Flash Gordon, American icon, returns to comics after a 20-year break

Flash Gordon, American icon, returns to comics after a 20-year break

He might be nearing 90, but one relentlessly athletic adventurer is poised for a pop-culture reappreciation.

Flash Gordon, the intergalactic space warrior who predates Superman and Batman as an iconic American action-comic hero sprung from Depression-era pages — as well as a Hollywood screen star who inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars — is returning to newspapers.

King Features Syndicate, which introduced the character in 1934, will relaunch the comic strip “Flash Gordon” beginning Sunday after a two-decade absence — featuring a new look and a new artist. (The Sunday and daily strips will be available online and in print.)

“Flash Gordon” reenters as King ends distribution of another adventure strip, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Among the new clients is The Washington Post, which carried “Spider-Man.”

The rebooted comic will feature plenty of familiar touchstones to fans of “Flash,” which was launched by the legendary action-adventure cartoonist Alex Raymond and soon spawned movie serials starring Olympic swimmer turned actor Buster Crabbe, who also headlined Hollywood adaptations of the “Tarzan” and “Buck Rogers” comic strips.

“Flash Gordon” had a global readership by World War II and influenced sci-fi comics storytelling for decades. Flash’s universe was dramatized in a 1980 feature film (with a soundtrack by Queen) among many other screen projects, and filmmaker Taika Waititi is reportedly in development with a movie reboot.

That universe includes Flash’s constant companions, detective-minded love interest Dale Arden and mission-driven sidekick Dr. Hans Zarkov, as well as supervillain Ming the Merciless, tyrant ruler of the planet Mongo.

Guiding the new enterprise will be Dan Schkade, an Eisner-nominated cartoonist in his early 30s best known for his work on such comics as “Will Eisner’s The Spirit Returns,” “Lavender Jack” and “Saint John.”

Schkade won a competitive tryout earlier this year to script and draw the strip, shortly before King announced a licensing deal with Mad Cave Studios, which will begin publishing other original “Flash Gordon” narratives, graphic novels and comic reprints beginning next year.

“There’s been a real surge of interest in Flash Gordon, as we’ve been seeing through our publishing partnership with Mad Cave,” said Tea Fougner, editorial director for comics at King Features. “The story of Flash and his allies — a story of ordinary people from wildly diverse backgrounds learning to work together against seemingly insurmountable odds — is perennially relatable.”

Schkade remembers being introduced to the early “Flash Gordon” comics as a teenager: “It was kind of like watching ‘Citizen Kane’ for the first time.” There, on full display in Raymond’s trailblazing work, was much of the “concentrated DNA” for the beginning of superhero comics.

Schkade started drawing his own photocopied comics at age 8, but it was at 16, while living in San Diego, that he became a mentee of area cartoonist Batton Lash (“Wolff & Byrd: Counselors of the Macabre”). Becoming a full-time cartoonist began to seem like an accessible dream.

Schkade respects the line of top-flight cartoonists who have contributed to the character’s remarkable run, even as Flash evolved from a polo player hailing from Yale to, in later iterations, a quarterback. The artist also plans to depict Dale’s sense of terror and anxiety upon encountering space dangers — a trait he says was more pronounced in the strip’s early years.

“The initial version of Flash I pitched was a little more purposefully a himbo,” Schkade said, comparable to Disney’s version of Hercules — but King sought a more classic, straightforward hero. So in the revised pitch, Flash landed somewhere between Captain America/Steve Rogers, and Marty McFly of “Back to the Future.”

“I like Flash Gordon the man a lot, but it just can’t be about him. He’s supposed to be the meatsuit that you’re running around the fiction in. It’s the other characters who make this lush,” said Schkade, who counts cartoonist Kevin O’Neill (“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), artist-animator Bruce Timm (“Batman: The Animated Series”) and Cartoon Network’s “Rick and Morty” among his inspirations here.

Schkade has also altered Ming the Merciless, who from the beginning was infamously rendered with racist East Asian stereotypes, including Fu Manchu facial hair. Schkade’s imperious Ming, who has a graying Van Dyke beard, is instead evocative of such Roman emperors as Caesar.

Schkade also underscores positive qualities of the strip that have perpetuated: “The gem of the whole thing is built around finding community in the face of injustice.” How do forces of self-interest seek to divide people and suppress individuality? What powers the human need to connect, no matter the planet? And how do you find courage when dropped into a world of strange danger?

Amid Flash’s world that the artist calls “a grab bag of monsters, death rays, energy effects and sometimes outright horror,” he believes it is the emotional ethos of the strip that makes it vital and relevant still, nine decades later.

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Michael Cavna

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