“Return to Earth” was the sixteenth installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between July 6 and December 28, 1941, “Return to Earth” is the first storyline following the conclusion of the Mongo storyline that had carried the strip through its first seven years. The journey back to Earth takes six days. Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov crash land in the Atlantic Ocean and are picked up by a US Navy Destroyer. Rather than receiving the heroes’ homecoming they anticipated, they find they are treated with suspicion. The government fears that they might be Fifth Column agents of the totalitarian Red Sword regime (Alex Raymond’s commentary on 20th Century Fascism) whose aggression has led to a Second World War.
The US War Department agrees to release them in the custody of Zarkov’s former colleague, Dr. Grubich who flies them to his secret mountain retreat where he and his colleague, Dr. Bogan are developing weapons to combat the Red Sword. Zarkov sets to work on designing a new war rocket using scientific advancements he learned on Mongo. Grubich and Bogan assist with the hasty development of the rocket while Bogan’s alluring niece, Olga takes a fast interest in Flash. It doesn’t take long before Flash has reason to mistrust their hosts. First, he awakens to find a prowler in his bedroom. He shoots the man in the shoulder, but he escapes through the window. Flash follows in pursuit and finds Ivor, the test pilot with a shoulder wound that he claims he received when he struggled with the night watchman who lies dead on the ground. Ivor claims that the night watchman was the prowler in Flash’s room who must have been working for the Red Sword. Zarkov and Dale agree with Flash that they must guard the scientific secrets they have brought back from Mongo even closer.
The second incident occurs during the test flight of Zarkov’s war rocket. Flash accompanies Ivor on the test flight only to have Ivor pull a gun on him. Flash overcomes him in a struggle for the weapon which ends with Ivor falling from the rocket, without a parachute, to his death. Following the successful completion of the test flight, Flash is knocked unconscious by Bogan and imprisoned in a cell with Zarkov and Dale as he realizes that Grubich and Olga are also working for the Red Sword. Major Danver from the War Department pays Grubich an unexpected visit and soon realizes that something is not right. Danver takes Grubich and Bogan into custody, but Olga escapes. Liberating Flash, Dale, and Zarkov from their cell, Danver learns of the war rocket and goes on a test flight with Flash. Impressed, the quartet head to Washington DC where plans unfold for mass production of Zarkov’s war rocket to combat the Red Sword.
The war rocket is put to unexpected use on a demonstration flight for members of Congress when it detects a Red Sword submarine approaching an unsuspecting US cruiser. Flash successfully fires on the submarine before being whisked off to rescue the survivors of a burning US oil tanker that has been bombed by the Red Sword air fleet. It is important to place these strips in their historical context. War in Europe had been raging for a year, but it would be two more months before the US would join the war. Alex Raymond’s patriotism runs high in these strips with their breathtaking dog fights and Don Moore’s recurring dialogue having characters note that one must place one’s country before all else –even one’s own life .
The war rocket follows the air fleet back to the aircraft carrier. Flash uses the war rocket’s ionizing ray to create artificial icebergs in the water to trap the aircraft carrier. All aboard the war rocket believe they are on a suicide mission to halt the invasion of the US that is about to be unleashed by sea and air. Raymond’s battle scenes are stirring, but the revelation that the cowardly newspaper reporter, Vanoss is an enemy spy is an unexpected development. He savagely turns his gun on the controls of the war rocket. Following a dramatic crash into an iceberg, the survivors are picked up by the Red Sword’s warship where Vanoss is revealed as Captain Van Noz of the Red Sword’s Intelligence Department. Van Noz informs Admiral Krogoff that the war rocket must be salvaged as its technology would help the Iron Sword win the war. Just then the war rocket explodes in a ball of fire and the Admiral realizes that Flash has set the self-destruct mechanism prior to abandoning ship.
Flash, Dale, and Danver are imprisoned in separate cells. Flash escapes with the Neutrizer that he has hidden in his boot. Overcoming his guard, Flash dons his uniform and soon frees Dale and Danver who he escorts to the Admiral’s cabin as his prisoners. Quickly taking Krogoff and Van Noz captive, Flash impersonates the Admiral and orders the fleet to disperse. While the ships blindly obey, Commander Gorin is suspicious and storms the Admiral’s cabin. Flash shoots down Gorin (who Raymond draws to resemble Hitler), but the shootout has alerted the crew to their deception. Danver heroically sacrifices his life to allow Flash and Dale to escape in a Red Sword bi-plane. Pursued by the Red Sword’s air fleet, Flash is relieved to see US bi-planes descend upon the invaders. All of the Red Sword planes, including Flash’s, are shot down at sea.
Rescued by the US Navy (who are shocked to learn they have not captured Red Sword agents), Flash and Dale quickly inform them of the aborted US invasion by the Red Sword fleet. Flown to Washington DC for an emergency conference, Flash is offered a reward for his heroism but declines the offer, asking only that he be allowed to lead the attack on the dispersed Red Sword fleet. The conclusion comes fast and furious as the newly-appointed Major Gordon leads US Navy dive bombers in an attack on the Red Sword fleet. Admiral Krogoff surrenders to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Flash is relieved to find that Major Danver is alive and liberates him from his prison. Having defeated the Red Sword’s sea and air fleet, the world is safe once more. Flash receives the Presidential Medal of Honor and is promoted to the rank of Colonel in the US Navy by President Roosevelt himself as this highly patriotic storyline reaches its flag-waving conclusion.
The Yellow Peril fantasy thrills of Mongo are far removed from the more realistic depiction of war in this serial. Sadly, by the time the final installment appeared at the end of 1941, the US had entered a war that obviously would not be so easily won as the conflict Alex Raymond and Don Moore presented. Reason enough perhaps that the New Year would see our heroes return to Mongo once more and offer readers an escape from the harsh reality of life during wartime.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu is coming soon from Black Coat Press. Also forthcoming is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and an original hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com