For almost 80 years, Kirkus Reviews has served as the industry bible for bookstore buyers, librarians, and ordinary readers alike. Now Popdose joins the Kirkus Book Bloggers Network to explore the best — and sometimes the worst — in pop-culture and celebrity books.
This week, we look at one of the most beautiful and influential comic strips in history. Yeah, but is it any good?
Fans and historians tend to divide comics artists into two categories, with different methods and different ends. For storytellers — e.g., Frank Miller, Akira Toriyama, Will Eisner — the primary aim is a coherent narrative flow, often at the expense of fine detail. Each image is less important in itself than in how it relates to the page as a whole, and is sometimes reduced to a symbolic near-abstraction, like a single word in a picture-sentence, less to be looked at than to be read. The apex of the storytelling approach, arguably, is Otto Soglow’s strip The Little King, which plays out entirely in pantomime.
The “illustrator” camp, by contrast, holds the beauty of the individual image as paramount. Each picture is more or less an independent entity, rather than an element in a sequence. The pictures surrender their narrative function to the words, and heavy captioning is often used to carry the story forward.
The illustrative approach has largely fallen from favor, but it was prevalent in the early decades of the comics medium, and produced some miracles of draftsmanship: Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland; Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant; the Tarzan stories of Burne Hogarth; and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, which is currently getting the deluxe reprint treatment courtesy of Titan Books. The first volume, On the Planet Mongo: Sundays, 1934-1937, is sitting on my desk, and it is a glorious object.
Alexander Gillespie Raymond was in his mid-twenties when he started drawing Flash, and his style did not arrive full-blown. When the weekly strip began, in January 1934, Raymond favored a comparatively clean line; in the early months, he even used “cartoony” devices, like motion lines and impact bursts, that he would abandon as his drawing matured. But by autumn of that first year, we see the beginnings of his cross-hatched style, influenced by the steel-cut engravings of 19th Century masters like Gustave Doré, where figures and contours are defined by masses of shadow. Raymond began to work heavily from references and live models, bringing a new photographic realism to his work.
And it was sensual. The constant low-grade sexual hysteria throughout the strip — a succession of male villains try to marry the luscious Dale Arden (Flash’s best gal) by force, while the female villains all want to have their way with Flash — was perhaps unsurprising, given that the principals spend most of their time half-naked. Flash and his male cohorts do most of their adventuring around Mongo wearing little but breechclouts and go-go boots, while the ladies — including not only Dale, but the wanton Princess Aura — favor low-slung harem pants, with scanty pocket squares to cover their goodies…
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