Commentary Track: Dynamite's "Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist"

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead for "Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist" #1, on sale now.

This week, Flash Gordon is back for an new adventure, courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment and writer Eric Trautmann in "Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist," with stories and designs by Alex Ross and art by Daniel Lindro. Readers join Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov as they journey to the planet Mongo and challenge the evil emperor Ming, the All-Seeing Ruler of Mongo.

Both new readers discovering "Flash Gordon" basics and longtime Flash Gordon fans comparing similarities to the 1980s film may wonder about the inner workings of Flash's newest journey to the unknown. To help shed some light on the motivation behind the story, Eric Trautmann provided a page-by-page commentary for the first issue to CBR News.

Below, the writer confirms the structural similarities between "Zeitgeist" and the 1980s film, explains the reasoning for the harem-bots, staying true to the original Alex Raymond newspaper strips, researching a spot for a likely meteor crash and a few teases on things to come for Flash and his companions.

Page 1

Eric Trautmann: "Klytus, I'm bored..." I just had to do it.

I was 8 or 9 years old when the Dino Di Laurentis "Flash Gordon" movie hit screens and I dragged my poor father to the movie theater to see it, over and over and over.

That opening line, with Max Von Sydow's poison-honey voice, just dripping with joyful evil, had my pre-adolescent self on the edge of my seat.

So the die was cast before I started typing: If I'm doing a Flash Gordon story, it's definitely got to have Klytus in it.

Pages 2-3

There was actually a bit of debate about the harem-bots, but it just seemed like the kind of thing that Ming -- at least, my conception of Ming -- would require: total gratification to his every whim, and his bottomless appetites, every minute of every day.

Until a specific line in issue 2, the sycophantic dialogue for the robot slaves is some of the most fun I've had in my career to date. I actually have a text file with fifty or so variations of their lines.

(Maybe I can convince Dynamite to let me write the further adventures of the Robot Girls. Hm...)

Some reviewers have noted the similarity in structure and origin between the 1980 film and the first issue of "Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist," and that's pretty deliberate.

For one thing, the film is rather startlingly similar (with some adjustments to "modernize" it for it's time and for the film medium) to Alex Raymond's original newspaper strips.

One of Alex Ross' stated goals for our series was to remain faithful to Raymond's work, so a lot of those similarities would be apparent, because both the film and our series were drawing water from the same well.

One of my subversive goals, however, was to -- within the framework built by Raymond -- cherry pick from all the various incarnations of the character those things I was drawn to: the crazy floating islands, and bizarre monsters -- the unique vibe that Al Williamson so effortlessly built into the character's mythos; some of the bizarre super-science weirdness that typified the best of the Gold Key books; the muscular, brawny action of the Mac Raboy strips; and so on.

(But, mostly, it was so I could use Klytus.)

Pages 4-5

I've only pulled this "trick" a handful of times--jumping from a two-page spread to another two-page spread; it's probably a bit rough on the artist (and poor Daniel Indro is probably going to be cursing my name by the end of the series), and it's not typical of most 22-page comics.

Page turns are -- in my head, at least -- a sort of "camera" movement, so the sudden expansion into Ming's private chambers (replete with robot girls, a sinister aide-to-camp, and this distinctive atomic-baroque technology) to a "zoomed out" snapshot of the initial invasion just felt -- right.

One of the challenges of this series is trying to maintain that breathless, headlong plunge of the Raymond strips -- they were insanely plot-dense, making as much use as possible of the limited page "real estate" available.

Mirroring that in a standard 22-page comic format means there's not a lot of the normal 1- or 2-page "splash pages"; they're used very sparingly, instead employed in multi-panel form like this, to give as much scope as possible while providing a spotlight for necessary exposition and character development.

Pages 6-7

One of the rare splash pages in the series.

But it's Flash Gordon's "debut," so it merits the space, I think.

And leaping from a burning plane, with a single parachute and a beautiful woman in his arms? How better to showcase our plucky hero?

I had a lot of fun with these initial captions, the floating text that delineates which character is which, because it let me crib what is probably my favorite line from Alex Raymond (and possibly my favorite character origin of all time): "Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player."

It's probably my own warped aesthetic, but I always found that line completely charming.

Dale Arden's "origin" in the Raymond strips was, I believe, "Dale Arden. A passenger," or some such.

I had some fun adding to that, making her a cartographer for the State Department, traveling in Europe on a mission to map the terrain for the inevitable war.

(And I couldn't resist Dale calling Flash "Buster," a deliberate nod to Buster Crabbe, who famously portrayed Flash Gordon in the 1930s movie serials.)

Page 8

With Flash being the stalwart, un-ironic, and brave hero, and Dale as the heart of the group, Dr. Zarkov completes the trio -- the passionate, unrestrained intellect: a scientist with the "opera" of discovery in his heart.

And like all geniuses, he's not without his own ... personality quirks.

Page 9

I love the expressions Daniel drew on Flash and Dale in this sequence, and the sinister vibe to Zarkov as he bolts the farmhouse door. In the original material (and the subsequent adaptations of it), the friendship between Zarkov and Flash is essentially archetype; of course they're pals, just like Kirk and Spock are friends.

But at the same time, Zarkov is basically a crazy man living in the middle of nowhere, who essentially kidnaps -- at gunpoint -- two complete strangers seeking his aid and puts them in an experimental vehicle which has a startlingly high probability of just blowing up and killing them all.

I knew people like that in college.

We didn't stay in touch.

Page 10

Another "Easter Egg." Alex's design for the rocket (situated as it is in the best basement workshop ever) is derived closely from an animated Flash Gordon TV movie. The name "Copernicus" is my nod to one of my other all-time favorite science-fiction properties: the original Star Trek.

