Saturday, September 25, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON, Part Four: “Caverns of Mongo”

“Caverns of Mongo” was the fourth installment of Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between March 3 and April 14, 1935, “Caverns of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the third installment, “Tournaments of Mongo” left off with Emperor Ming having made Flash a royal King of Mongo and awarded him and Dale the savage uncharted cave kingdom of Kira to rule.

Flash and Dale are accompanied on their journey by Captain Khan and a squad of loyal Hawkmen who were ordered by Vultan to aid them. The kingdom of Kira is wonderfully prehistoric peopled with Neanderthal-like cliff-men, winged dactyl-bats, carnivorous plants, and a man-eating sauropod. This may be standard lost world fare, but with the introduction of the cannibalistic lizard-men as the true villain of the piece, there is no mistaking the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

While Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had popularized the concept of lost prehistoric lands that survived to the modern age, it was Burroughs who perfected the mixture of lost world and pseudo-science in both his Caspak and Pellucidar series. The latter in particular are the strongest influence on Alex Raymond here with the lizard-men portrayed as not only the more advanced culture, but a decidedly evil one. The scene where Flash (rendered unconscious in the lizard-men’s ambush) is taken to their lair and prepared as the tribe’s meal is particularly chilling.

Flash recovers consciousness, but is unable to escape as the entrance to the lizard-men’s lair is covered with rocks. Dale, Captain Khan and the other Hawkmen are gathered on the opposite side of the rock wall in a futile effort to rescue him. Dale manages to pass a nitro-gun through a small opening to Flash. Raymond has a nice bit of business here by carefully leaving to the reader’s imagination where Flash, dressed only in a loin cloth, hides the bulky nitro-gun.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON, Part Three: “Tournaments of Mongo”

“Tournaments of Mongo” was the third installment of Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between November 25, 1934 and February 24, 1935, “Tournaments of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the second installment, “Monsters of Mongo” left off with Dr. Zarkov being knighted by Vultan for saving the Hawkmen’s sky city from crashing to the ground.
Before Vultan can host Flash and Dale’s royal wedding, Emperor Ming and his daughter, Princess Aura arrive with Ming’s air fleet demanding Flash be handed over. Of course, Aura wants Flash for herself while her father wants to see him dead. Vultan invokes the ancient rite of tournament to determine Flash’s fate and Ming heartily agrees, certain it will mean the Earthman’s doom.
The obvious change beginning with this strip is that Alex Raymond’s artwork is being granted more space than before as Raymond decreases the strip from nine equally-sized panels to a more inventively designed seven panels to better showcase his stunning artwork which was steadily growing in both complexity and sophistication.
Raymond began to move away from word balloons in each panel to more formal narrative in small print at the top or bottom of the panel, often relegated to a single corner. This allowed Raymond to concentrate on majestic paintings depicting Mongo’s people and wildlife in all their glory.
Mongo was portrayed as a neo-Classical world of centurions, barbarians and mythological creatures juxtaposed with scientific advances such as rocket ships and jet-propelled cities. Alex Raymond’s enticing combination of the familiar and the fantastic touched an imaginative chord with readers the world over that continues to resonate to this day.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Blogging Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Part Two – “Monsters of Mongo”

“Monsters of Mongo” was the second installment of Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON Sunday comic strip serial for King Features Syndicate. Originally printed between April 15 and November 18, 1934, “Monsters of Mongo” picked up the storyline where the first installment, “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo” left off with an unconscious Flash being rescued from Princess Aura by the Lion Men.

Alex Raymond really begins to hit his stride in portraying the diversity of life on Mongo in this second installment. Prince Thun and Dale Arden are prisoners of Ming’s soldiers. Thun’s father, King Jugrid has retaliated by destroying the kingdom of the Shark Men. Ming’s soldiers have, in turn, annihilated much of the Lion Men’s fleet.

Jugrid orders Aura’s execution. Flash fights to save her life and the two are rescued by Prince Barin. It is in Barin’s kingdom that Flash is at last reunited with Dr. Zarkov. Flash and Zarkov soon form an alliance with Barin and Aura as the unlikely quartet determine to overthrow Emperor Ming.

Of course, Aura being Ming’s daughter quickly betrays our heroes. The sequence culminates in one of the strip’s iconic images as Barin and Flash power the Electric Mole to burrow their way underground and crash through the floor of Ming’s palace just before he can wed Dale.

The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ AT THE EARTH’S CORE is heavily felt in the Electric Mole sequence, but it is Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER stories that have the greater influence in Raymond’s sophisticated approach in revealing Mongo’s green god, Tao as a hoax.


