The following is excerpted from the new edition of the Flash Gordon comic book series, and is written by Alex Ross, a famed comic book illustrator.
The long reach of Alex Raymond's legendary creation, Flash Gordon, leads to almost every modern incarnation of science fiction and comic book superhero. Without his stylistic and conceptual influence, we might never have experienced the evolution that brought us to where we are today.
Conceived as a comic strip designed to compete with Buck Rogers, the original newspaper science fiction comic strip, Flash Gordon, quickly charted its own course. Acclaimed as the most lavishly illustrated comic strip of its day, it gave readers the most stimulating excitement the medium had ever seen. Raymond loaded his adventure with alluring sexuality, fantastic alien-human hybrids, intense action, and some of the most beautifully drawn futuristic locales. This quality of art came not from the influence of the cartooning field, found throughout many of the other newspaper strips, but from early twentieth century illustration. Artists like Raymond and Hal Foster, creator of Prince Valiant, introduced the look of storybook and magazine art into the comics field at the very infancy of this exploding entertainment form.
Ultimately, Raymond's work led to modern comic realists like myself, and through his innovations he crafted the world of popular fantasy.
But his influence extended far beyond the printed page. The now-common practice of seeing decades-old comic properties translated to the silver screen was achieved very early in the life of Raymond's runaway hit. Translations of Tarzan, Frankenstein, and other fantastic works had made their way into cinema, but it was the otherworldly scope of Flash Gordon's many characters, locales, and fantastic devices that changed the world of motion pictures. Reaching even broader audiences through the weekly form of movie serials, Flash Gordon became a sensation like no other.
Starring the perfectly cast Buster Crabbe as Flash, the film adaptation was an exacting one, carefully matching each actor and costume to the drawings--as well as the story--that Alex Raymond had crafted. The practice of reinventing comic strip source material hadn't come into vogue yet in the cinema, and Raymond's vision made it through unmolested (Crabbe himself went on to play Buck Rogers and Tarzan.)
The world of comic books came to life just after Flash Gordon's creation in 1934, although the concept of superheroes was still years away. Many aspiring cartoonists who found work in this new industry would look to Raymond's ever-evolving style for inspiration--and to imitate.
At the beginning of Raymond's run on the strip, he created his stylized human forms purely from his imagination. As the series progressed and its popularity grew, he began drawing live models, changing his art style to become arguably the best in the business. The nature of graphic realism became even more desirable with the proliferation of superheroes following in the wake of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel's Superman, which debuted in 1938. In the rush to create new characters to fit this mold, many artists took inspiration directly from the Flash Gordon strip, primarily its many inventive costumes and fantastic concepts. Artists also imitated exact poses from Raymond's amazing figure drawing, adding his hard work to a "swipe file" which they used to draw their comics. DC Comics' initial rollout of heroes the Flash (obvious enough), Hawkman, the Green Lantern, and even the Batman owed a great debt to Raymond's work. In flashback scenes of Superman's home world of Krypton, his father Jor-El--as well as other Kryptonians and the alien landscapes--looked for many decades like the styles and surroundings of the planet Mongo.
It might be said, for metaphorical purposes, that Superman was the son of Flash Gordon.