Andy’s Read Pile: King Features, Flash Gordon

AndyWhat be the haps, all you fine familiars out there? It’s Andy Larson with another great entry to the best comic book related way to kill some time on a Monday when you don’t want to look at those quarterly reports: A Read Pile Review!

This particular entry has it’s roots in a podcast we did way back in June in which we reviewed Jeff Parker & Doc Shaner’s fantastic Flash Gordon series put out by Dynamite Comics.

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Although you can listen to the show by clicking above, the long and the short of it was many of us Ghosts really liked that series, however we were equally bummed out when it only lasted 8 issues and somewhat ended unceremoniously just when things were getting good. When Chad mentioned that it could have been because of the King Features initiative that Dynamite was doing at the time to rebrand all their books, I did say that there was a follow up 4 issue series written by Ben Acker with that King Features branding that came out right after this series closed.

I was then asked if I read that series and whether it answered any of the open ended questions, to which I said that I felt so cheated by the removal of Jeff Parker that I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I then had to suffer ridicule and jest from my fellow co hosts in that just because there was a different writer didn’t mean that the story was automatically worthy of dismissal.

To this day, that criticism from my peers has stuck with me so much, that even though I felt totally justified in saying that Jeff Parker created the vision for this version of Flash and that I wanted to see that vision completed, maybe now in retrospect I was wrong. Maybe I should read the Ben Acker 4 issue mini that followed and see where that takes me. After all as my cousin, JA Scott, pointed out, tons of people wrote Spider-man after Lee & Ditko left, and some of those stories are even better.

It’s hard to argue with this logic, so here it is finally, folks. A sequel of sorts to that original podcast in which I take a look at the King Features Flash Gordon series and see if it measures up to the Jeff Parker run which I adored so very much.

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So the story does somewhat pick up where Jeff Parker’s run ends, with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov flying around the universe trying to disrupt Ming’s empire wherever they can. Zarkov is still a boozy but brilliant master planner, Dale is an independent take charge kind of gal, and Flash…well…he’s a reckless yet selfless physical specimen who mostly does the action bits and heavy lifting. It’s somewhat of a far cry from some of the other Flash Gordon stories out there that make Flash out to be some sort of tactical genius and natural born leader in addition to being the supreme fighter in the universe. And although Jeff Parker was more tongue and cheek about Flash’s lack of intelligence, Ben Acker seems to dial that up to 11 in that Flash is more often than not self depreciating in his admittance that he’s not the smartest tack in the box and that without Dale and Zarkov to point him in the right direction, his physical skills would be of little use.

It’s almost as if Ben views Flash’s traditional character as one of the more boring ones in history and instead casts him as being almost a mockery of it, more of a figurehead than an actual leader, a love sick puppy dog over Dale instead of the other way around. In fact, if he wasn’t shown so often doing traditional hero bits like sacrificing his life either in the vacuum of space to retrieve an important artifact despite Dale and Zarkov’s pleads that it was too dangerous, you could view Flash’s role in the proceedings as pretty worthless, nothing but a good looking guy to serve as window dressing. I can’t get to upset about this though, as that’s what many writers over the years have reduced the character of Dale Arden to. And I think that was the major point of this 4 issue story line: To flip the script.

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I say that because all  the real character development and true heroics are all done by Dale Arden in this story. She’s the one that handles all the real negotiations when it comes to dealing with making alliances with members of resistance, showing a real knack for diplomacy and tact, whereas Flash just relies on somewhat suicidal bravado.

However, no more is this dynamic more clear that when it comes to the relationship between her and Flash. Unlike She’s the one that really doesn’t want anything to do with him romantically, stringing him along not in a malicious manner but in strong decisive “I’m just not into this type of guy” manner. She’s the one that defeats the Octosak on Coralia, mainly because the local royalty there wants Flash to herself and views Dale as a threat to that. This is direct call back to the earliest comic strips by Alex Raymond except the roles are completely switched.

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And most importantly Flash is the one that is pushing for a monogamous relationship with Dale because he’s so head over heels in love with her. And it’s not just because she’s the only Earth woman within a billion miles, it’s because as he states pretty clearly that he views her as the hero of this story, the one that will truly save the universe and should be admired by everyone including himself.

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It’s so honest and sincere as well in his belief that one can’t help but agree with him, and see in that moment what a fully fleshed out and competent Dale Arden means to the Flash Gordon universe on the whole, and how we have been somewhat cheated in the past by not having one.

In fact, in the end, Flash completely “sacrifices” himself  to ensure Dale has every opportunity to meet her full potential as a leader. Sure, he fakes his own death as a part of a plan by Zarkov to make him the symbolic martyr for the rebellion, a perfect legendary hero which can be the rallying point for so many of the worlds that Ming has enslaved, but to Flash, it means so much more. He is getting out of the way to allow Dale to take center stage in a universe that might not let her just simply because of his presence. I mean, would you read a Dale Arden book if Flash Gordon was also available? But remove Flash, and you have the opportunity for Dale to shine and show the universe what she’s made of.

It’s a progressive and empowering statement that is definitely more modern than some of the Flash I have become accustomed to, but also again allows Flash to still be the “hero”, but in a more supportive manner than the take charge gung ho swashbuckler we are used to. I mean sure, some might still scoff at the fact that most of Dale’s character development is directly tied to how she interacts with a man, so therefore it’s still somewhat sexist, but at least Ben is trying to steer this character that mostly was used as a damsel in distress in previous versions into something of real substance, and in doing so he does add a softer more understanding side to Flash’s character in the bargain.

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In closing, one of the biggest flaws some of the GotS staff found with the original Jeff Parker run was the limited role Dale Arden played still in the proceedings and the fact that she wasn’t given as much character as say Zarkov. I think Stew said on the podcast that her greatest contribution in the original 8 issue series was the fact that she was a woman and couldn’t hear the siren call on the Birdmen’s planet. I will say that Ben Acker’s 4 issue sequel does a lot to make up for that, especially in issues 3 and 4 on the Water planet that really see Dale shine as an experienced warrior ready to take on whatever the universe has to throw at her.

I will say though I do prefer Jeff Parker’s writing though, as although Ben Acker did manage to capture some of whimsy and excitement of the Flash Gordon universe, I liked Jeff Parker’s version of Flash a bit more, as he was a little less meathead and just more impulsive. Then again, maybe that was done on purpose as the story about Dale wouldn’t have worked as well unless Flash was sometimes a clueless dullard as he’s portrayed at times here.

But overall, this is a much more satisfying wrap up to the Flash Gordon story started in the Jeff Parker run than the one we actually got at the end of his issue #8. So if you did read that run and feel like most of us did that it was severely lacking in an actual ending, do yourself a favor and pick up this 4 issue run today. It will definitely give a better appreciation for both Dale Arden as an integral part of the Flash Gordon trinity of earthlings, but it’s close enough in tone that it’s still a largely entertaining trip through that version of the Flash Gordon cosmos that Jeff Parker crafted so well previously.

Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B

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