REVIEW: Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An omnibus of Al Williamson’s spectacular work on Flash Gordon strips and comics.
PROS: Great reproductions, nice format, and a nice surprise.
CONS: None worth complaining about.
BOTTOM LINE: Over 200 pages of retro-sexy fanboy bliss.
The subtitle of this volume is “A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic,” and this book delivers on every page. After an introduction by Groo and MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones, Mark Schultz gives us the story of how Al Williamson came to be the Flash Gordon illustrator-of-choice in the wake of Alex Raymond. What follows is a breathtaking collection of Williamson’s work from the 50s all the way to 2001.
I am always fascinated with how artists evolve, and here we see the classic line drawings develop into full lushness. There’s cinematic compositions, and some deceptively simple frames that convey volumes. Tucked in the corners of some panels are hints of ancient ruins or a section of some strange machine that really sell the scope of the setting. The shading becomes dramatic over the years, and the backgrounds more involved and alien. This is simply brilliant work.
Three things really push this book over the top for me.
- The reproductions are state of the art. There are pages scanned so well you can actually see the brush strokes from the inking process. Even though this is an omnibus, it works just as well as a book on technique.
- There are a lot of sketchbook illustrations, often is varied stages of development. Once again this is an important view into the artist’s work.
- On page 115 we are treated to an adaptation of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. It starts off with a text piece about how it came to be, and Williamson’s disappointment at how the campy the film was. Then we see the environs of Mongo as, in my opinion, they should truly appear. There’s twisting vegetation and terrifying rock formations and bloated moons dominating the sky. This section of the book makes you pine for a film that could have been. There are even some unused pages for scenes that were rewritten or dropped.
There needs to be some mention of Williamson’s design work. He crafts alien beasties and sleek vehicles with equal meticulousness. Giant fringed lizards attacking art-deco drill machines never looked so good. Ever.
And lest I fixate on the detail and craft of the art, it must be stated that Williamson is a master of storytelling. The plots flow smoothly with an economy of exposition and action sequences that hit all the right notes.
The book also includes the beautiful one-page advertising strips from Flash’s tenure as Union Carbide’s “Plastics Representative to the Outer Worlds” in the early 70s.
Mark Schultz gives us an informative history throughout this collection, providing insight not only into Williamson’s personal life but into the realities of publishing, syndication, and the comics industry in the second half of the 20th century.
Lastly, this book is a love letter to the character of Flash Gordon. Having recently watched the entire Filmation cartoon series, I came away from this book with a better appreciation of how much can actually be done with the characters. We also see Flash develop over time, trading in the tights and headgear for big collars and a sword. And Ming was menacing even when he had a big feathery crest on his skullcap.
This is Planetary Romance on a grand scale. Giant monsters and space princesses and corrupt evildoers leap from each page. It is also the “Vision of the Heroic” the cover promises. Moreso, it is a testament to the talent of one man and the endurance of the character he clearly loves.
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