TFMSR 006: Flash Gordon #1 …

Flash Gordon #1, September 1966, first King Comics issue. Art by Al Williamson. TM & © King Features Syndicate.

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That cover of Flash Gordon #1 heralded a couple of firsts when it premiered in the summer of 1966 (cover-dated September). It was among the first comics published by a new comic book company called “King Comics,” which was the publishing arm of King Features Syndicate, the largest and best-known distributor of newspaper syndicated comic strips. Flash Gordon was, of course, one of those comic strips, which first appeared as a Sunday strip in 1934, and was created by legendary comic artist Alex Raymond. This issue is also the first time another legendary comic artist, Al Williamson, finally drew the character he was born to illustrate:. While it’s hard to top Alex Raymond’s incredible artwork—his evolving style became more and more beautiful Sunday strip by Sunday strip—Al Williamson was another pinnacle for the character.

Alex Raymond’s first Flash Gordon Sunday strip (left) from 1934 and one from 1942 that shows how much his style of drawing evolved in less than a decade. TM & © King Features Syndicate.

Williamson was one of the young turks of EC Comics in the 1950s, illustrating some of their science fiction stories in titles like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. Although barely out of his teenage years, his art was lush and evocative. Often aided by his pals Frank Frazetta and Roy G. Krenkel, you could count on a story by Al to contain overgrown tropical vegetation that made you feel the humidity in the air, beautiful women, heroic men, and incredible inking. In the 1950s he also sorta/kinda drew Flash Gordon when he did a story in Buster Crabbe Comics, published by Famous Funnies and based on the actor known for his movie portrayals of the character in three different multi-part serials (he was also Buck Rogers). Williamson did a lot of comics work in the mid to late 1950s for companies such as Atlas, ACG, and Harvey, teaming up with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on a book called Race to the Moon. He eventually settled into comic strip work, assisting cartoonist John Prentice on Rip Kirby, another character created by Alex Raymond. Prentice took over the daily strip after Raymond’s tragic death in a car accident in 1956 at the age of 46. Live fast and die young, I guess.

(Left to right) One of Williamson’s most memorable EC science fiction stories, “Food for Thought,” (art assist by Roy G. Krenkel); Simon & Kirby’s Race for the Moon, a 1958 Harvey comic; and a Williamson-illustrated Atlas Western tale. Art TM & © William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., estates of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and MARVEL.

In the early 1970s, Williamson did an interview with a fanzine called Auction Block, in which he recounted how he learned how to draw by copying Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond. (That recollection in turn inspired me to learn how to draw by copying Flash Gordon by Al Williamson; unfortunately it didn’t work out as well for me as it did for Al.) So at some point in his life, Williamson was destined to draw Flash Gordon, at least in my mind.

That time actually came in 1966 when King Features decided to jump into the burgeoning comic book market. Buoyed by the success of Marvel Comics and the explosive hit TV series, Batman, more and more companies were springing up to publish comics. King Comics started with six comic book series; in addition to Flash Gordon, there was The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. The Phantom—which was a worldwide success story in comic books—was previously published by Gold Key for 17 issues (the new King Comics iteration started with issue #18) and was at Harvey Comics before that. On the funny side of things, King also published Blondie, Beetle Bailey, and Popeye comics. None of these properties were strangers to comic books; King had a kind of unofficial official publisher in David McKay in the 1940s, which published two titles, King Comics and Ace Comics, featuring various reprints of King Features strips, reformatted and colored for comic books. Dell took over with a number of Flash Gordon titles in their Four Color series, followed by Harvey Comics for four issues in the early 1950s. Gold Key did a one-shot in 1965, directly preceding the new King Comics series.

A King Comics Flash Gordon cover gallery: Issues 1, 3, 4 and 5 by Al Williamson; #2 by Gil Kane, and #6 by Reed Crandall. Art TM & © King Features Syndicate.

When Flash Gordon first appeared on my hometown newsstand racks in 1966, I was 11 years old. I was most familiar with the character from the serials starring Buster Crabbe, which played repeatedly on New York TV stations in the sixties, and from the local Sunday newspaper we got, the Reading Eagle, which featured King Features strips. By that time, Flash Gordon was drawn by the great Mac Raboy, who died in 1967 (the strip was taken over by Dan Barry). But this Al Williamson version was a revelation to me, with its beautiful art and characters that seemed to throw back to both the Raymond version (which would soon begin be reprinted in a beautiful black and white volume by Nostalgia Press), and also to the serials. Williamson would win the National Cartoonists Society Award for Best Comic Book artist in 1966 for his work on Flash Gordon.

The first three pages of Flash Gordon #1 by Al Williamson. Not only are we not in Kansas anymore, we’re not even on Earth!

Three more examples of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon work: (left to right) the cover of the collected 1980 movie adaptation from Gold Key/Whitman and the covers to issues #1 and 2 of the 1990s Marvel mini-series, written by Mark Schultz.

