Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs: Al Williamson's Flash Gordon

Al Williamson’s Flash GordonText by Mark Schultz; Stories by Larry Ivie, Al Williamson, Archie Goodwin, Bruce Jones, Mark Schultz, and othersIllustrated by Al WilliamsonFlesk; $29.95

The third volume of Checker’s reprints of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon is proving difficult to track down (unless I want to spend $70 for a used copy on Amazon, which I don’t), so I’m taking a break from that series until it becomes available again. In the meantime, Flesk helps fill the void with an excellent collection of Al Williamson’s Flash material.

I grew up reading Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson’s Star Wars strips and I was always impressed with how real Williamson’s characters looked without looking exactly like the actors. His use of models sometimes meant that figures looked posed and static, but it also leant credibility to the fantastic stories he and Goodwin were telling. As did his talent at creating lush, detailed worlds. It was almost like these were the real adventures of my favorite Rebels and Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford were just actors playing the parts.

I’d never read Williamson’s Flash Gordon stuff before this collection, but the same traits are all there. If you like his Star Wars stuff, there’s no reason you won’t enjoy this too, especially with Archie Goodwin joining in on some of the writing. But what surprised me about the book was its diversity. All the stories share some common Williamsonisms (giant mushrooms and alien animal life decorating the landscapes, for instance), but it’s interesting to see the different ways of doing things that Williamson employed depending on the particular project.

I bought the book with the uninformed preconception that Williamson had some kind of long relationship with Flash Gordon and that’s true, but not at all in the way I expected. He did a few issues of the King Comics series in the ‘60s, the comics adaptation of the ‘80s movie, and a mini-series for Marvel in the ‘90s, but that’s about it. The only other stuff he did was some support and fill-in work for a handful of the comic strips and some Flash-themed Union Carbine ads. Williamson’s relationship with Flash Gordon is deepest on the personal level, not the professional.

Mark Schultz’s background material in the book is helpful and educational. The first couple of chapters are all biography, not only of Williamson, but of Flash Gordon himself. We learn something about why the strip was popular and a lot more about why its heroic ideals, escapism, and emphasis on self-reliance were important to young, lonely Alfonso Williamson Jr as he grew up in Colombia with his mom and an absent father. Schultz points out that though Williamson may not have made a long career out of drawing Flash Gordon in particular, he did make one out of imitating and celebrating those ideals.

His first Flash gig was illustrating three issues (six stories total) of King Features Syndicate’s Flash Gordon comic in 1966 and 1967. Two of the six stories were written by Williamson himself, two by Goodwin, and two by Williamson’s buddy Larry Ivie. These are the most like the old Alex Raymond strips with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov’s continuing to explore Mongo and encountering monsters, lost civilizations, and beautiful queens as they do. There’s not a ton of difference in the writing quality from one author to the next; they all do a nice job of following Raymond’s lead, with all the strengths and weaknesses inherent in that. Some of the comments in my posts about Raymond’s stuff pointed out that his stories – while always gorgeous – could get repetitive after a while. It hadn’t reached the point of annoyance for me after only two volumes of the Raymond material, but having read the King Comics stories, I can start to see how the formula might get old.

The adaptation of the ‘80s Sam Jones movie has a very different feel. Because it’s a longer adventure – instead of a series of shorter ones – it’s deeper than the King Comics stuff. It’s a real story with a beginning and an end and genuine character development along the way. Unfortunately, it necessarily suffers the same problems that the movie did: re-writing or creating characters to fit what they figured ‘80s audiences wanted from a sci-fi movie. The most offensive example is the introduction of Ming’s Darth Vader-like enforcer Klytus, but I’m also not fond of how the diverse lands and nations of Mongo have become separate moons. None of which is Williamson’s fault and I’d still rather look at his version than watch the movie, but it’s a disappointment.

The best of both worlds is the Marvel mini-series from 1995. Williamson gets plenty of room to both write (with some help from Mark Schultz) and illustrate a longer adventure while keeping the general feel of Raymond’s version intact. He and Schultz still indulge in some of the standard elements, but they’re freshened up with some honest-to-God characterization. There’s also a retconned back story about young Flash’s first meeting with Zarkov, which may or may not be cool depending on how you feel about that sort of thing. I thought it was harmless at worst and entertaining at best.

The coolest part of the Marvel series though was Williamson’s abandonment of drawing from photographed models. The characters’ anatomy may not be as spot-on as it usually is, but the overall feel is much more dynamic and exciting.

My favorite stories from the collection though, oddly, were the ads Williamson drew for Union Carbide. We don’t know who wrote them, but though they featured Flash in a series of typical adventures, they diverged from the Raymond formula in the area of dialogue.

Part of that’s due to what the ads were trying to accomplish: selling Union Carbide plastics. Flash and Zarkov were always careful to credit the success of their adventures to the materials their gear was made from, but rather than being annoying this ends up adding a feeling of realism to the stories. Sort of like the technobabble from Star Trek makes that world feel more developed, I thought it was pretty cool to hear casual talk about the inflatable Bakelite polyethylene tunnel that Flash, Dale, and Zarkov use to infiltrate the hairy ice giants’ underwater slave quarters.

More than that though, the unnamed writer of these things was just really funny. The characters say awesome things that you’d never hear them say in a Raymond script (like Dale’s wanting Flash to take her to the Space Club cocktail party or Flash’s showing a bit of commitment phobia), but it’s all in fun and all for the best.

Though the individual stories each have their strengths and weaknesses, Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon is greater than their sum. That’s due to the picture it paints of Williamson and everything this classic character meant to him. It is – at its heart – a love story and a touching one at that.

Four out of five nervous Flashes.

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