When I was eight years old, some friends of the family gave me The Star Wars Storybook. Back in 1979, there was just one movie (and a confusing, once-seen Christmas special), and the action figures.
Everything I could learn of the larger universe of the movie that had changed my life was in that book. I wanted to know about the rebels, the past of Darth Vader and Kenobi, and who were these alliance pilots and Grand Moff Tarkin?
Some questions were answered in Empire, and Return of the Jedi, and others I got through comic books (I really enjoyed the Marvel Star Wars comic series started in 1977). And of course, we have the Jar-Jar infected prequels, which, with just enough denial, can be watchable for the light saber fights, or shown to children, who love them.
But it was only yesterday, when I saw Rogue One, that I saw the world I’d glimpsed when pressing my face against the glass as an eight-year old. I watched Rogue One with my brother, his eleven-year old son, and my own eleven-year old. And I really enjoyed it, in a complex way.
When we last left our intrepid blogger (me) two weeks ago, he was blogging (very roughly) about the superhero genre, pre- and post-Watchmen, and the kind of light that Alan Moore’s Watchmen shone onto superhero comics. I did this because I think Moore did something very special and I wondered if it could be done to other fields, especially planetary romance.
I ended on a cliffhanger. And now, Part II….
I said last time that most of the traditions of the superhero genre were born in a very brief period between 1938 and 1945. In fact, the elements of the superhero tradition come part and parcel from the larger pulp tradition, which contained westerns; gritty and occasionally lurid detective stories; and planetary romances like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, John Carter of Mars, and Carson Napier of Venus.
The planetary romance tradition was powerfully tailored to its key market: white male American teens and men. If you were an under-appreciated teen with hero or power fantasies, pulp was your thing.
The heroes were young, white, smart, good looking, physically able, self-deprecating, and commanding. They confronted immediate perils (like a monster) or vast dangers (like an invasion), often single-handedly, or from a position of inspiring leadership.
And the opponents the hero fought were most often one-dimensional, morally-destitute cardboard placeholders for savage (non-whites) in our world, a view consistent with racial views of the late 19th century.
“Return to Mongo” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from January 2 to March 24, 1956. The story gets underway with a party celebrating Dr. Zarkov’s newly discovered young adult daughter Zara and her arrival on Earth after growing up on an otherwise deserted swamp planet with her mother. Flash, Dale, and the Space Kids are at the party when Zarkov is alerted to the discovery that Mongo is once again entering Earth’s orbit and threatening our world’s stability. Willie, who still has the ability to psychically grant wishes, inadvertently teleports everyone from the party to Mongo.
Flash and the Space Kids are immediately set upon by Queen Azura’s cowled servants, who nearly massacre them. Working as a team to defeat Azura’s servants, Flash and the Space Kids are overcome by a paralyzing gas as they explore a nearby cave. They are subsequently captured and brought to Queen Azura’s palace, where they learn she is plotting to overthrow Prince Barin.
“The Swamp Girl” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from October 31 to December 31, 1955. Just as Dan Barry guided the strip closer to its origins, he took two sidesteps in introducing a back-story for Dr. Zarkov that Alex Raymond never intended. “The Swamp Girl” introduces us to a hot-tempered, beautiful young woman called Zara, whose mother was the sole survivor when her rocket crashed on the swamp world of Malagua twenty years before.
As the story begins, Lisa (Zara’s mother) is succumbing to malaria just as her daughter has finally succeeded in repairing their rocketship. Zara sets off to visit her father’s home world of Earth and fulfill her mother’s dying request that her daughter bring the father she has never met to see her mother before she dies, so that her mother may reconcile with him.
Zara arrives on Earth with her pet black panther, Octavio. Their ship’s coordinates take them to the desert town where Zara’s father, Dr. Zarkov, lives. After upsetting the neighborhood and evading the police, both the swamp girl and her panther reach their destination.
“Space Circus” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from September 5 to October 29, 1955. “Space Circus” is significant for being the first time in the Dan Barry strips where Flash’s past adventures on Mongo are now an integral part of the storyline. One wonders if reader response prompted King Features to request a change of direction from what would today be considered a reboot to a direct sequel to the original storyline of the early 1930s.
“Space Circus” gets underway with Flash abducted by a flying saucer while out driving on a desert road late one night. Abduction by UFO was a relatively new concept in the 1950s, but one that was spreading rapidly as a fear that many shared during the Cold War era. The aliens are from the planet Mesmo and appear as Asian caricatures. While a number of the inhabitants of Mongo were depicted as Asian in appearance, they were portrayed as being exotic and not as demeaning cartoonish representations. While there were certainly many more offensive Yellow Peril figures in comics of the era, the Mesmans are a far cry from the seductive and imposing inhabitants of Mongo as Alex Raymond portrayed them.
