“Princess Lita” was the first installment of Austin Briggs’ Flash Gordon daily comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between May 27, 1940 and February 22, 1941, “Princess Lita” was the story that launched the daily companion to Alex Raymond’s celebrated Sunday strip. It is one of two Briggs strips available in a reprint collection from Kitchen Sink Press. We shall examine the second strip in next week’s column.
The most rewarding part of delving into Austin Briggs’ first two Flash Gordon storylines has been the discovery that the sloppiness of the first few Austin Briggs’ Sunday strips printed a few years after the daily debuted were likely more the result of the artist being overworked than they were an adequate representation of Briggs’ work on the property. “Princess Lita” shows the artist in full command of the material drawing the characters as well as their creator, albeit without the benefit of the Sunday page to showcase the exotic flora and fauna of Mongo to full advantage. The transition from Sunday continuities to a daily strip is jarring at first and the smoothness of Don Moore’s scripting and Alex Raymond’s plotting is sorely missed, but Briggs does an admirable job of staying true to the source material.
“Princess Lita” begins with a familiar scenario of Flash and Dale on the run from Ming in a rocketship when they crashland in Mongo’s forest kingdom. Rescuing a young boy from one of Mongo’s many carnivorous dinosaurs; they befriend the boys’ parents who shelter them in their home. Ming’s soldiers turn up collecting taxes and strip Loton and his wife to the waist for a scourging. Flash cannot remain concealed and intervenes leading to a dramatic stand in Loton’s home which ends with Flash disarming the soldiers and running them off Loton’s property.
Of course, this spells doom for Loton and his family so Flash and Loton make a daring offensive siege on Ming’s outpost where they liberate the captive Princess Lita. The Princess leads Flash, Loton, and Dale to her hidden country which is currently at war with the Ape-Men. The Princess’ country is hidden by invisible barriers that have kept it free from Ming’s domination up to this point. The cannibalistic Ape-Men have captured all of the men from Princess Lita’s kingdom including her father, the frail King Litro. Flash and Loton set out on a rescue mission and are quickly overcome by the Ape-Men who drag them to their lair.
There, they discover that the Ape-Men have devoured all of their captives except for King Litro who has been drugged into serving the Ape-Men. Flash succeeds in overturning their boiling cauldron and freeing Loton and taking the unwilling Litro prisoner in an attempt to liberate him from the Ape-Men. Loton meets up with Dale and Princess Lita, but the three of them are captured by Ape-Men. Flash ambushes the Ape-Men and in spite of Litro’s resistance succeeds in reuniting the King with his daughter and giving him an antidote to the Ape-Men’s drug.
Princess Lita’s attraction to Flash has grown considerably since he rescued her from Ming and her father from the Ape-Men and she does her best to seduce him, much to Dale’s chagrin. Ming orders an aerial strike over the area where he believes the hidden kingdom to exist. Loton dies in the airstrike with Flash vowing to avenge his friend’s death. Ming orders one of his rocketships to land and explore the area. Flash overcomes the soldiers and disguising himself in their armor plans to return to Mingo City to face Ming once and for all. Flash takes off; unaware that Princess Lita is a stowaway on board the rocketship.
As fate would have it, their rocketship is struck down during an electrical storm. Princess Lita nurses Flash back to health in the wreckage of their ship and he responds to return her affections. Flash burns the ship in the hope of convincing Ming there were no survivors. Ming has learned that Flash stole the rocketship and is not fooled when his men fail to find any bodies in the wreckage. He orders the area around the wreckage bombed. Dale and King Litro race to rescue Flash and the Princess in an automobile which is struck during the bombing and forced off the road. Dale drags the King from the wrecked car and soon they stumble upon Flash and Lita locked in a passionate embrace. Flash leads the awkward group through Ming’s bombardment back to the automobile and gets it back on the road. Ming’s aerial assault forces them into the water where they are attacked by a giant octopus.
Flash rescues Princess Lita from the sea creature and the four of them swim ashore where they are rescued by Hawkon, King of the Bird-Men. Of course, Ming begins an aerial assault on the Bird-Men’s tree kingdom once he learns they are sheltering the fugitives. Ming personally captures Dale while his soldiers execute King Litro in front of his daughter’s eyes. A distraught Princess Lita attempts suicide by plunging from the top of the tree kingdom, but is rescued by Flash.
Flash and Princess Lita pay a clandestine visit to Mingo City where Flash makes contact with his allies the Freemen. Unfortunately, Ming has discovered the Freemen meeting place and infiltrated their number with Vultur, one of the Bird-Men who was resistant to sheltering the fugitives. Vultur quickly betrays Flash and the Princess to Ming, but Flash is suspicious and forces him to accompany them to a meeting of his allies, the Powermen before Ming’s troops raid the safehouse. Ming’s men follow them in the underground passage leading to a shootout. Flash disguises himself as Vultur and improbably gains an audience with Ming who is first deceived, but then throws Flash into a dungeon. The improbabilities are compounded when Flash learns that his cellmate is Dr. Zarkov. Together the duo succeeds in overcoming their guards after the timely arrival of Princess Lita.
The trio succeeds in breaking into Ming’s armory where the armorer happily joins them in fighting against the Emperor. They succeed in liberating Dale from Ming’s guards and a hair-raising chase follows with Ming’s soldiers in a super-powered tank pursuing the fugitives in a speeding automobile ending in a dramatic crash in a tube tunnel. The fugitives are rescued by the Powermen. Their hotheaded leader, Fierro supports the resistance while Logo believes the fugitives should be turned over to Ming. Flash and the Powermen carry out a number of terrorist attacks on Mingo City until Logo betrays them to the Emperor. More chases and skirmishes follow but they ultimately persevere.
Flash and Dale break away from the Powermen to rescue Hawkon and his Bird-Men and the Freemen to help lead them all to Freeland where Fierro is leading the Powermen. They are surprised to find Logo already working with Hawkon who vouches for his character. Of course, Logo betrays them all to Ming and Flash confronts him leading to a desperate fight aboard a speeding train that ends in Logo plummeting to his death when he falls through an exit. A number of chases and battles by train, air, and ship follow before our heroes finally shake off Ming to make their way to Freeland, their promised paradise.
Austin Briggs recycles many ideas from Alex Raymond with the Ape-Men patterned on the Beast Men and the Bird-Men based on the Hawkmen. The return of the Powermen and Freemen were a welcome acknowledgement of the continuity of the Sunday strip. Briggs prefers to ground his vision of Mongo more in the real world of automobiles, bridges, trains, and oil refineries than Alex Raymond’s more fantastic vision of Earth’s prehistoric and medieval past combined. By the end of this first storyline, Briggs has firmly established himself as a worthy successor to the series creator leaving readers as eager as Flash and friends to learn what awaits them on the journey to Freeland.
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 was published April 2 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