I always loved how the shuttlecraft were named after famous science pioneers, so I opted for "Copernicus" here. Alex's design (and Daniel's execution) of the rocket is perfect, I think -- sort of "atomic retro."

Page 11

Another good look at Zarkov's lab. I put together a small selection of photographs for visual reference, and Alex -- in the design phase -- clearly spelunker through an archive of retro ephemera and reference pics that dwarfs mine by an order of magnitude.

That is a consistent joy on this project: the regular e-mails filled with these astounding old photographs of the craziest widgets and mad scientist lab gear, followed closely by pencil sketches, color comps, page breakdowns, character studies, model sheets, and cover images from Alex Ross.

Not shabby, not at all.

The other consistent joy is watching Daniel interpret those images through his own considerable talent.

Page 12

This sequence is definitely me working my own notions into the mythos; I have a detailed picture in my head of Mongo, sitting atop a multiversal stack; and of Ming, using a quantum thread to connect Mongo to the realms he invades, bringing an envelope of Mongo's deranged physics along for the ride.

I love the idea of Zarkov as an early, bleeding-edge quantum physicist, trying to bang out a working model of a crazed universe with science that doesn't have the tools or language to describe it yet.

Naturally, the whole world thinks he's nuts.

And of course, he's right the whole time.

Page 13

Another example of the usefulness of reference photos. Alex had sent along a JPG that included some cockpit sketches, all with photos of real 1930s aviation and lab gear tagged into it, making "Copernicus" look like something that was built in a crazy man's basement, and yet could still conceivably make the impossible journey it needs to make.

Page 14

I mentioned earlier the "opera" of discovery.

Russian rocket scientists tended to think in musical terms, at least based on the anecdotes I've read: the Soviet rocket builders didn't just want to hurl rockets into space, they wanted to do so with "music" -- mating grand human drama and our tendency to apply narrative to every aspect of our existence with the practical concerns and logistics of actually launching a rocket.

So, that's Zarkov to me: a blend of Einstein and Sergei Korolev, with just a dash of personality disorder.

And that's why he's grinning like a maniac when the rocket lifts off.

Page 15

I'm not going to lie: pretty much the remainder of the first issue was written with the Queen "Flash Gordon" movie soundtrack playing.

I love the look on Flash's face in the last panel. Daniel captured the "All right. That's quite enough of this nonsense!" feel I was hoping for.

Page 16

It occurs to me now: the universe-hopping mechanism that Zarkov is outlining right before Flash decides "maybe strangling the crazy rocket man is a viable plan?"

It really is not a lot different than the Pinewood Derby rocket ships that a lot of Cub Scout troops raced when I was a kid: wooden rockets, tethered to a downward-sloping string. (Though Zarkov's version is considerably more awesome.)

That would be about the same time I was discovering Flash Gordon for the first time. Weird how those connections stick with you.

And I'm still bitter my Cub Scout troop never did the rockets, just the cars. Lame.

Page 17

A quintessential Flash Gordon moment: a hurtling rocket, imminent death, and problem-solving through application of knuckles to jaw...only to be thwarted by super-science and the flip of a big switch.

Page 18

Look, I know sound doesn't travel in a vacuum.

That's another reason I cooked up the weird physics model for Mongo I described earlier.

Because it's Flash Gordon, and sound had better travel in a vacuum.

Page 19

We debated the face of Ming on this page -- it was included in the original script page, as a suggestion, because it just seemed right to me, and also because I love how older comics occasionally use characters as design elements.

There's something undeniably retro about it, but I also think it's quite fun.

That's one of the nice things about working with folks like Alex and Daniel (and with Dynamite's Joe Rybandt): no one was sold on the idea (not even me), but we just gave it a whirl.

The results speak for themselves, I think.

Page 20

I probably did almost as much research for this scene as I did for the rest of the series: selecting the region in Germany for the meteor to crash down, tracking down the correct Wehrmacht uniforms and weapons, and so on.

I'm fond of the transition here, too -- switching from the Copernicus spiraling toward a crash on Mongo to another meteor strike, ostensibly from Mongo.

Page 21

I love Willi and Johann, and am constantly trying to figure out a good spot to bring them back. Probably won't happen, but I could happily write scenes of them complaining all day.

This is the first major deviation from the source material in the series, and was the actual genesis of what became "Zeitgeist."

Alex and I had each independently pitched our own takes on Flash Gordon to Dynamite, and when it became clear that neither of our versions really gelled well, we had a series of e-mail and phone conversations, and came away with this basic conceit:

We always see the three plucky humans fly off to Mongo and save the universe. But what if someone came through from Mongo to Earth?

I immediately fell in love with that concept, and some presentation art Alex had penciled -- of Hitler and Ming having a "conference call" via a visual projection system -- cemented it.

Page 22

And here we reveal our three Mongo expatriates: Ziva (the "woman of mystery," another caption I couldn't help but smile as I wrote), Vulkor the Hawk Man, and Kimjo the Lion Man.

A similar trio to the iconic Flash/Dale/Zarkov trio, but quite different in attitude and demeanor.

One of the tweaks we made to the setting involved the Mongo humans like Ziva (and Ming, and his daughter, Aura); in the Raymond strips, humans from Mongo (at least initially) are "yellow," which lacks cultural sensitivity to modern eyes.

Alex came up with the idea of the Mongo humans -- specifically the upper-class of Mongo society -- wearing a metallic, golden pigment as skin ornamentation: literally, if you are "highborn" in Mongo society, you are gold, treasure owned by Ming.

But you'll learn more about that soon...

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