Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond
'Flash Gordon' (28 May 1939).

Alex Raymond was one of the most influential American newspaper comic artists of all time. He is widely praised for his realism, beautiful and elegant depictions of women and clever use of black and white. With his space opera 'Flash Gordon' (1934) he redefined the science fiction genre, while his post-war detective strip 'Rip Kirby' (1946) stood out for its contemporary realism and cosmopolitan look and feel. Raymond's other (co-)creations 'Secret Agent X-9' (1934) and 'Jungle Jim' (1934) have also become classics. Despite his relatively short career - Raymond died in a car crash at age 45 - he has left a lasting mark on comic book realism, together with his contemporaries Hal Foster, Milton Caniff and Burne Hogarth.

Tim Tyler's Luck by Alex Raymond
'Tim Tyler's Luck', ghosted by Alex Raymond (19 October 1933).

Early life and career
Alexander Gillespie Raymond was born in 1909 in New Rochelle, New York, into a family of Irish-American descent. His father was an engineer who worked in the Woolworth Building, and strongly supported his son's artistic talents. Although Raymond showed an early interest in drawing, he held several jobs to support his family after his father passed away in 1922. He dropped out of high school in 1928 and became an order clerk with a brockerage firm in Wall Street. In the evenings, he took a course from the Grand Central School of Art. His career as a stockbroker was cut short when the economic crisis hit the USA in 1929. Raymond worked as a mortgage salesman for a while, but eventually chose to further pursue his artistic ambitions. By 1930 he started assisting his former neighbor Russ Westover, the cartoonist of 'Tilly the Toiler'. He initially served as an errand boy, but eventually got some small lettering and background art tasks. Westover introduced Raymond to King Features, the syndicate related to William Randolph Hearst's media empire. He was hired as an assistant artist in the King Features bullpen in 1931. In the evenings he helped Chic Young with his comic strip 'Blondie'.

Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond
'Flash Gordon' (20 May 1934).

He joined Young full-time in late 1931, and continued to work on 'Blondie' until early 1933, shortly after Blondie and Dagwood's wedding. Also in late 1931, he began assisting Chic Young's younger brother Lyman Young on 'Tim Tyler's Luck'. In 1932 and 1933, he ghosted both the daily and Sunday installments of 'Tim Tyler', after which his talent was truly recognized by King Features manager Joseph V. Connolly. Competing syndicates had launched several popular newspaper comics in the previous years, so Hearst's company had to strenghten their position in the market. This resulted in Raymond debuting no less than three major comic strips in January 1934. 'Flash Gordon' was Hearst's answer to the popular feature 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century' (1929) by Dick Calkins and Phil Nowlan at the John F. Dille Company, 'Jungle Jim' had to compete with United Feature's 'Tarzan' by Rex Maxon and 'Secret Agent X-9' stepped in on the wave of popular crime features initiated by Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy' (1931) at the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate.

Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond
'Flash Gordon' (30 October 1938).

Flash Gordon
Of all these creations, 'Flash Gordon' has become the most iconic. It made its debut as a Sunday page on 7 January 1934, and continued to run in newspapers until 2003. It has also inspired a great many movie adaptations, TV and radio serials, comic books and merchandising lines. Raymond's Jules Verne-type space opera headed for thrills right away. Already on the first panel, humanity is threatened by a strange new planet approaching planet Earth. A flaming meteor torn loose from the comet shoots down the transcontinental flight which boards "Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player" Flash Gordon and the beautiful Dale Arden. Gordon heroically parachutes himself and Dale to safety, but the two are quickly captured by Dr. Hans Zarkov. The desperate scientist takes the two coincidental bystanders with him on a suicide mission to crash his rocket into the approaching comet. And this is only the first Sunday page! Gordon overpowers the mad scientist, but can't prevent the rocket from crash-landing on the mysterious planet Mongo, which is ruled by Ming the Merciless (the name says it all). It is the beginning of a long saga filled with strange creatures, intriguing landscapes, futuristic cities and machinery and highly imaginative science fiction, accompanied of course by tireless heroics of the title hero.

Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond
'Flash Gordon' (18 January 1942).

