Comic for Kids
It was inevitable that I would write about the original Flash Gordon comic strip. I have already written about DC’s adaptation as well as a parody. And Flash Gordon ranks as one of my all-time favorite comics characters.
It’s a little misleading, however, to relegate the character to “kids’ comics” status only. His early adventures were published in a time when newspaper strips were read by people of all ages; when the illustrations were elevated to an art form; and when comic strips owned by different syndicates really did influence adults to buy specific newspapers. Furthermore, the character was introduced to me by an adult fan, my grandfather. And my own enjoyment of Flash Gordon has increased, not diminished, with the passage of time.
That said, I first fell in love with the character when I was a child. And I believe his early adventures provide excellent entertainment for young people and a perfect introduction to the comics medium. That’s why I’m writing about the strip today. Some of the ridiculous elements — like all the people of the planet Mongo speaking and understanding English, for example — benefit from a suspension of disbelief that is much easier for the young. The plots gallop along with a pace akin to the popular Star Wars films — which were actually patterned after the Flash Gordon serials. Flash goes from one fantastic situation to another, from the underwater city of the Sharkmen, to the floating kingdom of the Hawkmen. At the end of every strip, there is a cliffhanger that makes you eager to read the next installment.
Suspension of disbelief usually fails as one grows older. But there is another attitude that is capable of appreciating the Flash Gordon comic strip, an attitude that one can only acquire as an adult. After beholding for many years the neverending parade of instantly obsolete cultural styles and products that pass as desirable. After realizing that what we perceive as realistic and ordinary in one generation takes on the appearance of surrealism and strangeness in the next, because it is (and always was) so fundamentally weird. Look at the 80s in retrospect. The 70s, 60s, 50s. Weird, weird, weird. Cynicism gives way to humor, and one sees culture as the circus it is.
The attitude I am describing is camp: a sophisticated appreciation of kitsch, the ironic elevation of yesteryear’s cultural castoffs. Flash Gordon reads as kitsch of the highest order. Just look at the names of some of the monsters he faces: Tigrons (tigers with horns), Wolvrons (wolves with armor plating), the Octosak (an octopus with … well, it’s just a big octopus). These were plausible extraterrestrial animals when the strip came out, but now they’re laughable. Which is something Lorenzo Semple, Jr. realized when he wrote the movie screenplay.
Semple, Jr. was the main writer of the Batman television series from the 60s. You can see the same campy sensibility in both that TV series and the Flash Gordon movie. The ridiculous lines and situations, the cartoonish characters, all portrayed with straight faces.
Flash Gordon is a great comic for kids. And it is also a great comic for savvy adults.
Tomorrow: Comic That Changed Me