Space Opera's Champion, Flash Gordon, Turns 80!

Admit it, when you hear the words “Flash Gordon” your knee-jerk reaction is to belt out “AAAAAAH!” like you were Freddie Mercury standing on top of a Saturn V rocket at peak roar.

And that’s fine. Because many of us grew up in the 80s watching the Mike Hodges flick on cable reruns or well-worn VHS cassettes. If you love guilty pleasure flicks, ridiculous dialogue, and campy acting, you’re likely a fan of that film—and not in the way you’re a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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We all know who the true hero of that film is. Image: Flash Gordon (1980).

At this point, your entire knowledge-base of the character has been one big lead up to this:

Sam Jones makes Mark Wahlberg’s childhood fantasy come true in Ted.

And that’s not as fine. Flash Gordon is a cultural icon that pretty much defined science fantasy in the early part of the 20th century, appearing first in publication on January 7, 1934.

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What started out as a challenger to Buck Rogers newspaper comic strips from illustrator Alex Raymond, quickly became a phenomenon. It was the 1930s version of a viral hit that spun off into a decades-long tumble through the jungles of Arboria and frozen wastes of Friggia, on radio shows, in movie serials, on television, in books, and through toys and games. Flash Gordon was basically Star Wars for the baby boomers.

Top picture: Flash Gordon by Ty Romsa.

Flash was the undisputed king of space opera.

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Alex Raymond’s first Flash Gordon newspaper strip, via Wikipedia.

At least, he was until the end of the 1950s. While Flash still appeared in comic books, his star dimmed next to more “grown up” scifi. High school kids who grew up on rayguns and rockets, graduated to parables of Cold War paranoia (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.). As the media platforms matured, and the scifi fare of the day followed—as it should.

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Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon

But Flash’s struggles against the tyrannical Ming the Merciless persisted, exposing a fresh batch of fans to new interpretations of the Mongo-verse every decade or so. Though he appeared in several comics and a few newspaper strips, mostly, his glory days were behind him. He needed a reboot.

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A small film that did reasonably well enough to earn a sequel or five. Image: Star Wars.

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He almost got it. In the early 70s, he finally got the reception he deserved. Just, not as Flash Gordon. This time his name would be Luke Skywalker and he’d have the benefit of more than forty years of successfully time-tested scifi, fantasy, and pulp adventure tropes to help him weave a space opera legacy.

Scrolling titles, swinging saviors, and strange beasts, oh my!

When George Lucas and his producing team looked into securing the rights to Flash—a character he’d grown up idolizing at movie matinees—the impetus to create something larger and more mythic was born. Lucas has recounted the missed opportunity several times over the years. But what he did accomplish for Flash was ultimately better than reinventing his look. He make the entire genre of space opera cool again.

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Cool enough to spawn imitators—including Flash—which was revived in animated form (three times, even!), the previously mentioned cheestastic movie, and a live action TV series. And comics, oh the comics! DC, Dynamite, and others have since published their own take on Flash.

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Flash’s comic strip illustrators through the years, via Jim Keefe.

His last go-round in newspaper strips ended in 2003, but you can still catch them online in a newly launched Flash Gordon web comic site from King Features Syndicate. Kubert School-trained artist Jim Keefe took the reigns in 1996 and spun his own interpretation of Flash’s interplanetary escapades that paid loving tribute to Raymond’s gonzo swashbuckler. Keefe’s stories are filled with finned rockets, dastardly villains, strange dinosaurs, and the like. This time the damsels are less likely to be in distress, and more likely to be causing some of their own.

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Art by Jim Keefe, image: King Features Syndicate.

With such great company, Flash is likely to be swashbuckling around the moons of Mongo, saving the Earth, for many more decades to come.

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Join the celebration:

  1. Jim Keefe gives a snapshot of Flash’s publication history in comic strips.
  2. A brief tribute to Flash on my own blog, Exonauts. And a slew of other FG posts where I foam with unabashed fanboyism.
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Jay Mac Bride is a blogger, not a fighter—usually of science fictional things, comics, games, movies and the like. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with a wife, a Samdog, and a 5-month-old Bean. It drives him crazy when people can’t tell the difference between DC Comics’ The Flash and Flash Gordon.

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