The Flash Gordon Solution?

By | Wednesday, March 13, 2024 Leave a Comment
Dan Schkade debuted as the new writer/artist for King Features' Flash Gordon comic strip back in October. Before that, the strip had been in reruns since 2003. Like many adventure strips, it had been suffering from a seemingly perpetual dwindling readership for decades, in large part because of the newspapers' decisions to shrink their comics sections. When Alex Raymond created the strip in 1934, newspapers afforded comics a sizeable chunk of of their space to comics. Adventure strips like Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant would get an entire half page or more; this allowed artists to do wonderfully detailed drawings and spend a great deal of time advancing the story. However after seeing successes like Peanuts and Beetle Bailey which used exceptionally simplified drawings (i.e. cartoons), newspaper editors realized they could shrink them down significantly while they still remained legible, meaning they could put more on a page. They increasingly demanded all strips be shrunk down, to the point where jokes about each panel being no larger than a postage stamp date back to the mid-1990s. With such a tiny physical space, artists could not include many details and adventure strips with their ongoing storylines in particular suffered pretty heavily.

Part of the problem with adventure strips being forced into that format isn't so much that the art itself had to suffer. You could, after all, draw an ongoing adventure story with no more detail than Charles Schulz put into any given Snoopy drawing. The more significant issue is that a creator effectively now has only three -- maybe four -- panels to recap yesterday's strip as well as advance the new one. That's challenging for even the most talented creators out there, and the only one I've seen really do it successfully on a consistent basis was Jack Kirby in his short-lived Sky Masters strip. His primry technique was to have at the start of each new strip a character respond to the previous day's installment. Despite Kirby having a reputation for having a tin ear when it comes to dialogue, it usually flowed very smoothly and sounded incredibly natural. (Probably in no small part to co-creator Dave Wood.)

Schkade has taken a different approach, and one that's probably the second-most effective one I've seen after Kirby. What Schkade does is that he switches the story perspective frequently. By changing the storytelling point of view from Flash to Dale to Aura to Barin to... he can present some of the same story information he's already shown but without the story feeling repetitive because it's also relaying the feelings and impressions of that new/different character. Is Flash escaping a relief (to Dale) or an opportunity (to Hans) or a threat (to Ming)?

The idea of switching a story's focus from character to character is hardly new, of course, but I believe this is the first time I've seen it expressly used to overcome the limitation inherent in the excessively short installments. Coupled with Schkade's generally simplisitic style of illustration, I think he's turned out to be about the best choice King could've made when it comes to re-starting Flash Gordon. But is it sufficient enough to win over new readers and give Flash Gordon a boost? I don't know. I do think he's doing a bang-up job, all things considered, but I also don't think it's his best work because of those same considerations. I think the phsyical format newspapers have forced strips into has made the adventure strip largely untenable for most audiences. Schkade's doing some creative work within those limitations, but I think that's almost more of an academic consideration than a practical one.

I think comics syndicates have been indeed slooooooooowly testing out some approaches to their older, legacy comics that are smart. Allowing strips like Nancy and Popeye and Flash Goron to do/be something very different than they've been historically is, I think, 100% necessary to even consider their longevity. Whether or not any one of these attempts is successful is a matter of debate, but trying to run those legacy strips the way they were run a century ago has been proven not to work, so good on them for not trying to continue fighting that losing battle. I think they're moving way too slowly to be effective with it all in the long run, but they're at least moving.
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