Fleshy Gordon: Alex Raymond’s Pop Erotica

Alex Raymond loved bodies. Male bodies, female bodies, animal and alien bodies. He couldn’t wait to disrobe them, pop on loincloths or skin-hugging gossamer robes and bras, put them on show, flex their muscles. And this made his 1930s space opera Flash Gordon (1934) a masterpiece of subverted sexual energy. Two of the most famous satires of the great strip, Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine parody, Flesh Garden (May, 1954) and the software porn cult classic Flesh Gordon (1974) got this about Raymond’s work. In many ways, Flash Gordon was laughable. Its dialogue and plotting were sub-literate. Its conceptions of aliens (Lionmen, Sharkmen, Powermen) pedestrian. Its conceptions of technology (Disolvo-Rays, Oxo-Liquifiers) paled beside even Buck Rogers. And its even sillier sexual politics (alien princesses pursuing the irresistible Flash and the forever jealous, swooning, fawning, nagging Dale Arden) were embarrassingly adolescent. And yet it was a fetishist’s delight, and certainly the most erotic mainstream comic strip of all time.

The special genius of Flash Gordon is Alex Raymond’s talent for visualizing primal urges and tired tropes with such detail, energy, operatic extravagance that they registered deeply with the viewer. His mastery of bodily form, facial expression and panel composition supercharged visually the familiar adolescent fantasies and fetishes that he and co-writer Don Moore lifted from pulp fiction magazines of the era. Xenophobia, hyper-masculinity, emasculation, dominatrices, bondage, miscegenation – all of the fodder of adventure pulp stories were dialed up to eleven by Raymond’s art.

One hardly needs to be “Woke” to recognize at the heart of Flash Gordon a classic Anglo-Saxon imperialist fantasy. Gordon, the star polo player from Yale is in a long line of high-born white saviors to the uncivilized and oppressed. This racially encoded Western fantasy echoed the Edgar Rice Burroughs heroes (Tarzan Lord Greystoke, John Carter) as well as Lester Dent’s Doc Savage and erudite crime fighters like The Shadow and The Spider. The blue bloods shall lead us.

And there is nothing subtle about Raymond’s channeling the racial politics of the era. His topper strip for Flash, Jungle Jim, was the very model of white salvation fantasies. Jim even has a Black sidekick who calls him “Massah” in the early strip. And Jim is forever saving indigenous tribes from their own ignorance and the manipulations of cynical, corrupt leaders. In Flash Gordon, Raymond simply projected that same imperialist logic into space.

The premise of Flash Gordon begins with Earth’s impending doom as an alien planet approaches on a collision course. Flash and Dale Arden are thrown together when their airplane is downed by a meteor. The crazed Dr. Zarkov kidnaps the pair to help him navigate his homemade space rocket into the planet in hopes of deflecting it. Flash commandeers the ship, lands on the threatening planet, Mongo, which which is ruled ruthlessly by Ming the Merciless. As the classic pulp antagonist to Flash’s Anglo-Saxon pedigree, Ming is drenched in just about every “yellow peril” racist trope Moore and Raymond could imagine (inscrutable, scheming, undemocratic, sadistic, and of course, very yellow). He is clearly channeling the Fu-Manchu vibe from Sax Rohmer. Flash, Dale and Zarkov (who seems to have snapped out of his madness) spend most of the 1930s trying to bring down Ming through encounters with the many races and sub-cultures of Mongo.

At the heart of the blue-blood adventurer/savior in modern pop culture has always been hyper-masculinity. Like his pulp hero cousins, Flash is often praised for his exceptional reflexes, muscular power and resolve. And it almost goes without saying that these hyper-masculne fantasies are compensatory. They mollify the modern male readers’ fears. About being over-civilized by modernity. About being cut off from craft and a sense of mastery by mechanized or bureaucratic workplaces. And about feeling emasculated by comfort and feminine domesticity. If the omniscient narrator and Dale seem to gush excessively over Flash’s manly mastery and power, it is because the aggrieved modern male ego seems to require limitless stroking and reassurance.

The sexual dynamic in Flash Gordon is set in the first episode when Ming tries to make Dale his bride while his daughter Princess Aura falls in love with Flash and saves him from doom. Aliens pursuing Dale, queens and princesses seducing Flash, and all the ensuing rivalries, jealousies and retribution that naturally follow from the sexual sub-text loops through most of the fantasy adventuring. In the sequences above, Dale jealously confronts Queen Fria (who of course is also taken with Flash) for endangering her hero. And the other is a good example of Flash and Dale’s ongoing domestic tension prefacing the introduction of yet another femme fatale and rival.

Alex Raymond clearly is in love with Flash, the sexual dynamo at the center of his tale. As is just about everyone else in the strip. Dale, Zarkov, Flash’s many male allies and every queen and princess he seems to meet just can’t keep their hands off of our hero. Raymond’s skill as a figure model realist improved quickly as the strip progressed in the 1930s. And ultimately, the body itself – men’s women’s, beasts and aliens – became the focal point. Raymond just couldn’t bring himself to clothe his characters. My favorite example is Flash’s journey to a sub-zero region of Mongo. Rather than disguise his cast’s physiques with furry parkas, his solution is a cold-shielding outfit that lets them stay near naked beneath a cellophane-like cloak.

