Sunday, March 17, 2013
King Of The Space-Ways!
Spent a wonderful late winter day enjoying some warmer temperatures and reading Flash Gordon, specifically those issues of the comic book produced by King Features under their own brand in the years 1967 and 1968. This was ulitmately a failed experiment by the venerable comic strip syndicate, but it did produce some handsome comics.
The debut issue features an Al Williamson cover. Williamson is also the artist in charge inside the comic and in tandem with writers Larry Ivie and Archie Goodwin produces an utterly fantastic rendition of Flash, Zarkov, and Dale as they struggle against the forces of Ming the Merciless and then return to Earth to penetrate its crust to confront a subterranean society. The issue is exceedingly handsome througout and offers up big entertainment. To read the whole issue check out this link.
Alas the consistency problem which will plague this series becomes evident in the second issue as Frank Bolle steps in on art chores. I did seem to detect the hand of Mike Sekowsky in places, but that might've been my imagination. The cover is splendid by Gil Kane. The work here is perfectly fine, but is a step down from the first issue which evoked the best of the Alex Raymond heyday of the classic hero. Bolle is a sturdy and reliable storyteller, but quiet. The story, again by Goodwin, seems somehow more pedestrian, despite the fact it reintroduces a classic villain to the fold.
The third issue under an outstanding Williamson cover with our hero and heroine in fine form despite the polka-dots, showcases the writing of Bill Pearson and the evocative artwork of Ric Estrada. I really like what Estrada did here, providing a dynamic comic book story, but it's not what most folks expect out of a Flash Gordon story, at least in looks. We get to meet two new Mongo races though, the Lizard Men and and a race of shape-changing centaur creatures called Unitaurs. There is also a one-eyed giant dubbed a "Monolith".
I should mention here that interspersed between these books is a back-up serial by Wally Wood and later by Gil Kane about Flash and some space pirates which appeared in pages of The Phantom. The writer of these charming little lightweight adventure stories is apparently unknown. The cover Kane produced for issue two seems to be related to this ongoing tale.
The fourth issue of the series introduces the "Lost Continent" of Mongo which will more or less be the setting for the remainder of the King Features run. Archie Goodwin is again teamed with Al Williamson who does the cover too. It's a stirring story, classic Flash Gordon as the trio penetrate an unknown land filled with dangerous folk, offbeat machines, and peculiar creatures.
The search of the Lost Continent and the battle against Ming continues in the next issue, again by Goodwin and Williamson. Another great Williamson cover closes out his contribution to the series. Larry Ivie writes the second of two stories in the issue about an unusual plague, and adds information to the back story of one of the oldest Alex Raymond characters. It's a solid example of what I think King Features hoped this series might become.
Things shift in the next issue as both Goodwin and Williamson depart for good. The are replaced by Bill Pearson and artist Reed Crandall. Pearson's scripts reveal a solid understanding of Flash lore, but do unfortunately lack the crispness of Goodwin's. It's not much of a fall off though, and anyone falls short of the later great Archie Goodwin. The story is pretty entertaining though as Flash and his colleagues again penetrate the Lost Continent and confront the "Cliff Men" (cave men with antlers) led by a mysterious hooded character who turns out to be bald-headed chap who plays a big role in the next issue. Though more static than Williamson's version, I rather like Crandall's handsome take on Flash and friends, as can be seen in the cover he produced above. As you can see the fetish for Dale to wear polka-dots doesn't go away.
The story is interrupted by some choice Mac Raboy reprints. Handsome though they are, they point to an inability to meet the production schedule, a weakness for a fledgling comic book producer looking to make inroads in the market at the time. That's a Raboy cover too by the way.
Pearson and Crandall return in the next issue, one handsomely decorated by an Alex Raymond image from the original series. This one is special to me in many ways as it was my very first Flash Gordon comic ever. It was very nice to read it again after so many years and this time in its proper story context. The story continues from the last issue as Flash and Dale and Zarkov again match wits with races and threats on the Lost Continent of Mongo. The Kangaroo Men called "Proles" are especially entertaining.
The wheels begin to come off with the very next issue as we are presented with the first of two reprint issues. Admittedly these are high-quality reprints show off the classic Alex Raymond work from the original series. Raymond art forms the cover too.
This issue completes the two-part reprint interlude of classic Alex Raymond material. The cover artist for this issue is unidentified.
Pearson and Crandall are back for one more King Features issue, but oddly their work is under a Dan Barry cover which has pretty much nothing to do with the material underneath. Flash and Dale and Zarkov are navigating a river, again on the Lost Continent I think, when they fall into the clutches of a pygmy race called the Kirans (which I think was a ultimately confusing attempt to tie this story into the last two issues of reprints). The Kirans hold them captive and the trio have to struggle with what is real and unreal to try and save themselves from mortal danger.
And that wraps up the King Features experiment in comic book publication, at least in terms of Flash Gordon. But the story wasn't over quite yet.
Material produced for the King line by Pearson and Crandall gets published in the debut Charlton issue. Here Flash has to confront an old enemy in an odd new way and a new enemy who poses a truly deadly and frankly really terrifying threat to the whole of Mongo society. This is topsy-turvy adventure and pretty exciting really, but alas it's all there would be from this successful team.
Pearson returns though for the first story in the next Charlton issue, but the artist is a fledgling talent by the name of Jeff Jones. As it turns out this somewhat notorious art job was never supposed to see publication, but was produced by Jones and a friend in a whirlwind sitting to meet the deadline and get paid before King Features experiment in comics ceased to exist. It shows once again that the monthly publication of comics requires greater organization than many believe. The cover of this issue is by Pat Boyette who would take over the series, but that's a story for another day.
A few pieces of art have surfaced over the years. The cover art above is a beauty by Crandall, though it doesn't really correlate to any of the stories he produced for the series. Possibly a cover for the tenth or eleventh issue. It's sure handsome though.
This final piece appears to be one final cover image from Crandall for the twelfth issue apparently, but appears to my eye unfinished though it does show off well the Crandall version of Raymond's classic heroic trio.
The King Feature years of production have many charms but like most comic book publishers ultimately fell away when profits didn't match expectations. It turns out it is easier and apparently more profitable to let others produce the comics and whatnot with the license you manage. King Features has since found that the more comfortable road.