Just a man with a man’s courage. You know he’s nothing but a man, and he can never fail. No one but the pure at heart may find the Golden Grail! – “Flash” written by Brian May.
No, I’m not talking about the return of Chickenman, although that would be welcome. Lucky for us, Rich Koz went on to bigger things. I’m taking about the man who was not comics’ first great space hero, but he was by far the best. Certainly the best drawn, with the best villain ever, anywhere. Born 90 years ago next January 7th, he was the creation of master comics artist Alex Raymond, and for over three decades, he ruled the worlds of heroic fantasy.
Flash Gordon was created as a newspaper comic strip. I assume you’ve read about newspapers online somewhere; comic strips were a feature in most of them except for the New York Times, who were too cheap to buy color presses back in the 1890s so they got all snooty about it and made it a thing. These comics told their stories on a daily basis. We still have newspaper comic strips but only four still tell continued stories, five if you count the brilliant Prince Valiant weekly. The rest are all about the tiresome adventures of misanthropomorphized two-dimensional talking animals. All newspaper extant have pretty much the same selection of funnies, as they were once known back in the days of newspaper competition.
King Features Syndicate, the Hearst-owned possessor of all things Flash Gordon, has been rerunning old daily and Sunday stories on their Comics Kingdom website; some absolutely first-rate art by Dan Barry and by Mac Raboy. They’ve also been re-running the newer Sundays by Jim Keefe. That’s a lotta Flash.
They’ve been doing the same with Popeye, a.k.a Thimble Theatre. Last year, they decided to restart the Sunday Popeye feature with new material by Randy Milholland using a new approach with stories that include the classic characters along with some new folks. It is not quite in the Segar / Sagendorf / London style — for one thing, they don’t have the real estate squatted on by the original creative talent. But it is quite respectful of the source material, and has been successful enough for KFS to add two “daily” continuity strips a week, one focusing on Olive and the other on Popeye. It’s called (wait for it) “Olive and Popeye.”
They are using this same approach on the Flash Gordon relaunch, except the dailies run six a week and, for the first time, the story is integrated with the Sundays. It’s written and drawn by Dan Schkade in a highly contemporary style that is really pissing off a handful of those old timers who are not me. It ain’t the 1930s no more, and tastes have changed. Schkade excels at his approach, and those geriatrics who can’t perceive Flash as deserving anything less than the fine illustrative technique of Alex Raymond should pull the stick out of their ass and buy a new calendar.
Here’s the amazing part. Real newspapers, in their editions that deploy real newsprint — the type that later lines birdcages and trains puppies — are picking up the strip. To “make room,” KFS ended their reprints of Alex Saviuk’s Spider-Man daily, but… at the very least… the Washington Post has picked it up. That’s a very big deal. They even ran a major promotion piece prior to the relaunch.
All this is part of a massive campaign that is putting Flash Gordon back into public consciousness, or at least hopes to. New action figures with the new approach and the new logo, a new comic book series next year from Mad Cave (they’re doing the same with Dick Tracy) and YA stories through their Papercutz imprint as well as a new live-action movie written and directed by Taika Waititi, the innovative director/writer/often-actor who did Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows. I don’t know if Waititi will be in it as well; that would be fun.
I’m sure the revived Flash Gordon will remain savior of the universe; that’s what he does. And Ming the Merciless will be his typical merciless self, albeit without the racial stereotyping of the 1930s.
Great characters deserve updating that is honest and respectful. That worked for James Bond and for Doctor Who, and there is nothing inherently ancient about this property that would negate that. But if these efforts are successful, they can, at the very least, enhance opportunities for reprinting Alex Raymond’s breathtaking work, along with that of the highly gifted artists that followed him. That, alone, makes it all worthy.