Flash Gordon: The Lion Men of Mongo
By Con Steffanson
“Flash Gordon” is one of those properties that has always been with me. I saw the Filmation feature length cartoon and watched the corresponding Saturday morning cartoon enough times to be disappointed that Thun the Lion Man did not appear in the Dino De Laurentiis produced live action film from 1980, but I still fell in love with that movie. Maybe a little too much. In later years when I was in college and introducing the film to girlfriends, they would give me the oddest looks. But the screen versions were only part of the love affair. Reprints of the comic strips were available in paperback sizes and I devoured those, and of course there was Defenders of the Earth, where Flash co-starred with other King Features Syndicate heroes against Ming the Merciless. That was probably the last time that Flash was truly relevant; there have been other cartoons (with a teen Flash and Dale), a Scy-Fy TV series (with a bland cast and wingless Hawkmen), and more recently a slew of titles from Dynamite Comics, but for some reason, the adventures of a blond blue-eyed strongman fighting a Yellow Peril villain from outer space just can’t seem to catch the zeitgeist the way the original strip and movie serials did in the 1930s.
I still love the concept, and that’s probably due largely to having grown up with it. Three humans from Earth, trapped on a far off exotic world ruled by a tyrannical emperor and populated by a bizarre array of aliens and animals and monsters, with ray guns and flying bikes and swords and heroism and swashbuckling derring-do – what’s not to love?
So when I saw this novel from the early 1970s at a used bookstore recently, I had to snap it up. I resisted the urge to purchase other volumes on the shelf nearby, as I had low expectations going in to this one. I like the Flash Gordon concept, but easily half the adaptations I’ve seen have left me cold. I did not have high hopes for this one, even with the painted Gold Key style cover. Something about “Alex Raymond’s Original Story” made my spider-senses tingle.
And I was right to some extent. This novel is nowhere near Alex Raymond’s original story. In the comic strip, the serials, and the 1980 film, Flash Gordon is a star athlete (polo or football, take your pick, but I’ve even seen him as a basketball star), who boards a plane as the rogue planet Mongo approaches Earth, crash lands with Dale Arden in the backyard of Hans Zarkov, and the three blast off to Mongo in Zarkov’s homemade rocket. On Mongo, the Earthlings meet Ming the Merciless, absolute tyrant, and with the aid of allies among the Lion Men, Hawkmen, and Forest Men of Mongo, stage a coup and overthrow Ming, saving both Earth and Mongo in the process.
But while there are familiar elements, the set-up for this novel is completely different. Flash, Dale, and Zarkov are interplanetary explorers working for a space based corporation. They crash land on Mongo during a survey mission, get separated, and individually explore and interact with the populace. Dale is quickly captured by royal forces and taken to the palace where Ming preys on her (in a very PG way – while not explicitly presented as such, this is clearly a book originally pitched at middle schoolers), Zarkov is apprehended by a secret society of scientists who need his help developing a new blaster cannon, and Flash stumbles into a number of adventures in his attempts to recover the other two humans. Along the way he befriends Tun (not Thun) the Lion Man. Tun is a political radical advocating for across the board democracy (Prince Barin wants a constitutional monarchy to replace Ming, and Ming is ruling as absolute dictator), and that gets Tun into a lot of trouble that Flash has to bail him out of. While simple, this is a level of political discourse I’ve never encountered in any other Flash Gordon property. It’s usually just “good guys” vs. “evil empire” and “Barin is the rightful heir” at the end, but here Ming isn’t even the absolute ruler of Mongo, let alone the Mongo system. And the weapons that Flash, Zarkov, and Dale arrive armed with are already superior to anything Mongo has, which at least explains how Zarkov can improve an alien technology.
The changes to the story were initially distracting, but I quickly started enjoying them. It helped that, whatever the changes, the characters were still themselves. Flash is not invulnerable, but he’s clever, compassionate, and loyal to a fault. Zarkov is bombastic and brilliant. Despite being given nothing to do, Dale is resilient, smart, and assured. Tun is the best alien sidekick this side of Tars Tarkas or Chewbacca: tough, friendly, and endlessly supportive. Aura falls in love with Flash and rebels against her father. Ming is creepy and cruel, devious and twisted, but he’s not all-powerful and he even has to put up with some snark from his advisors. I was disappointed at the lack of Hawkmen and the fact that Barin didn’t show up until the last five pages, but this novel was clearly set up as the start of a series. I still got apemen, mermen, harpy-bats, unitigers, airships aplenty, and heroics galore. I was almost surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The prose is simple and the world-building all but nonexistent but the action is non-stop, there are cliffhangers aplenty, and the stakes are well defined. I’ll probably give more of these a chance if I can find them again.