Flash Gordon has been around for quite awhile. You’ve got the newspaper strip going back to the 1930s. Switching over to non-reprint comics, King and Gold Key comics periodically popped up from the 1960s through early 80s. DC’s reboot by Dan Jurgens in the late 80s. Marvel did a couple issues in the 90s. Ardden Entertainment in ’08. Dynamite in ’11. Everybody has their favorites from those runs. I’ve been partial to the Al Williamson material and have a serious soft spot for the Dan Jurgens version. All that said, Dynamite recently relaunched the franchise with a clever re-imagination and it’s jumping up the list quickly.
The King’s Watch mini-series was the relaunch vehicle for Dynamite’s treatments of the classic King Features Syndicate comic strip heroes: Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom. That series, also written by Flash Gordon writer Jeff Parker, establishes the status quo of Mongo invading Earth through portals that might be magic or might be an unknown science. At the end of the series, Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Hans Zarkoff find themselves trapped on Mongo after shutting down the portals by which Ming can access Earth. That’s where Flash Gordon #1 begins.
The comic book Flash Gordon, as well as the movies and Filmation cartoon have all been centered around Mongo. Flash Gordon visiting another planet and liberating it from the evil emperor is a classic story, but Mongo was never a constant in the original comic strip the way it tends to be in the comics. For long stretches of the strip, Ming may not appear and Flash Gordon can be more of a space opera. Whenever a comic launches, Mongo is always the first story, though. It creates a bit of a burden as the creators have to tell the classic story in their own way and try to measure up with what’s gone before.
The major tweak here is the portals. Instead of being kidnapped to Mongo by Dr. Zarkoff (i.e., the only person who really understood the threat) in a rocketship that may or may not be able to get them home, Flash and company are there in a form of sacrifice. They’ve got the mysterious crystal that let’s Ming access the Earth and they’re on the run. There are also more portals. Instead of having the various kingdoms of Mongo, the kingdoms are different worlds accessed by the portals. Ming controls Mongo and then subjugates the other worlds. Issue one finds Flash and company spending time in Arboria, now a forest world, not just a forest kingdom. It opens up the scope a bit.
The characters are slightly tweaked. Instead of a professional polo player or ex-NBA player, Flash is now a daredevil trust fund baby. Younger, brasher, but a good excuse for him to have a background in stunt flying, extreme sports and the like — he’s just been a professional adrenaline junkie who ‘s hobbies have trained him well for the situation he’s fallen into.
Dale Arden is the least changed. Still a reporter, but much more assertive than in the original
Dr. Zarkoff is now a hard drinking scientist, perhaps not quite as crazy as in some versions, but definitely cranky.
The thing that sets this comic apart from other versions is the sense of fun. This is high adventure on strange new worlds, but it doesn’t take itself overly seriously past that they’re trying to prevent an invasion of Earth. Evan Shaner is further away from the Raymond/Williamson school of art than many who have worked on Flash Gordon. He’s using a looser style, closer to something you’d see in a French science fiction graphic album. More of the Roy Crane/Milt Canniff school than Raymond school, if you want to go back to the original 1930s sources.
This comic wins on flow and tone. There’s a decent amount of characterization, too, but Flash Gordon immediately jumps on the fun train and you’re along for the ride. A great change of pace comic. Dynamite’s been doing a lot with the classic pulp characters and in many (good) ways, this is the inverse of something like The Shadow or The Spider.
To be quite honest with you, although the next thing Jeff Parker should be doing be the sequel to his Interman graphic novel (the sooner you crank that out, the sooner I stop nagging you Jeff), I would welcome Jeff Parker’s Mandrake and Phantom.
Highly recommended for anybody looking for a fun romp with aliens and monster. If you want gritty and dark, this might not be for you (but gritty and dark isn’t exactly hard to find these days).
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.