SUPERCOMICS OF THE 1930s: ALEX RAYMOND'S FLASH GORDON AND JUNGLE JIM
In the introduction to Volume 1 of IDW's "Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim," historian Bruce Canwell provides some context for the unheralded "Wordsmith of Mongo," a.k.a. Mr. Donald Wynkoop Moore. "That Don Moore worked on 'Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon' is established fact," writes Canwell, "even if the starting point of his involvement and the exact nature of his duties remain unsolved mysteries."
But the 12"x16" hardcover collections of "Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim" don't exist because the public is clamoring for oversized editions of Don-Moore-written comics. The evidence is contradictory about Moore's contribution to either strip, about when he began working with artist Alex Raymond and whether he was the primary developer of storylines or just the guy who helped to keep the strip from offending too many readers or the scripter of the dialogue over Raymond's panels. Canwell rightly explains the various accounts of Don Moore's role on the strips presented in this volume, and while it may be interesting to learn more about the oft-forgotten member of the "Flash Gordon" creative team, it's of little significance in the overall package.
"Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim" is an art book dressed like a comic book.
Don Moore, no matter his contributions to plot or audience awareness or dialogue, can't help but seem like a footnote next to the artistry of Alex Raymond. This is his book, even if the introduction raises its hand and says, "don't forget about the other guy!"
As soon as you flip past the opening text, the Alex Raymondness of the pages overwhelms any attempt to say anything else matters.
Alex Raymond's "Flash Gordon" is such a seminal work in comics that it's difficult to look at it as anything but an historical artifact. It's old, too. Let's not forget that. The first strip appeared on January 7, 1934. It is an historical artifact. Older than almost anything we might still read today, unless we're recovering Classics majors or we specialize in the Romantics or we can't get enough Elizabethan drama.
Is "Flash Gordon" in the same category as some of the great works of literature of the past? Nope. But it looks better than all of them, and much of what we think about when we think of "comics" can be found in "Flash Gordon." Maybe it starts here, with Alex Raymond, or maybe he's just the best at doing it out of anyone in his generation, but if you look at the pages inside this volume, you'll see an essential part of the origin story of the very concept of the comic book.
And what IDW has done with this set of oversized editions -- planned as four total volumes of Alex Raymond's run, from what I understand -- is to reframe the conversation by presenting the "Flash Gordon" color strips in their original context, with "Jungle Jim" at the top of (almost) every page. So we experience the full page as designed by Alex Raymond. "Jungle Jim" was his project as well, and it was launched with "Flash Gordon" as part of a whole. The strips are unrelated, except that they're both drawn by Alex Raymond. But that's enough.
"Jungle Jim" is the lesser known work by far, and there's a simple reason for that: it is conventional where "Flash Gordon" is heroically ambitious, and it's mundane where "Flash Gordon" is extraordinarily imaginative. "Jungle Jim" -- a strip about a "hunter, trapper, explorer" -- is bound by the laws of nature. Physics still apply in his world, even as he fends off wild beasts and rescues the helpless.
"Flash Gordon" stands in defiance of all of that. In the very first strip, the title character rockets away from the Earth and never looks back. He enters into a fantastic universe of pure imagination, where each creature he meets is stranger than the first, and the landscape becomes as malleable as Raymond can allow, and he allows plenty. "Flash Gordon" owes a debt to books like Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars," but prose descriptions of an alien planet cannot compare to Raymond's eager renderings of a battalion of space gyros or the undersea kingdom of the shark men or the majesty of Vultan's aerie.
The contrast between the pseudo-Hemingway-heroic "Jungle Jim" and the beyond-operatic-sci-fi-wonderment of "Flash Gordon" demonstrates Raymond's range and validate that there is, indeed, something special about these old "Flash Gordon" strips. They are not just better than everyone else's strips at the time, they are better than Raymond's other strips by far. "Flash Gordon" is unique in the density of its plot events -- the first few months of strips catapult the title character from one new cliffhanger in a strange civilization to the next, without anything resembling a breather -- and the way Raymond seems to fall increasingly in love with the faraway world as the strip continues. Though "Jungle Jim" takes up roughly a third of the page and "Flash Gordon" takes up two-thirds (until a few aberrant weeks in 1935 when they each received full pages), the strips begin with similar amounts of detail. But soon, the exotic alien world of "Flash Gordon" is rendered with more lush brushwork, and as Raymond grows as an artist -- and you can definitely see him explode from a creative genius to a masterful creative genius by the end of the first volume -- the always-more-than-competent look of "Jungle Jim" is dwarfed by the beauty of "Flash Gordon."
All this talk of beauty and majesty makes "Flash Gordon" sound sterile, and it's not at all. It's offensive at times, with unfortunate racist caricatures all-too-often, and it's sexist and so sexy that Raymond was forced to tone it down to avoid further controversy. It's also passionate and heroic and exciting, but, most of all, vividly detailed.
One added benefit, or maybe it's a side-effect, of seeing "Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim" on the same page together is that you can see Raymond's ideas overlapping at times, especially in the early strips. A lion will appear in "Jungle Jim" and a race of lion men will follow in "Flash Gordon." A snake will strike in "Jungle Jim" and a spear will snap at a defender with cobra-like speed in "Flash Gordon." One could almost read "Flash Gordon" as the dreams of the Earth-bound Jungle Jim. His fantasy world, played out for us in real time.
"Flash Gordon," dream or not, has lingered and become the truth, while "Jungle Jim" has faded from memory. But here they are, together again for us to appreciate, and, most importantly, enjoy.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.