Most of the early stories have Flash acting as a resistance leader against the ruthless leader Ming, while finding allies in Prince Barin from the forest kingdom of Arboria, Prince Thun of the Lion Men, Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen and other more noble leaders. Ming's daughter Princess Aura initially takes after her father, but is reformed by her love for Flash, and later for Prince Barin. Flash, Dale and Zarkov finally return to Earth in July 1941, after learning from an upcoming new world war, initiated by the fascistic Red Sword organization. While Raymond's timing for this storyline seems impeccable, our heroes have already overthrown the fascists and returned to Mongo by January 1942. This was only a month after the Pearl Harbor attack, which plunged the U.S. into World War II. Alex Raymond crafted his plots in a steady collaboration with pulp writer Don Moore, who served as a ghostwriter. They came up with the most extraordinary worlds and creatures, which Raymond brought to life with his skillful brushwork. Getting his visual inspiration from leading magazine illustrators like Matt Clark, Franklin Booth and John LaGatta, Raymond managed to bring character into his settings through his strong sense of realism and unique use of perspective. From the lush landscapes of Mongo to the egocentric splendor of Ming's environment - Raymond was one of the first artists who made science fiction "believable". With his masterful renderings of sensual women as more eye candy, 'Flash Gordon' quickly surpassed his predecessor in popularity. As Checker's Mark Thompson wrote in his foreword for the publisher's first 'Flash Gordon' collection (2005), Raymond "brought the worldwide public into the visual age of science fiction".

Jungle Jim, by Alex Raymond (1939)
'Jungle Jim' (16 April 1939).

Jungle Jim
Raymond was assigned to fill a full page in the Sunday newspapers. To accompany 'Flash Gordon', he and Don Moore came up with the "topper" 'Jungle Jim'. Although it was meant as a competitor for the 'Tarzan' strip, this adventurous saga was set in South-East Asia instead of Africa and starred a big-game trapper instead of a jungle hero in loincloth. The hero was named after Raymond's cartoonist brother Jim Raymond, and can be considered a fictional rendition of real-life adventurer/writer Frank R. Buck, the author of 'Bring 'Em Back Alive' (1930). The initial stories dealt with regular genre villains like pirates and slave traders, but the feature took a war-themed direction at the beginning of World War II. 'Jungle Jim' is one of the few Sunday companion features to become a classic in its own right. During the 1940s it's popularity justified its transformation into an independent Sunday page, apart from 'Flash Gordon'. In the post-Raymond period, 'Jungle Jim' has also received comic book series with original stories published by Standard Comics, Dell Comics, Charlton Comics and Dynamite Entertainment.

Secret Agent X-9 by Alex Raymond
'Secret Agent X-9' comic strips from 23 and 24 January 1934.

Secret Agent X-9
'Secret Agent X-9', Alex Raymond's third comic strip, made its debut a few weeks after 'Flash Gordon' and 'Jungle Jim', on 22 January 1934. King Features Syndicate had managed to hire Dashiell Hammett to write an original daily comic strip, starring an unnamed government detective. As the nation's top author of hard-boiled detective novels, Hammett was surely a crowd puller, whose work could easily compete with Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy'. Raymond proved to be capable of visualizing the seedy underworld as well. After crafting four storylines, Hammett left the feature and was replaced by Don Moore and then by 'Saint' author Leslie Charteris. To keep up with the workload of producing six daily strips and two Sunday features, Austin Briggs was brought in to assist Raymond on 'Secret Agent X-9'. Raymond however left the strip on 16 November 1935 to fully concentrate on 'Flash Gordon', 'Jungle Jim' and his ambitions of becoming a magazine illustrator. 'Secret Agent X-9' continued to run in newspapers until 10 February 1996; from 1967 onwards under the title 'Secret Agent Corrigan'. Artists who have drawn the feature after Raymond were Charles Flanders (1935-1938), Nicholas Afonsky (1938), Austin Briggs (1938-1940), Mel Graff (1940-1960), Bob Lubbers (1960-1967), Al Williamson (1967-1980) and George Evans (1980-1996). The later stories have been written by Max Trell (1936-1945, under the King Features house-name Robert Storm), Mel Graff (1945-1960), Bob Lubbers (1960-1967), Archie Goodwin (1967-1980) and George Evans (1980-1996).

Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond
'Flash Gordon' (7 February 1937).

Success and media adaptations
By the late 1930s, 'Flash Gordon' was read by 50 million people worldwide. It ran in 130 newspapers and was translated into eight foreign languages. The strip also gained popularity in Europe, where it appeared as 'Guy L'Éclair' (France), 'Speed Gordon' (Germany) and 'Stormer Gordon' (The Netherlands/Flanders), while other countries maintained the original name. The weekly installments of our space hero were faithfully adapted into a weekly radio serial called 'The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon' with Gale Gordon as Flash. The radio versions of Flash and Dale however returned to Earth and their adventures ended on 26 October 1935. A weekday radio serial called 'The Further Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon' was launched two days later, which featured independent storylines apart from the comic strip. The weekly timeslot was filled by a 'Jungle Jim' radio serial starring Matt Crowley and later Gerald Mohr.

Jungle Jim by Alex Raymond
'Jungle Jim' (25 January 1942).

