Queen Azura a dose of the amnesia-inducing drugged wine. Zarkov is wise enough to know that General Tahl is now their greatest threat, but Flash typically underestimates his potential – leaving the door open for future plot developments.
Tahl and his minions rescue the Queen and drive Flash, Dale, and Zarkov into hiding on the outskirts of Syk. Using stolen laboratory equipment, Zarkov constructs a “light machine” which turns Flash invisible allowing him to terrorize Tahl’s men as a ghostly presence announcing himself as “the Avenging Shadow.”
Flash smuggles Azura out of the Kingdom of Syk and takes refuge in “the Pit of Peril” where the Queen had sealed off the “Death Dwarfs” from the rest of the cavern kingdom.
Azura is taken captive by the vengeful dwarfs whose King, Hokko orders her execution by his court knife-thrower. Flash, still invisible, rolls a boulder down upon the unfortunate dwarf. King Hokko, fearing Azura’s “sorcery” is at work, orders the Queen be cast into the Fire Pit, an underground volcano.
The invisibility ray wears off as Flash descends among the Death Dwarfs and hurls King Hokko himself into the flames in what has turned out to be a surprisingly violent epic-length storyline.
Flash and the Queen are cornered by the Death Dwarfs while attempting to escape. Granting her last wish, a goodbye kiss before they are executed, Flash is startled by Dale and Zarkov’s unexpected arrival, the duo having come to the rescue at the last second. Azura is taken captive once more and Dale once again fumes at Flash’s seeming infidelity.
General Tahl attempts to assassinate Azura and is shot dead by her royal guard. Flash, as the newly-appointed King of Syk, proposes to Dale and brings the episode to a surprisingly upbeat finale as the classic science fantasy strip continues to move from strength to strength.
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