Star Wars in 1977 certainly was the breakthrough moment when the public at large began to embrace science fiction — but the process of large-scale acceptance began more than four decades before Luke Skywalker and his villainous pappy hit the big screen.
First there was the word, of course. Science fiction was originally a product sold in pulp magazines such as Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and the granddaddy of them all, Amazing Stories. Amazing begat Buck Rogers (his first appearance was in that magazine’s August 1928 issue, in the story “Armageddon 2419 A.D;” the comic strip version debuted a year later); Buck’s success begat Flash Gordon, a 1934 entry to the Sunday comics pages. Though created by then-little-known artist Alex Raymond, King Features Syndicate was fully behind Flash, and many subscribing newspapers gave the new series big play.
Not everyone jumped on the bandwagon, of course. One 1934 editorial decried the supposedly-stunted moral outlooks of both Flash and Buck, saying “Are we to suppose the race will advance mechanically to remarkable extremes while retaining the vices of the pre-historic savages?”
The other extreme was also represented — those who embraced the SF concepts to a ludicrous extreme, such as the letter writer in the August 12, 1934 Richmond, Virginia Times-Dispatch who began by praising a handful of racist and extremist groups (including the American Nazi party) before announcing his new organization, The Sons of the Stratosphere, with this startling pronouncement: “Several months I have been trying to get in touch with Flash Gordon. Flash, as every intelligent person knows, has been on the planet Mongo for more than a year. Last night I contacted him. I managed to get the nubile band of my radioscram down to Delta X and you can imagine my delight when I heard the manly voice of Flash Gordon booming through space … A great armada, said Flash, is being prepared for the fell purpose of invading the earth. Our own earth, mind you. Flash said he was doing all he could to break up the whole thing, but he could not guarantee success. He said we must prepare ourselves … We have sufficient time, sir, to thwart this vile scheme if we will only arouse ourselves to its danger and prepare, prepare, prepare …”
As the old saying goes: with friends like that, who needs enemies?
Fortunately, neither the wild-eyed fans nor the haughty skeptics represented the perspective of most Americans and by the end of the 1935 school year Flash Gordon merchandise, like the Signal Gun shown below, was proving the widening popularity of outer space adventure, especially with youngsters.
By autumn of ’35 something perhaps more exciting than toys was available in many areas — a Flash Gordon radio program! Ads in newspapers from coast to coast heralded the new series (which ran, in two different incarnations, into early 1936); here’s an example from the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph:
The excitement ramped up even further in 1936, as Universal’s Flash Gordon movie serial debuted.
By 1937 — only four years after its debut — Flash Gordon was so embedded in the popular culture that it no longer needed a big publicity push in any area of endeavor. No new avenues were being conquered that year, and news tended to be focused on new developments in its existing incarnations, such as this blurb about serial star “Buster” Crabbe …
… While the big news of 1938 was to promote the upcoming Flash Gordon exhibit at next year’s New York World’s Fair:
By the end of the 1930s Flash was as comfortable as an old shoe in many homes. The second Universal serial, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, received considerably less play in the newspapers than its predecessor, because the series had “found its audience.” Though debuting in 1938, Trip to Mars continued to play in many smaller markets well into 1939, as indicated by this March ’39 ad from the Mason City, Iowa Globe-Gazette:
Another sign that Flash Gordon had seeped into the national consciousness kept popping up on the sports pages of the times. Young New York Yankees infielder Joe Gordon was known as — of course! — “Flash” Gordon. The pinstriped “Flash” made a sterling play in baseball’s 1939 All Star Game, robbing another Joe, St. Louis Cardinals star Joe (Ducky) Medwick, “of what would have been a base hit in nine leagues out of ten.” Here’s a shot of the hardball “Flash,” hamming it up for the cameras just before reporting for the start of 1939 spring training:
The Universal serials ended in 1940; Alex Raymond joined the service for World War II and left his comic to be produced by other hands, returning from combat to start the earthbound, contemporary detective feature Rip Kirby. Flash Gordon remained a newspaper strip mainstay, supplemented by appearances in formats outside the comics pages: a short-lived mid-’50s syndicated TV series — comic books published down through the years by Dell, Harvey, Gold Key, and Charlton — early 1970s prose novels written by Ron Goulart and published by Avon Books — Filmation’s animated cartoon series — and the perhaps-best-forgotten 1980 motion picture starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, and Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless. And many other comics, animation, and TV projects in the decades beyond.
It’s hard to believe it’s been over nine years since we brought Alex Raymond and Don Moore’s original vision back into print with Volume One of The Definitive Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, lushly reprinted in “Champagne Edition” size:
No matter its level of popularity at any given moment or the quality of any of its related projects or products, Flash Gordon remained a name and a concept widely known. Its influence extended to George Lucas, who acknowledged it as one of the inspirations for Star Wars. So whether directly, during the concept’s early years, or indirectly, as an influence to others, Flash Gordon has played a significant role in the “mainstreaming” of science fiction and creating a 21st Century society where visiting alien cultures on distant worlds is as accepted an entertainment premise as were the cattle drive or the wily detective a century before.