“Marvela” was the twenty-second installment of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between August 20, 1944 and February 4, 1945, “Marvela” was the first of the Sunday strips completely illustrated by Austin Briggs. Don Moore scripted from a story he developed with the series’ creator, Alex Raymond. This was the final storyline to have any involvement from Raymond. The story picks up following the conclusion of the epic-length Tropica story arc with Flash and Dale traversing Mongo in the triphibian rocket car given to them by Queen Desira as a reward for helping restore her to the throne of Tropica.
“Marvela” marks a strange departure for the strip. Austin Briggs’ artwork, though never a match for Alex Raymond, at least is an improvement on his finishes for Raymond’s rushed pencils that marred much of the second half of the Tropica stories. The title refers to the kingdom that Flash and Dale visit when they see a rocket crash in the forest and a beautiful woman thrown from the cockpit. A giant scorpion appears and moves in for the kill. Flash dives down from the triphibian rocket car to distract the scorpion and he and Dale team up to destroy it. Oddly, Briggs never depicts the rocket falling from the sky nor does he show its wreckage. Its existence is only referred to in Moore’s script. This should be conclusive proof, if any were needed, that Alex Raymond never layed out any of the early panels for the strip.
The damsel in distress is not at all what the reader is conditioned to suspect. Lura is Princess of Marvela and immediately rewards Flash with a passionate embrace. Despite her infatuation, she just as quickly arrests Flash and Dale and brings their triphibian car to Marvela’s capitol where she rules the kingdom with her brother, Prince Ardo. The Prince is prone to even more extreme mood swings than his sister and today would easily be diagnosed as bi-polar as he switches from rage to gaiety with astonishing regularity. Prince Ardo is also a scientific genius who has invented a pituit-ray that enables animals and insects to grow impossibly large. The giant scorpion as well as a giant dragonfly they glimpse is a result of his experiments.
Ardo is as smitten with Dale as his sister is with Flash. The succeeding weeks see plenty of ballroom dancing and moonlit embraces on terraces with Dale drugged with an aphrodisiac to make her succumb to Ardo’s charms while Flash is left to stoically deny his evident lust for the sensuous Lura. Some excitement occurs in Ardo’s laboratory where the four of them watch as his pituit-ray transforms a tiny lizard into a Gila monster that of course threatens them. Not only is Ardo’s scientific recklessness hard to swallow (it never occurred to him to provide some means of containing the dragon he deliberately creates), but the entire pituit-ray subplot is quickly discarded and never mentioned again.
The next set piece to break up the monotony of the royal siblings romancing Flash and Dale is a hunting expedition where Ardo gives Flash a flame gun that has been rigged to jam in the hopes that the giant rat they are hunting (one of Ardo’s lab pets, rather than the Conan Doyle variety) will finish Flash off. The confrontation with the rat generates some excitement, but bi-polar Ardo’s constant toing and froing over whether or not killing his rival for Dale’s affections is sporting quickly grows tiresome. Before the hunting expedition is over, the four of them are menaced by a giant spider, but Flash dispatches the monstrous arachnid so quickly there is never any credible sense of peril for the characters.
Rather late in the proceedings, an attempt is made to jazz things up by introducing Zoga, the High Priest of Marvela who has a small band of fanatical cowled acolytes waiting at hand. The High Priest is the de facto ruler of the kingdom since the royal siblings are more interested in satisfying their libidos and, in Ardo’s case, making giant bugs and animals to hunt. Zoga conducts an interesting bit of fortune-telling when he conjures a vision of the future in flames showing Flash and Ardo fighting to the death when they are killed by a bolt of lightning. Zoga demands that Flash and Dale leave Marvela at once or be executed, but the Prince and Princess are having none of it since they both want the Earthlings for their royal consorts.
Zoga’s acolytes kidnap Flash and Dale from their bedrooms that night. Flash is put through an utterly ridiculous test by Zoga in which our hero is forced to run down a corridor in his underwear (Flash apparently doesn’t wear pajamas to bed) while poisoned spears drop from the ceiling. Despite Zoga’s maniacal laughing fit while watching Flash evade the spears, the whole scene just seems silly and pointless and is completely lacking any of Ming’s fiendish means of trying to dispose of Flash.
Dale escapes and runs to Ardo to inform the Prince of the High Priest’s actions. While Zoga begs for forgiveness, Ardo inexplicably decides to subject Flash to his petri-ray and turn him into a marble statue. Flash breaks free of his bonds and Ardo throws himself upon his rival as the ray petrifies them both.
The strip comes to a hurried and astoundingly implausible conclusion when Zarkov suddenly arrives (having tracked Flash and Dale to Marvela) and easily reverses the ray to free Flash and Ardo. Zoga breaks down in tears and reveals that the Prince and Princess are not siblings at all. They were royalty of neighboring kingdoms betrothed to one another in childhood to unite their kingdoms. Zoga deceived them into believing they were siblings so that he could hang on to his position of power in the kingdom. Ardo and Lura don’t need to be told twice. Decades of believing they were siblings are apparently the only thing that kept them off each other and they immediately declare their love and intent to marry as their parents wanted.
Flash and Dale join Zarkov in his rocket ship and depart this ridiculous kingdom as the Alex Raymond era of the strip reaches a rather unsatisfying conclusion that fails in almost every way to capture the feel of what made the strip a classic. This lapse seems particularly unforgivable given the fact that Don Moore and Austin Briggs had four years of daily continuity behind them when they took the reins of the Sunday strip. Perhaps “Marvela” is simply an anomaly in their run. Sadly, it is the only one of their Sunday strips readily available today. Later this year, we will take an in-depth look at Moore and Briggs’ run on the daily strip and how it quickly established its own unique continuity separate from Alex Raymond’s work.
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 will be published in April by 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