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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

RAYMOND'S RACIAL MYTHOS

As was the case with TERRY AND THE PIRATES, most of the material in Checker Books' 2003 collection of early FLASH GORDON (Jan '34 to Apr '35) is stuff I've read before in other editions. This early work is sometimes critically derided in favor of the more monumentalist-looking art produced by Alex Raymond in later years, but it's doubtful that the strip would have survived in its early stages without its rapid-fire offerings of serial-style danger and sexual titillation.

One thing that becomes clear from reading the early work of Raymond and writer-collaborator Don Moore is how much it stands in the shadow of Hal Foster's TARZAN. It wouldn't be impossible to view the early months as a sort of dumbed-down Tarzan, in which wild animals frequently pop up in the most absurd places (and with the most absurd anatomies, as per the "Tigrons," tigers with unicorn-horns). Now, without making a side-by-side comparison I can't say how well Foster's did in HIS first year as far as realizing the mythic quality of the Tarzan books, but he admittedly he had more to work with. Even though Edgar Rice Burroughs produced many a potboiler with both Tarzan and his own otherworldly superman John Carter, the early adventures of both prose-heroes start off with a high degree of symbolic complexity (in addition to also having lots of serial-style dangers and sexual titillations).

But FLASH GORDON doesn't come off as having much complexity in its early year. The strip's closest claim to any complexity comes out of what modern readers would find its most egregious absurdity: transplanting Earth's concept of "the Yellow Peril" to Mongo, the alien planet visited by Flash and his two-person chorus, ingenue Dale Arden and mad scientist Zarkov.

Raymond and Moore may have borrowed this notion from Burroughs, who had his John Carter butting heads with various adversaries, all pretty much humanoid but with yellow, white or black skins (though the black Martians are literally black, not just dark-brown). Another possible influence might be either the original novellas or the comic strip that gave readers Buck Rogers (1928 for the novellas, 1929 for the strip). The action of the novellas takes place entirely on a future-Earth conquered by the descendants of the "Mongolian" race, and the strip begins the same way. Toward the end of the second novella there appears a backtracking rationalization to the effect that the rapacious "Mongols" may have actually been alien-human hybrids, which serves to distance them from the ranks of real-life Asians. The strip takes a similar tack around 1930 or so, replacing the Mongolian opponents with clearly-alien "tiger-men." (This idea is tossed into the 1979 BUCK ROGERS teleseries, where an Asian-looking henchman named "Tiger-Man" serves the needs of villainous invader Princess Ardala.)

However, FG contains a Yellow Peril motif more typical of Burroughs than BUCK ROGERS: the motif of the tyrant who desires the white hero's woman (who, as in JOHN CARTER, may not actually be white herself) and the tyrant's sexy daughter who desires the white hero. This is a racial myth unquestionably directed at flattering the egos of a mostly-white American readership. Emperor Ming wants Dale, but she doesn't want him, only Flash. Flash fights Ming to save Dale, and usually rejects Ming's daughter Aura, though given her general sexiness there are naturally moments where the hero seems a trifle more conflicted in his refusal than Dale does. The manhood of the yellow-skinned Mongo-men is somewhat propped up when Aura is given a consolation prize in the form of Barin, a man of her own race, leaving old Ming odd man out.

However, despite the great fame of FLASH GORDON and the admirable skill with which it's drawn, on the basis of this first year I would not find the strip to have much mythic complexity compared to either the early Burroughs books or even the BUCK ROGERS novellas. Most of the "alien races," whether they look like humans or human-animal hybrids (Lionmen, Hawkmen), are much flatter than Burroughs' peculiar cultures, and even Buck's quasi-Mongols occasionally have something like a culture, however wrongheaded it may be. Thun, the Lionman who becomes Flash's first real alien buddy (making him a stand-in for JOHN CARTER's Tars Tarkas) actually befriends Flash after Flash shoots him down. But it's okay with Thun, 'cause Flash did it to protect Dale Arden. ????

Going by this estimation, FLASH GORDON may not be as low on the scale of complexity as, say, the original VALKYRIE tale in AVENGERS (which see), but it's pretty close.

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