Raymond was among the first adventure artists to bring muscularity to modern heroism. Visual depictions of a bulked up Tarzan and Doc Savage preceded Flash by a few years, but it was Raymond who helped establish a number of the visual tropes of muscular male heroism that comic book artists like Jack Kirby and especially Wally Wood, Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta enshrined in the 1950s. His male characters tended to hinge at the waist, with pelvis out, torso leaning back, thighs and bulging calves leaning forward. This is a repose posture that Wood, Williamson and Frazetta would exaggerate in their later figure work, and it seems to keep muscularity engaged while the body is at rest. Raymond lavished his attention on muscles at maximum strain, whether climbing or fighting, running or struggling against (frequent) bondage.

It is not surprising, then, that Raymond’s fight scenes are more often wrestling than boxing matches. Hand to hand maneuvers, choke holds, nests of entwined bodies are almost always his preferred mode of depicting combat. They are beautiful and engaging tableaux of muscularity that were light years beyond even the wonderful kinetic roundhouse blows of Roy Crane’s Capt. Easy and Milton Caniff’s Terry. And not to put too fine a point on it, Flash is deliciously homo-erotic. In addition to all of the wrestling and restraining of male characters in this strip, the men also can’t seem to keep their hands off one another, whether in conflict or hand-on-shoulder camaraderie.

Which is not to say Raymond overlooked the sex appeal of his female cast members. He was also clearly a fan of the athletic female form as well, often taking special care to use their long, curvy legs to signal their seductiveness, their resolve, their vulnerability and their frequent dominatrix-like power.

The central joy of Flash Gordon is its operatic, heightened emotion, its visualization of primal emotion, and, yes, its many sexual fixations. The three panel sequence belwo forms a neat fetish triptych. The injured Flash is tended by the sexually charged Frigia (nurse fantasy) while Dale is menaced by the bestial giant Brukka (miscegenation, threat of rape) and their friend Prince Ronal is shackled and tortured (bondage, S&M). Raymond excelled at dramatizing these primal fears and barely veiled fetishes. His talent for realistic details that communicate feeling is impeccable. The lilt of Frigia’s head and and even the draping of her bandages drip with tender sexuality. Brukka’s leering, greasy, hairy-handed and darkly-skinned menace is contrasted with Dale’s slight, lithe and white-skinned figure in ways that are as racially encoded as they are viscerally effective. And even the ways in which Raymond depicts the weight of the slumped Prince Ronal makes us feel the dig of the shackles in his wrists, the totality of his defeat and feeling of subjugation. 

Surely, Alex Raymond was not the only artist of the 30s to depict the often tawdry tropes that lay beneath these images. Lee Falk and Roy Moor’s The Phantom was just as relentlessly campy, covertly erotic and fetishistic. But by contrast Moore’s limited graphic skills only increase our appreciation for the operatic intensity of Raymond’s achievement in Flash Gordon. He was leveling up the art of comics to register emotion in richer ways than anyone before and perhaps since.

As Raymond’s expressiveness increased throughout the 1930’s, he started focusing his increasing photo-realism on faces. And this became yet another singular strength of Flash Gordon in the field of adventure comics, because facial expression had never been a strength of the medium. Humorists like E.C. Segar and Milt Gross were quite good at registering comic reactions in their characters but they tended to be broad and limited by the small scale of the daily panel. Raymond, however, used the larger canvas of his Sunday page to tighten the panel around highly detailed, emotionally nuanced projections of villainous motives, a character’s misgivings, Flash’s heroic resolve. With his increasingly slender dry brush lines and feathering, Raymond used head posture, glances, mouth shapes to surface the emotional valence of the action. 

Ming’s capture by Flash and Zarkov is an especially effective use of facial karma. Close-ups of Ming’s demonic face dominated the strip’s space for months. His downfall is made all the more satisfying when Raymond strips him of his his bald head of its purple cowl, captures his face is disbelieving shock, and throws his usual regal posture akimbo. The tables have turned. The tropes of bondage and subjugation that Ming and his minions have applied to Flash and co. have now turns on him to communicate visually the depths of his defeat.

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6 thoughts on “Fleshy Gordon: Alex Raymond’s Pop Erotica

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  3. A very good analysis. My father, born in 1930, learned to read from the Flash Gordon comic strip. What stuns me is how all of Raymond’s sexuality played before an audience of tens of millions and elicited almost no complaints! Everybody read “Flash Gordon” moms, dads, kids, teens, grandparents, lawyers, bricklayers, rich, poor, and NO ONE batted an eye at scenes like Dale being strung up and whipped. The strip in fact rewarded “certain” interpretations between panels—an example. Dale and Flash are abducted by cavemen. During this sequence, Dale wears a modest, long green gown. One of the cavemen lays claim to her. When we see Dale again, she is clad in scanty furs that reveal virtually everything. The question of what happened to the long green dress and how dale ended up in the furs is left unanswered but must have fueled the imaginations of millions of adolescent and not so adolescent readers. In short, Raymond and Moore knew EXACTLY what they were doing while virtually everyone else was clueless, or at least pretended to be

    • Thanks for your acute point. Indeed Raymond and other adventure artists got away with a stunning amount of innuendo and barely guised eroticism. See my post on the many fetishes of The Phantom. Editors seemed to be more sensitive to political transgressions. Whenever Harold Gray’s anti-FDR diatribes got too pointed, or Al Capp and Walt Kelly’s satires of recognizable political figures cut too close to reality, select newspapers would complain and even yank some dailies.

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