Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic, $29.95 US, published by Flesk Publications
Out of all the artists who have drawn Flash Gordon in the newspaper comic strips and comic books, there are two who are most frequently associated with the character. The first is Alex Raymond, who created the series in 1933. The second is Al Williamson.
Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic assembles together for the first time Williamson’s complete works on Flash Gordon. Accompanying this material is in-depth historical and critical commentary by writer/artist Mark Schultz.
Al Williamson was an amazing artist, a creator who could depict vast, sweeping science fiction vistas populated by two-fisted heroes, beautiful heroines, sneering villains, exotic aliens, and monumental high-tech fortress cities. He was probably one of the greatest illustrators of the twentieth century when it came to drawing space opera.
In his commentary, Schultz examines how Williamson, a shy child in an unhappy family environment, turned to drawing as a form of solace. And then, in 1941, at age ten, Williamson went to the cinema and saw Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. It was an experience that caused him to follow the Alex Raymond newspaper strip and, in turn, made Williamson a lifelong fan of both the character and his creator. It certainly was one of the major influences on Williamson as an artist.
When I picked up this book, I was genuinely surprised at the relative paucity of published work that Al Williamson had done featuring Flash Gordon. So synonymous were the names Al Williamson and Flash Gordon to me that I actually believed he had worked for years on the newspaper strip, and illustrated dozens of comic books featuring the hero.
In reality, Williamson only drew three issues of the Flash Gordon comic book in the 1960s, illustrated the movie adaptation in 1980, and did a two issue miniseries for Marvel in the early 1990s. He also created a number of additional comic book covers, prints, and advertisements featuring Flash, and occasionally pitched in as an assistant on the comic strip. And that was it.
It really says something that, despite this rather small body of work, Williamson’s Flash Gordon material had such a forceful impact, and was so beautifully and dynamically illustrated, that he became so closely connected with the character in the minds of readers. In a way, this is understandable, as Williamson was very influenced by Alex Raymond, and can be seen as something of a successor. But the young Williamson quickly developed beyond a slavish imitator, and throughout the majority of his career developed and refined his individual style. Really, I think the fact that Williamson’s love for the character and universe of Flash Gordon is so readily apparent in the work that he did illustrate that this undoubtedly played a major role in his becoming so closely associated with the series.
Williamson’s earliest work on Flash Gordon was assisting on the inking of the newspaper strip in 1953, when it was being drawn by Dan Barry. Obviously, Williamson’s impact on the look of the strip was minimal. The book does reprint one example that demonstrates his artistic contribution to the strip.
It was in 1965, when King Features, the owners of the Flash Gordon series, decided to venture into comic book publishing, that Williamson got his first proper crack at illustrating the character. Due to tight deadlines, Williamson was only able to draw three issues, plus an additional cover. But, oh, in that short space of time he rendered some incredibly exquisite artwork, full of both dynamic excitement and delicate beauty. The writing on these stories, which Williamson also had a hand in, is at times a little simplistic, the plotting a bit dodgy. But the stunning artwork by Williamson more than makes up for any deficiencies in the stories.
Williamson’s next opportunity to draw Flash Gordon came in 1980, when the Dino De Laurentiis-produced movie was in the works. Williamson was hired to illustrate the comic book adaptation of the film. Initially enthusiastic at the assignment, Williamson soon found it becoming a chore due to a lack of reference material and last-minute script changes. Also, when De Laurentiis unsurprisingly decided to take the film in a more campy direction, Williamson, long-time Flash Gordon fan that he was, felt disappointed.
Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, and Williamson’s dissatisfaction with the film, the artwork for the Flash Gordon movie adaptation is stunning. You can see an artist at his peak, as Williamson renders the story in a grandiosely detailed, operatic manner. Appropriately, there is a very cinematic quality to his artwork. It appears that, despite the filmmakers intentions, Williamson and scripter Bruce Jones took the material seriously. The adaptation offers a glimpse of what the film might have been like if it had not veered so far into camp territory.
(Myself, I rather like the film, although at times it does have a “so bad it’s good” quality to it. As fun as it is, I think it would have been improved by taking things as least a little bit more seriously. And having Flash Gordon as a quarterback for the New York Jets was annoying. I mean, in the comic strip the character graduated from Yale. He had brains and brawn. I really do love the soundtrack by Queen, though. But I can understand why Williamson, who came from an earlier generation, might not have been as keen for the music of Freddie Mercury & Co.)
Williamson’s final major foray into the world of Flash Gordon came a decade later with the Marvel Comics miniseries, which was written by Mark Schultz. At the time, Williamson may have been starting to experience the onset of glaucoma, a condition that would plague him at the end of his career (honestly, I cannot think of a worse fate for an artist, especially one as talented and precise as Williamson, as losing your sight). Despite his difficulties in completing the project, the two issue miniseries has some wonderful work. To my untrained eye, I really cannot see much, if any, drop in the quality and detail of Williamson’s work. I bought this when it first came out, and really enjoyed it. Schultz writes a high-energy adventure that also reveals the secret origin of Flash Gordon, while Williamson gets to draw the diverse, exotic regions of the planet Mongo and its colorful inhabitants. So it was a pleasure to re-read it.
The dimensions of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic are 9″ by 12″ (as opposed to the typical 6.5″ by 10″ of regular comic books). The majority of the artwork is presented in back & white. The oversized nature of the book, coupled with this black & white reproduction, really enables the reader to see the precise detail and fine quality of Williamson’s work. For example, as impressed as I was by his art on the Marvel series when it was published at standard comic size and in color in the early 1990s, here it looks even more amazing when blown up and in crisp black & white.
The text by Schultz is extremely informative. It is respectful to Williamson without being slavish. An artist himself, Schultz possesses the technical knowledge and aptitude to critically examine Williamson’s development as an artist over the years, to point out his major accomplishments within the material he did for the series, and to recognize the unfortunate beginnings of decline in his later work.
I highly recommend Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic. It assembles a wealth of material that has never been collected before, much of which has been out of print for decades. The book is a stunning showcase of Al Williamson’s artistic accomplishments.
Al Williamson passed away on June 12, 2010. Looking at the copyright page of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic, it shows the book was printed a year previously, in June 2009. I was certainly happy to find out that Williamson lived long enough to see the publication of this fantastic volume.