Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Savior of the Universe...

Like most of my reviews, this one comes well after the release date.  But if you think about some of the movies I've been reviewing, I'm decades late.  And let's not ponder just how I'd zip back to a time before my birth to have caught some of them on opening night.  Or ponder it. Heck, I'm game.

I finally got my hands on the first volume of IDW's new reproduction of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim.  And whoa nelly, it's a beautiful book that was well worth waiting for. Over the years, I've picked up and/or flipped through a number of the reprints of Raymond's seminal space hero only to be let down by one facet of them or another. Now, while we'd all love to see someone track down all the original b&w artwork penned by Raymond for the series, until I'm a bazillionaire who can pull of such a feat, this might be one of the better collections we're going to get.

Alex Raymond (1909-1956) is legendary in the field of comics, not merely for creating Flash (who was originally meant to be competition for the popular Buck Rogers strip) but for creating an elegant, thinly lined realistic style of cartooning. Tragically, his life was cut short in an automobile accident with fellow comic artist Stan Drake (Drake survived.). His professional life and this accident were the intense focus of Dave Sim's otherwise satirical comic Glamourpuss.  Flash, however, continues to thrive and survive and Raymond's other creation, Rip Kirby, outlived its creator by another 40 years.

The introduction does a wonderful job of introducing new readers to Raymond and his work. It also attempts to tackle the controversy regarding long time Flash editor and contributor, Don Moore.  Moore took over writing Flash Gordon after Raymond left the strip to enlist for World War II, but it's often been argued whether he was writing Flash while Raymond drew it, writing additional material, or merely editing Raymond's work. The answer will likely continue to be unknown, but at least that Moore was definitely a part of the Flash and Jungle Jim families receives acknowledgement.

As to the content itself, Flash gets off to a bit of both an abrupt and slightly rough start. Anyone familiar with Raymond's prowess might be surprised just how clunky the earliest of both strips kick off, then how simplistic they become before finally settling into all the flowing line work. I've gone over a number of strip collections and seen the work grow over many years. Raymond, however, moves by leaps and bounds in developing his style...then takes a few steps back...then leaps forward again. If you wanna see an artist grow, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than this book.  The writing too takes a fair bit of time to finally find its legs, but there's never a dull moment as the story rushes headlong forward from the first strip. The only strange part is the weird obsession with characters wanting to marry one another, but you'll have to read them to find out.

I was surprised that the book also featured a warning concerning the racial stereotyping featured in the stories. I'm going to have to say that Jungle Jim, with it's jungle natives and treacherous local guides is far more likely to ruffle feathers.  It certainly doesn't go out of it's way to be offensive like many other works of the time, but it's still offensive. In Flash, on the other hand, it's always surprised me that Ming the Merciless managed to reach a far more neutral place despite his obvious "Yellow Peril" roots. He and his men start as an almost caricature of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. I suppose his escape from stereotype hell has something to do with his being from another planet, and that other than the occasional outfit, there's nothing terribly Asian about him.  In any event, you've been warned.

The book's a good 16" x 12", which might not quite match the newspapers of the day, it's quite generous for a polo-playing space jockey that's nearly eighty years old now. While there's clearly limitations in the source material from one strip to the next, the line work is generally clear and detailed. The colors are well-reproduced, (but...ok, back to my dream project up there...I'd love to see a side by side of the b&w originals paired with the colored version that went to print), but occasionally mask some of the inking beneath. While a few strips looked like they'd had a good washing out, most are probably as crisp if not far crisper than when they saw print in the 1930's. In all, it's a most happy edition to my shelves and a font of inspiration.

(Note: This reproduction's not from this wonderfully printed book...but is hilarious nonetheless.)