Monday, September 3, 2007

he'll save every one of us...

Flash Gordon has been enjoying something of a minor revival lately, thanks to the recent DVD rerelease of Mike Hodges' semiclassic 1980 film version (and merchandising- including new action figures of Sam Jones as Flash and Max von Sydow as Ming- where were these when I was a kid?), and a new series on the Sci-Fi Channel. The new series is really kind of blah. It has a kind of Saturday afternoon syndication feel, lacking the colorful campiness of the 1980s version, or the sophistication of the Sci-Fi Channel's other revival, Battlestar Galactica.

Flash Gordon first appeared as a comic strip drawn by Alex Raymond in the early 1930s. Raymond's detailed, fine-lined illustrations were highly influential on many artists throughout several decades of comic book art. Buster Crabbe played the character in several film serials during the 1930s and 1940s. Though Crabbe would continue to act for several decades, and would star in dozens of westerns, often as Billy the Kid, the actor would remain closely associated with the Flash Gordon mythos thanks to the enduring popularity of his portrayal of the character. There was also a Flash Gordon TV series in the 1950s, starring Steve Holland, who was also the original model for cover illustrations of the character Doc Savage.

In keeping with the spirit of this Flash Gordon moment, I've been watching episodes of the 1979 animated version The New Animated Adventures of Flash Gordon on DVD from Netflix. The series was produced by Filmation, the company that produced the He-Man cartoon in the 1980s. Filmation was also responsible for several comic strip and comic book inspired series in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including versions of Batman, Tarzan, Zorro and the Lone Ranger. Their Flash Gordon is really a cut above most Saturday morning animation. It's fairly faithful to the comic strip version of the character both visually and narratively, with great animation and reasonably sophisticated writing. The episodes have continuity and flow into one another with an almost dreamlike quality as Flash Gordon and his companions- Dale Arden, Hans Zarkov, a lion man, a bird man, a dandyish fop who dresses like the Green Arrow and others- drift from one adventure to the next, not entirely like in serials, in which the action is based on what happens to the character, instead of having the characters forcing action out of their situation, if that makes any sense. Not that Flash is particularly passive, just that he isn't an aggressor, nor particularly arrogant, nor sarcastic, though he does crack a joke from time to time. This representation of the character, in fact, would perhaps play a bit too earnest in today's popular culture.

Thought The New Animated Adventures of Flash Gordon is definitely meant for kids, the material is more sophisticated than expected, and at times a little rougher. In one scene early on, Flash liberates a group of radiation poisoned slaves, who then turn on their keepers and appear to massacre them (bloodlessly, but the implication of violence is there). There's also a running motif of women throwing themselves at Flash, much to the dismay of girlfriend Dale. Ming the Merciless' daughter's designs on Flash are notably lustier than one might expect out of a children's cartoon, and Ming himself keeps a Harem of sexy, scantily clad women. In my book, it's kind of cool that the creators of the show didn't feel the need to sanitize their source material, but kept the content about on the level of an average comic book. Even most comics-based cartoons (up until the excellent Batman- the Animated Series, anyway) can't make that claim- look at Superfriends.

Visually, the show is quite appealing as well. A few different animation styles are utilized, including rotoscoping, in which animation is traced over film of actors in order to achieve more realistic sense of motion. Some of the painted backgrounds are beautiful. The ending of the first story arc, in which the planets Earth and Mongo nearly collide, are especially powerful. As an aside, I noticed in the closing credits that one of the series' animators was John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy.

I wonder- with Flash Gordon and Battlestar Galactica in revival now, could Buck Rogers be far behind? The character of Buck Rogers actually predates Flash Gordon, and was also revived in the late 1970s, presumable to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Someone out there should be enterprising (so to speak) enough to take a crack and making Buck Rogers relevant to today's audiences. I also wonder what it says about this cultural moment that we are again drawn to space opera? Is it pure escapism, or is there something to the danger and apocalypticism of this kind of science-fiction that Iraq war era Americans can relate to?

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