“Kang the Cruel” was the twenty-third installment of the Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between February 11 and May 20, 1945, “Kang the Cruel” was the first strip without the story input of creator Alex Raymond. It was illustrated by Austin Briggs, who had succeeded Raymond as the strip’s artist the previous year, and was scripted by Don Moore.
The story gets off to a strong start with Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov returning to Mingo City unaware that Prince Barin has been deposed and a usurper sits on the throne. The usurper is Kang the Cruel, the son of Ming the Merciless. This is a strong concept in the classic tradition. The only disappointment is that Austin Briggs’ artwork pales in comparison with Alex Raymond.
Zarkov’s rocketship is shot down by an air patrol led by Kagi, Kang’s lieutenant. Firefighters rush to the crash site as Kang has given orders the Earthmen are to be taken alive. Flash is spirited away by Darin, a freedom fighter who has infiltrated Kang’s air patrol. The new emperor proves he is as cruel a despot as his father, ordering the firefighter who allowed Darin to escape to be flayed, sprayed with ice, and then placed in steam until he dies.
Dale is placed in Kang’s harem while the Emperor orders the building where Darin and Flash have sought refuge in to be fire-bombed. Hundreds die in the attack, but Darin and Flash escape by commandeering a garbage truck which collects the refuse of Mingo City that is dumped underground along their subway system. They meet up with a pair of construction workers who belong to the Freemen, who take them to their underground base where Flash meets the seductive Glamora. Of course, Glamora is a spy for Kang who has successfully infiltrated the Freemen. She rushes to the palace and informs the Emperor that Flash is planning to rescue Dale from his harem.
Kang is ready for the Freemen’s attempt to storm the palace. Their car is struck with a freezing ray. Flash manages to go forward on foot before collapsing. Dale rescues him and brings him to the harem where he is hidden from the matron. Learning of Flash’s escape, Kang suspects that Glamora has betrayed him and orders her arrest. She is thrown into his harem. Upon learning that Flash is hidden there, she informs the matron, hoping to buy her freedom. Her older sister, Gluma, a member of Kang’s harem, overhears her betraying Flash and attacks Glamora. They are last seen choking one another at the bottom of the harem pool in a memorably dreadful death scene.
Flash gags and binds the matron before she can sound the alarm. He leads Kang’s harem girls in a daring escape back to the Freemen’s hideout. No sooner has Dale been rescued, then Flash learns from a palace spy that the Emperor is torturing Zarkov. The Freemen infiltrate the palace with surprising ease and Flash rescues Zarkov, wounding Kang in the process. The potential of Don Moore’s storyline is sorely wasted by the unnecessarily fast pace of the continuity. The result feels rushed and unsatisfying in what is the finest storyline since “The Fall of Ming.”
Aware that sympathy for the freedom fighters is growing now that Flash has returned, Kang orders the neighborhoods around Mingo City to be destroyed until Flash is turned over to him. The Emperor makes good on his threat. Flash, Dale, and Zarkov return to the palace and commandeer Kang’s private rocketship, taking to the skies. Flash radios a threat to the Emperor that he will return with reinforcements to drive him from the throne as the storyline reaches its gripping conclusion.
“The Skymen” was the twenty-fourth installment of the Flash Gordon Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally published between May 27 and September 30, 1945, “The Skymen” follows on directly from “Kang the Cruel” with writer Don Moore and artist Austin Briggs delivering an immediate sequel.
Flash plots course for the kingdom of Radiuma to collect arms for the Freemen’s rebellion. Austin Briggs was recycling “The Radium Mines of Electra” concept from the Flash Gordon daily strip he had previously handled. En route, they are assaulted by clouds that are piloted by the Skymen. Their ship is overtaken by clouds which lead them to the Skymen’s palace, a literal castle in the clouds. While the Skymen are clearly a variation on the Hawkmen with their floating city, the concept of the inhabitants of Skyland is still an intriguing one that harkens back to the inventiveness of the Alex Raymond era.
Once inside the castle, they are brought before King Ozon, who has Flash put on trial for having shot a Skyman while resisting arrest. King Ozon condemns Flash to be thrown from the cloud without a parachute, but Princess Arial pleads with her father to give her the Earthman and the monarch reluctantly agrees. The Princess takes Flash flying on a sky sled. They are attacked by pterosaurs and Flash falls from the sled. Arial narrowly rescues him and wins a passionate kiss in return, but their sky sled is forced down in Radiuma.
Brought before King Radom, Flash asks for arms to defeat Kang, only to learn that the King of Radiuma is in league with the despot. Once again, the story speeds along unnecessarily and Flash escapes from his cell, rescues the Princess, and liberates their sky sled to return to Skyland, all in the span of a single strip.
King Ozon is waiting for them and Flash learns that by leaving Skyland with the unchaperoned Princess, he has compromised her honor. The penalty is to marry her immediately or be thrown from the clouds without a parachute. Realizing a Mongo variation on a shotgun wedding was Arial’s plan all along, Flash tells her father that before he marries his daughter, he has taken a vow to help the King defeat Skyland’s longtime enemies in Radiuma who dared to capture the Princess.
The ensuing sky sled raid is exciting, with King Radon fighting back with his atomic ray. Flash and the Sky Men manage to commandeer the ray. King Radon surrenders, fearing they will turn the ray on the radium mines and destroy his kingdom. King Ozon lands in Radiuma to be present for Radon’s surrender, but the treaty turns into a trap as Radon attempts to assassinate Ozon. Flash succeeds in thwarting the assassination and captures Radon, who finally agrees to make peace with Ozon and end their people’s long conflict.
Regrettably, Ozon is not so willing and instead declares himself conqueror of Radiuma. Pressured by Arial to marry her immediately and faced with her father’s unwavering imperialism, Flash radios Dr. Zarkov on Skyland to enact their secret plan of attack. Flash then rejects Arial. The spurned Princess demands her father execute Flash and Dale at once, when suddenly they see Skyland falling from the clouds, heading directly for the surface of Mongo.
Realizing Flash has tricked him, King Ozon agrees to leave Radiuma in peace. Zarkov halts Skyland’s fall by restoring the anti-grav rays. Princess Arial is still vindictive against Flash, but her former suitor Captain Volor follows Flash’s advice and unexpectedly abducts the Princess in his sky sled. Knowing he has found a more willing husband for the Princess, our heroes leave Skyland and return to Radiuma as the story reaches its conclusion.
The fate of Kang the Cruel is left undecided. Anti-Japanese propaganda during the Second World War leads to a monstrous caricature of Asian features for Kang that are far more exaggerated than Ming’s ever were in this late period example of Yellow Peril fiction. Both stories would have benefitted from a more leisurely pace, but they do mark a welcome return to Alex Raymond’s original conception of the strip.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). It was followed by a sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). Next up is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com