Blogging Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon, Part Five
“The Space Kids on Zoran” was Dan Barry’s first Flash Gordon storyline following the departure of Harvey Kurtzman from the strip. It was published by King Features Syndicate from April 21 to October 24, 1953. The storyline shows the influence of Captain Video and his Video Rangers, the seminal series that was to the first television generation what the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials had been to their parents. As the storyline progresses, Barry incorporates another Biblical parable, this time offering up a space age twist on the Christ story.
Dan Barry had settled into a more comfortable style with the characters that was recognizably his own take on Alex Raymond’s original work. This style would remain constant until the early 1980s. The story begins with Flash and Dale driving to visit Ray Carson, who has set up a club called the Space Kids at an abandoned site. The boys have built a full-size model rocket out of wood and spare parts that Ray’s father gave him. Flash agrees to help the boys that weekend. There is a definite switch to a more juvenile approach to the strip, with the portrayal of the kids more reminiscent of Harvey Comics than a dramatic adventure strip. The sight of Flash smoking a pipe as he surveys the youngsters’ work is also somewhat disconcerting.
From there, Flash leaves for a meeting with aeronautics industrialist, J. B. Pennington, who is employing Ray’s dad to build a rocket and has hired Flash to fly it. Pennington is the stereotypical capitalist authority figure. He is dismissive of his employees and unloving to his young son, Cyril. Flash’s contemptuous attitude is meant to endear him to the young readers of the strip more than it is to offer social criticism as the generation gap becomes one of the major themes of the storyline.
Against his father’s wishes, Cyril hops the fence of his millionaire’s prison and befriends the Space Kids after proving himself in a fight with the gang’s resident hothead. No sooner has Cyril won the respect of the other kids than they lose their respect for Flash. J. B. Pennington is the owner of the abandoned site where the Space Kids have built their model rocket. Construction workers demolish their hard work and when the boys learn Flash is working for Pennington, they believe the only adult they trusted has misled them.
Flash and Ray’s dad convince Pennington to allow the boys to tour the rocket once it is built and take part in a flight simulation under adult supervision. This serves to smooth over the tension between the boys and the resentment felt against Cyril and Ray for their fathers’ involvement in destroying their dreams. It is also the point of departure where the storyline takes a rather surprising twist.
One of the boys, Willie (who resembles Jughead from Archie Comics) has latent psychic abilities that the rocket mysteriously responds to in unexpected ways. During the flight simulation, the rocket actually launches and lands on the far distant planet of Zoran. There is a dreamlike quality to the interstellar voyage not unlike Dorothy’s trip to Oz by tornado. The strangeness doesn’t end there, for whatever Willie wishes on Zoran comes to pass as if by magic.
Meanwhile, Pennington and his son are separated from the others. Their adventures in the forests of Zoran affect a change in character for Pennington, who learns to love his son and grow as a human being. The root of his lack of compassion isn’t his greed, but rather the death of Cyril’s mom many years before. Pennington meets his late wife’s doppelganger on Zoran, a widow with a young son of her own. Together, the four of them comprise a new family unit out of the two broken ones. The nuclear family was beginning to break down in the 1950s with divorce and remarriage becoming more common and less scandalous than in previous decades. The decision to show an unorthodox family making two broken ones whole was likely a concession for the number of young readers who were experiencing the same feelings at a time when society was largely resentful of broken homes and unsympathetic to children from them.
The biblical parable comes about when the people of Zoran decide Pennington is their savior for being able to work miracles with his advanced science. Soon enough, they turn upon their savior and nearly stone him to death until Flash’s timely rescue. Pennington sets up a new utopian society on Zoran built on Marxist principles. As always happens in such situations, the greed of others quickly turns the paradise into a dystopian nightmare.
This change in the planet’s social structure alters the ecology as well. Radioactive stones recovered under the sea are being used as their system of currency. Their magnetism pulls a fiery comet from the ocean that threatens to obliterate all life on Zoran until Flash convinces the people to get rid of all money. The greedy are consumed in flames while Flash transports the rest of their currency out of the atmosphere and leads the comet off to burn out safely. This is heady stuff for kiddie fare, combining social criticism with Old Testament fire and brimstone and taking a decidedly pro-Marxist stance at a time when the McCarthy witchhunts were in full swing.
Pennington stays behind with Cyril, his new wife, and stepson on Zoran, while Flash and the other Space Kids return home. Flash and Dale are enjoying lunch on Earth when their old friend, Dr. Zarkov, returns and invites them on a fishing trip to the Caribbean, where more adventure certainly awaits.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and 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, The Triumph of Fu Manchu, and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com