“Starling” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from July 11 to September 3, 1955. “Starling” starts off with Flash visiting Dr. Zarkov one evening to find his old friend depressed, as the U.S. Government has turned down his request for an additional million dollars funding to finish construction of the Super-S Rocket. It is a nice hint of direction for the strip to come, which will take the series closer to its roots. Flash and Zarkov are startled by the discovery of a prowler outside, but the man gets away.
Over the next few days, similar disturbing incidents occur. Flash and Dale are nearly run down by a speeding car while out walking one afternoon on the grounds of Zarkov’s estate. Later, a crate is dropped off the roof of a downtown building when Flash is walking beneath and just misses him. Shortly thereafter, Zarkov receives a telephone call from B. B. Remsen, the billionaire industrialist requesting an interview with Flash.
Upon visiting Remsen’s estate, Flash is outraged to discover Remsen hired his goon, Byron, to test Flash’s reflexes by nearly running him down with a speeding car and dropping a crate off a building. Byron was the prowler at Zarkov’s estate who learned of the need for financing for the Super-S Rocket. Remsen agrees to finance the rocket if Flash will take on a unique assignment. Remsen’s very wild granddaughter, Starling, wants to travel in space and Remsen wants Flash to pilot the rocket that will take her to the stars.
“Tympani” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from April 27 to July 9, 1955. The strip gets underway with Flash returning to Earth and taking Dale out to enjoy a symphony orchestra concert. Dale’s hair has reverted to its classic look, happily. The concert goes awry when the orchestra launches into a piece and the audience is deafened by the cacophonous sound.
Taking to the streets, they discover every car horn in the city is going off causing accidents and traffic jams. The situation spreads over the globe with factory whistles going off, sonar jamming, rockets misfiring, etc. Soon train accidents cripple the food industry and fuel truck accidents leave people without heat in winter. Dr. Zarkov is busy researching sound vibrations to try to get to the root of the problem that has threatened civilization.
“The Trail of the Vulke” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from February 7 to April 26, 1955.
This is an interesting tale that sees Barry re-examining two of his favorite themes — myths and religious fanaticism.
The story kicks off with Flash driving up to Dale’s house for a dinner date and finding her home dark. Warily, he enters the house and Barry shows us menacing shadowy figures watching from the window in the front room.
It turns out to be a surprise birthday party for Flash thrown by Dale and the Space Kids. Improbably, they have arranged the rental of a rocketship from the Space Academy to allow Flash and the Space Kids to travel to Zoriana and pay a visit to Cyril and Mr. Pennington. Barry gets some mileage out of portraying Flash as henpecked and having to ask Dale permission to have an adventure. In no time at all, Flash and the boys are off to the stars and arrive on Zoriana in due course.
“The Martian Baby” by Dan Barry was serialized by King Features Syndicate from November 15, 1954 to February 5, 1955.
The story gets underway in another tranquil setting with Flash and Dale enjoying a picnic in the country (Dale is supporting a very short, but stylish new haircut) only to have their peaceful interlude disturbed by a flying saucer that buzzes them so closely they are forced to run for cover. The saucer lands and reveals its occupant is a Martian baby crying for its mother.
The baby is far heavier than it appears, absorbs all moisture (staying dry during rain), and munches away happily on flowers. Apart from that, the little tyke with the Mohawk seems human. While Dale’s maternal instincts quickly come to the fore, another saucer appears and obliterates the baby’s ship with a death ray beam. Flash, Dale, and the baby seek shelter in the woods. Dan Barry gives readers a glimpse of the exotic and beautiful alien female piloting the saucer and immediately diffuses the threat in accordance with the gender politics of the 1950s.
Every so often though, I’d find Space 1999 in the TV Guide; it was pretty cool. The sets and ships were pretty different from the sleek models in every other scifi show, and the space suits and the Moon seemed so alien. Twenty-five years later, armed with a couple of science degrees, I ordered a season for nostalgia’s sake.
O. M. G.
It was awful. Aside from the terrible writing and passive characters, and the apparent scattering of Caucasian British humans throughout the cosmos, I could do nothing but choke on the science and toss this drivel into a corner (actually, I think I left the boxed set in Havana, but that’s a story for another time…).