Williamson did two stories (15 pages and 12 pages) in that first issue, along with the cover; he’d go on to do the cover for #3, and both the covers and interiors for issues #4 and 5 (issue #2 sported a Gil Kane cover). With #6, Reed Crandall, another EC Comics alumnus, did the cover and story, and then King resorted to pasted-up strip reprints for issues #7 through 11, including some by Raymond. But by then the bloom was off the rose for the comic book boom, and after 10 or 11 issues for all of their six titles, King Comics abruptly ended and farmed out the rights to Charlton Comics (see TFMSR 004 for more info on that company). King tried, even going as far to market their issues in sets of three, poly-bagged for 29¢ (instead of 36¢ for individual issues at 12¢ each). It was too little, too late. The Charlton issues (which started with a new cover and story by Reed Crandall) never lived up to the early King Comics promise, and Flash Gordon would go on to other publishers at other times, including an adaptation of the 1980 movie (the one with the Queen soundtrack) by Williamson and writing partner Archie Goodwin, which was published by Gold Key. In addition to their ongoing work on the Star Wars comic strip (Williamson took over the art chores after Russ Manning left the strip he started due to his health; he died in 1981), the pair were the sci-fi movie adaptation go-to team, with The Empire Strikes Back under their belts and future adaptations such as Return of the Jedi and Blade Runner. Flash Gordon would go on to other publishers, including DC (by Dan Jurgens), and Marvel (a two-issue mini in the 1990a with great art once again by Williamson and written by Xenozoic Tales’s Mark Schultz), and finally most recently ending up at Dynamite as part of a shared King Universe with Mandrake, Prince Valiant, and the Phantom.

An absolutely beautiful Al Williamson Flash Gordon piece done for a 1960s children’s record album cover featuring the voice of Buster Crabbe (who portrayed Flash Gordon in the Universal serials in the 1930s).

But there was one tiny prescient glimmer in King Comics’ Flash Gordon #4. In addition to his Flash Gordon stories in that issue, Williamson did a five-page Secret Agent X-9 story, which set the stage for his takeover of the daily strip (along with writer Archie Goodwin) the following year, in 1967. The duo first collaborated together on a memorable run of stories for Warren Publications’ Creepy and Eerie magazines, and would continue on X-9 / Corrigan for 12 years, until 1979. And as the years progressed, X-9, now known by his “real” name, Phil Corrigan, started to look more and more like Al Williamson. The story arcs in the strips ranged from mystery and spy stuff, industrial espionage, movie-making, and arch-enemies to lost, dinosaur-filled worlds, as both Williamson and Goodwin let their imaginations run wild. Their complete run on the strip was reprinted by IDW in the Dean Mullaney-edited Library of American Comics imprint, totaling five sumptuously designed and printed hardbound volumes. It’s one of the last great examples of classic American adventure comic strips and also one of the best.

Page 1 of the Secret Agent X-9 story in Flash Gordon #4; a new piece of art for the cover of Cartoonist Showcase #7, a seminal 1960s reprint fanzine by Ed Aprill Jr., which featured Williamson’s X-9 strips, and the first volume of the IDW Library of American Comics series reprinting all 12 years of the Goodwin/Williamson run.

A 1971 example of Williamson’s work on Secret Agent Corrigan. As the strip progressed, Corrigan started to resemble artist Al Williamson more and more. TM & © King Features Syndicate.

Williamson and Goodwin originally pitched a Star Wars comic strip but when the time came to do it, they were unavailable. Russ Manning was the original artist but had to leave in 1980 due to illness. Goodwin did a short run with Alfredo Alcala and then Williamson took the helm until 1984 when the strip ended. From the look of this strip, Darth Vader was born to be drawn by Al Williamson! TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd.

I once gave an Inkpot Award to an artist at Comic-Con and in my introduction to him, I called him an “artist’s artist.” He visibly blanched at that phrase, obviously totally uncomfortable with it. I would call Al Williamson an artist’s artist, too, and I mean that as a total compliment, as I did the other artist. I look at that phrase as meaning someone other artists look up to and admire—and learn from— due to the quality of their work. In later years, Williamson became almost solely an inker, with a memorable run on Daredevil inking John Romita Jr.’s pencils (including the Frank Miller-scripted Man Without Fear five-issue mini-series). He was also universally known as an incredibly nice guy and a mentor to artists like Bernie Wrightson, Dave Stevens, and Mark Schultz. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame at Comic-Con in 2000, the year of the big 50th anniversary of EC Comics (and my first year as Director of Programming). He died in 2010.

Young Al Williamson.

Even though he became best known for his work on two of Alex Raymond’s three creations (and he had a hand in the third, Rip Kirby, too), Williamson made both Flash Gordon and Secret Agent X-9 all his own. I loved his X-9 strips, but his Flash Gordon work is something out of this world, definitely on Mongo, but heavenly nonetheless. He’s one of the great under-appreciated artists who straddled both worlds of comic strips and books, a one-of-a-kind talent who elevated everything he touched.

Next time: Did you honestly think number 007 in this series would be anything other than a James Bond comic book? We look at the very first American comic book adaptation of the legendary Ian Fleming creation, from the one company you’d think wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, DC Comics. But wait until you hear who did this story first!

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