Flashing Flash: Or, A Paper Doll That I Can Call My Own

Paper dolls and cut-out toy models are centuries-old, but the format was a natural fit for the modern newspaper comic from its beginnings. We tend to identify the comic strip paper doll with “women’s strips” from the great fashionistas, Jackie “Torchy” Ormes or Gladys “Mopsy” Parker. But in 1934, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon got into the act with a series that ran in every Sunday from August 18 to December 16. While Raymond focused mainly on Dale Arden as well as the various princesses and other female characters the still-young strip had amassed by then, he covers most of the cast, from Zarkov in a tuxedo to Ming the Merciless’ collection of flamboyant collars.

The paper doll format maps well against Flash Gordon’s overt and covert appeals. It lets Raymond show off the exotic, feudal-future world of Planet Mongo. The strip’s blend of sci-fi gadgetry and pre-modern monarchy played into some of the very tensions that occupied 1930s America, and fashion was just one expression of that fascination. But it was also a thinly-veiled excuse for cheese and beefcake. The erotic, even fetishistic appeal of Flash Gordon was barely sub-textual. Raymond quickly became a master of depicting the human form as a delectable object. His used masses of skin, touch and muscular action that blended adventure and eroticism as effectively as any artist in comic strip history. The core irony of the comic strip is that it got away with so much that probably wouldn’t have been tolerated on other pages of a newspaper mass medium that was notoriously prurient and conservative. Consider Krazy Kat’s gender-bending, Dick Tracy’s gruesome violence, the antic social anarchy of screwballers like Milt Gross and Gene Ahern, the fetishes of Lee Falk’s The Phantom, or the homo-eroticism of Raymond’s Flash. Could any of these small transgressive thrills appear in any other more explicit or realistic form in the “family” newspaper? Marginalized, “disposable” arts often enjoy a latitude of expression precisely because no one takes them too seriously at the time.

One thought on “Flashing Flash: Or, A Paper Doll That I Can Call My Own

  1. For fans of the movie version, several series are now colorized and available on Youtube. The costumes are wonderful, Ming wears a long purple robe and a feather hat.

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