Friday, September 10, 2010

English Gothic: Britain Goes to the Movies

Jonathan Rigby’s ENGLISH GOTHIC (2000) is an excellent survey of British horror and science fiction films. Misleadingly subtitled A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA; the book focuses instead on the 20 year period from THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) through TO THE DEVIL, A DAUGHTER (1976) when British production companies like Hammer, Amicus, and Tigon consistently outperformed the Hollywood majors in producing the finest and most influential genre films.

Part of the book’s strength is not just Rigby’s detailed and chronological survey of nearly every genre film to come from the British Isles during these two decades, but the fact that he captures the social and economic factors that helped shape the pictures and, more importantly, the public’s reception to them.

The rise of the horror genre in film started with the German Expressionist classics of the silent era and the contemporary Lon Chaney and John Barrymore efforts in the States. The genre solidified with the phenomenal impact of Universal’s horror franchises of the 1930s and 1940s.

The interesting thing here is that the majority of these films remained unscreened or else limited to adult-only audiences in the UK where censorship was extremely puritanical in the first half of the last century.

The walls began to crumble in the mid-1950s when Britain made an unexpected advance in producing the most accomplished and mature genre films of the era. Hammer’s big screen adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s BBC serial, THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT in 1955 was the signal point for this revolution. The film version dropped the “e” from XPERIMENT to emphasize the film’s Certificate X from the BBFC as a veritable badge of honor.

Rigby makes an excellent point that the success of Nigel Kneale’s scripts for this and his subsequent QUATERMASS sequels lies in crafting the threat of alien infiltration (rather than the invasions that dominated nightmares across the Atlantic) in the fashion of horrific tales of demonic possession. This provides both an interesting comparison to and contrast with the Cold War atomic fears and that dominated genre films in the US and Japan during the same decade.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Dracula: Five Not-So-Easy Pieces

In November and December 2009, my jaw was wired shut for eight weeks. During that time I read voraciously being able to accomplish little else. Among the many books I devoured were five Dracula-related titles.

DRACULA THE UN-DEAD (2009/Dutton) by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt achieves what it set out to do: bring income from Dracula back to the Stoker family and re-establish Dracula as the literary "property" of Stoker's heirs by creating a new franchise from the public domain characters.

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to view it as the authorized sequel to DRACULA, the true heir to Bram Stoker's literary classic. The trouble is one cannot make that claim when the sequel tries so hard to undo everything in the original.

Rather than pay homage to Bram Stoker's work, the authors spend nearly 400 pages proving to us that everything Stoker wrote was wrong. Prince Dracula (Stoker was even wrong about his title, it seems he wasn't a Count) was a "good" vampire working for God (a bizarre interpretation of the historical Vlad Dracula’s papal honor – later rescinded - of Defender of the Faith) and the real villain of DRACULA was the historical Countess Elizabeth Bathory who, it turns out, was a vampire and was also Jack the Ripper.

That's pretty much the plot of this overwrought sequel. If those ideas excite you, you'll enjoy the book. If you're a Stoker purist, you'll be left in a state of shock.

Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt fill their book with bad ideas borrowed from the very sequels they decry as having tarnished Bram Stoker's reputation for decades. It’s all here jumbled together in one bloated unstructured mess: Mina and Dracula's torrid affair, Dracula's connection to Jack the Ripper, Dracula as the tragic hero rather than the Prince of Darkness Stoker intended, etc.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Excellent Account of the Making of a Classic

Anyone who knows me is aware of how much the work of Blake Edwards means to me. I deviate from my usual genre for a brief review of a newly published account of the making of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S.

FIFTH AVENUE, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson is a breezy and enjoyable read. It is quite a different book than his first, A SPLURCH IN THE KISSER (an examination of Blake Edwards' films as a director from 1955 to 1993) and, in my view, a superior one. Wasson did phenomenal research (fully cited in his detailed notes) and pulls together much that is familiar and much that I don't believe has ever been printed before about BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. The first half concerns Truman Capote and his sources for the novella (both from his own childhood and his friends' lives) and the second half concerns the film's development, production, and release. While the "Dawn of the Modern Woman" angle is present throughout, it is not over-emphasized as it is in the media promotion of the book. This is a fairly straightforward factual novel with real life characters given dialogue that usually is drawn from their own recollections or others. There is a fair amount of gossip, but it is never salacious. The author's access to Paramount's production files and his conversations with participants or their spouses (particularly Blake Edwards' first wife, Patricia Snell whose comments and insights are never short of illuminating) turns up a few gems that would otherwise have remained obscure. His diligence points to a dedication that was lacking in SPLURCH. I highly recommend it.