Before Superman. Before Batman. Before any of the characters who we think of as superheroes, there was Flash Gordon. Strong, handsome, and able to single-handedly take on the galactic despot Ming the Merciless. Now, almost seventy-five years later, Titan Books is bringing back the classic adventures of Flash Gordon in a handsom hardcover edition featuring the full-color Sunday strips of his creator, Alex Raymond.
A collection like this needs to be evaluated on two criteria: one about the stories and art contained within, and one about the quality of the reproduction of the strips. Luckily, this collection scores high in both!
One of the problems many Golden Age collections (or earlier!) have is that the stories do not hold up particularly well. The stories are cheesy, the characters are one-dimensional, and the art is downright primitive. However Flash Gordon is in an elite group of comic strips which transcend their time and seem just as fresh and vibrant today as they did in 1934.
After all that high praise, I must admit that the Flash Gordon strips did not start out at that high level. For the first few months, the art was rough and the stories seemed more interesting in providing some new strange creature than in giving the reader a story. (Example, it is over twenty strips before Ming the Merciless is named. In that time his daughter, his chief advisor, five different monsters, and the prince of the Lion Men are all named) However, the strip quickly finds its storytelling groove. Flash Gordon and Ming become locked in an ever-intensifying dispute which regularly requires Flash to engage in brutal combat with some dastardly foe. It is serial story-telling in the finest tradition of Paramount movie serials (of which Flash Gordon made several).
Even better than the storytelling is the art. At first is tis generic, rough, and not very impressive. However, within a year, Alex Raymond finds his style. The Flash Gordon strip is transformed into a dynamic and downright gorgeous strip which rival’s Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. (Note: Hal Foster created the visuals of Prince Valiant as a response to what was being done in Flash Gordon.) Gone are the clumsy figures and 9 panels per strip layout. Now there were just four or five panels, with fully formed characters and jaw-dropping backgrounds. Looking at these strips today makes me wonder what has happened to the quality of art in comics? Nothing, and I mean nothing, can hod a candle to the majesty between these covers.
Which brings us to the reproduction. The gold standard of reprints will always be the Prince Valiant collections from Fantagraphics. Everything about the hardcover books is top shelf. From paper quality and printing to source scans, they do everything right. But, you also pay for it. A single volume (two years) of Prince Valiant strips will run you approximately $30 (well worth it!!!). Titan is giving you four years worth of Flash Gordon for $40. Best of all, this is no cheap reprint tossed together just to make a buck.
It appears that Titan has made every effort o get the best possible scans for this edition. The paper quality is good, and the bonus material is good as well (a couple of essays and some previously unseen art). It is actually a pleasure to read these strips! The only place where everything is not top-notch is in the sections where Titan re-formatted the strips to match the landscape form of the book. A series of strips were printed portrait-style originally. When they were re-formatted for this bok, the strips look a bit off. The enlargements take away some of the fine-ness of the scan and give the strips a slightly blurry appearance. Luckily this is in only two places. The rest of the book, as I mentioned before, is stunning.
I have a couple of other collections of Flash Gordon in my library. However none are as beautiful or enjoyable as this one. Whether you are a long-ime fan of Flash, or new to him, Flash Gordon and the Plane Mongo is well worth your time and money.
Flash Gordon is available in stores today. Looking for a screaming deal? Order your copy of Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo here.