Gordon sprang from the mind of Alex Raymond, who developed the character for a
comic strip in the "King Features" newspaper in 1934. Flash was advertised as a
"fair-haired spaceman" who, along with his girlfriend Dale Arden, had adventures
on the planet Mongo and other exotic locations. The newspaper paid Alex
$15 a week for the comic strip but also insisted that he assist as a syndicated
staff artist to receive full payment. During his time with the newpaper, Raymond
also created Secret Agent X-9, Jungle Jim, Rip Kirby, and several failed comic
strips about police squads fighting crime in the big city.
Flash gained an unusual
amount of praise in 1936 by politicians who associated the storyline, with its
emphasis on aerial fighting ships, with the New Deal. Consequently, Flash
surpassed the popularity of Buck Rogers, an older but very successful comic
strip. Universal bought the rights to Raymond's creation and turned it into a
major motion picture with a budget of $350,000, roughly twice that of other
serial films at the time.
Larry "Buster" Crabbe and Jean Rogers brought the main
characters of Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to life where they faced the emperor
Ming, a tyrant who ruled the universe from the planet Mongo.
The serial was such a huge success that
Universal continued the adventures in another serial set in 1938 that was later
edited into the feature film, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars. In the second serial,
directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill, Flash fought to save Earth from Ming
the Merciless who had begun raiding Earth to steal its oxygen supply.
Ford Beebe managed to convince Universal
to give the serial a last fling. In 1940, they released a last set which was
later edited into the feature film Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In this
adventure, Flash again battled Ming the Merciless who met his doom in a very
weak sequel. With Ming dead and the studios loosing interest in Flash, the
franchise fell silent.
In 1951, Dan Barry resumed the
comic version of Flash Gordon, providing his space adventures in both newspapers
and comic books. These ran until 1967, when Dan Barry died. In those years the
comic books gained the contributions of Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Fred
Kida, Bob Fujitani and Harry Harrison.
Howard Ziehm and Michael Benveniste looked to the classic Flash Gordon serials
for their 1972 soft-porn version, Flesh Gordon. In this adventure Flesh fought
to defeat Wang the Perverted and his Sex Ray. The humor and acting in this
production were poor but the animated creatures, models, and special effects
were outstandingly done by some of the founders of Industrial Light and Magic.
Flash had a small revival when the original 1936 story
was retold with variations in The New Adventures of Flash
Gordon, a cartoon version of the story released in 1979 by Filmation
Productions. This cartoon featured all of the original characters and detailed
how Flash and his companions traveled to the planet Mongo, where they were
forced to battle its ruler, Ming the Merciless, and his army of robots. To help
their cause, the heroes formed an alliance with King Thun, leader of the Lion
People, Prince Barin, leader of Aboria, and King Vultan, ruler of the Hawkmen.
A year later, in 1980, Dino De Laurentis
decided to bring Flash back to the big screen in a big-budget box-office
sleeper that lost money. More folks remembered the main title song by Queen
("Flash .... AHHHHH!") than the movie itself. Sam Jones
played Flash Gordon, with Melody Anderson as a stunning Dale Arden playing
opposite a wonderfully evil Max
Von Sydow as Ming The Merciless.
The story was a close tribute to the
original, in which Ming the Merciless opts to destroy Earth out of sheer
boredom, and Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov gather the other denizens of Mongo to revolt against him. The
film reflects the bigger-than-life Queen soundtrack, with the characters and
action played extremely broadly, even campy, and lacking any real sense of danger or fear ... but
it is fun, fun, fun.