Universal released a 'Jungle Jim' 12-part movie serial starring Grant Withers in 1937, while none other than 'Tarzan' actor Johnny Weissmuller played the character in a series of movies (1948-1956) for Columbia Pictures. The first 'Flash Gordon' movie adaptations appeared as early as 1936, starring Buster Crabbe as the title hero. Three movie serials were made: 'Flash Gordon' (1936), 'Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars' (1938), and 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' (1940). Later attempts at a 'Flash Gordon' films were done by directors like Federico Fellini and George Lucas, but it was Mike Hodges who eventually made the best-known movie adaptation of 'Flash Gordon'. The campy 1980 film starring Sam J. Jones was based loosely on Alex Raymond's early stories, and featured a prominent soundtrack by rockband Queen. Throughout the years, 'Flash Gordon' has also appeared in TV series, both live-action and animated, while a wide range of merchandising has been produced, including such items as toy ray guns, rocket ships, space suits, watches, pins and buttons.

Military-themed illustration for the Saturday Evening Post (13 January 1945)
Military-themed illustration for the Saturday Evening Post (13 January 1945).

Career in the 1940s
A daily strip of 'Flash Gordon' was launched on 27 May 1940 with art by Austin Briggs and plots by Don Moore. Raymond continued to work on the Sunday page, while also providing illustrations to magazines like The Saturday Home Magazine, Collier's, Blue Book Magazine, Esquire and Look. He also provided artwork to clients like Alfred A. Knopf Publishing and The Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company, and became a member of the prestigious Society of Illustrators. In February 1944 he enlisted as a volunteer with the US Marines. The daily 'Flash Gordon' strip was dropped and Austin Briggs was brought in to take over Raymond's Sunday page. 'Jungle Jim' was handed over to several ghost artists (Jim Raymond, John Mayo) and then Paul Norris, who continued the feature until 1954. Alex Raymond initially served as an artist with the Marine Corps Publicity Bureau in Philadelphia, during which he drew a weekly illustrated panel and designed war bonds and recruitment posters. His most iconic work of the period was the painting 'Marines at Prayer', which appeared on the cover of the December 1944 issue of the Marine Corps' Headquarters Bulletin. In 1945 he served in the Pacific Ocean theater on the aircraft carrier Gilbert Islands, where he documented the everyday life and on-board camaraderie. Alex Raymond returned to civilian life with the desire to resume his career as a cartoonist. King Features Syndicate had however signed on Briggs to produce the 'Flash Gordon' comic until at least 1948. With no chance of returning to his trademark series soon, the syndicate offered him the opportunity to develop a new daily strip.

Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond
Second 'Rip Kirby' strip (5 March 1946).

Rip Kirby
With his wartime experiences fresh in his mind, Alex Raymond felt the need to create something less fantastical and more rooted in reality. The author later remarked: "The war made a realist out of me". He returned to territory he had previously explored in 'Secret Agent X-9' and created the private investigator 'Rip Kirby'. The daily strip debuted on 4 March 1946. The main star was however different from earlier comic strip sleuths. Instead of solving crimes with spectacular car chases and hard-boiled fist fights, the cosmopolitan and sophisticated Kirby rather used his wit and power of deduction to overthrow New York's criminal masterminds. Although his busted nose hinted at a more action-filled past - he was an ex-marine like his creator - Kirby was an intellectual in the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes'. He smoked a pipe, wore a suit and glasses, and lived in an extravagant penthouse apartment. His sidekicks were his British butler Desmond and his love interest, fashion model Honey Dorian. The storylines were also far more realistic and modern than those of PI archetypes like Dashiell Hammett's 'Sam Spade' and Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy'. 'Rip Kirby' didn't feature grotesque villains or a wisecracks slinging protagonist, but focused on contemporary issues like drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, the dangers of atomic and bacteriological weapons, black market babies and war orphans.

Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond
'Rip Kirby' (24 December 1949).

This return to reality also prompted a further enhancement of Raymond's drawing style. The artist carefully documented the strip's New York settings and trendy cars, while using real life models like Beulah Bestor for his portrayals of Honey Dorian, femme fatale Pagan Lee and other female characters. He carefully studied the leading women's magazines of the time to accurately apply the latest fashion in his strips. Fashion consultant Joan Weed also kept the artist up to date on the latest trends in international couture. The format of a daily strip furthermore urged Raymond to experiment more with the use of black and white. This resulted a photo-realistic drawing style with delicate pen lines with dramatic brush strokes which has been widely copied since. Raymond's main influences were the illustrators in contemporary women's magazines, such as Al Parker, Albert Dorne, Robert Fawcett and Alex Ross. He elaborated on the groundbreaking comics work by Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff, and experimented freely with shading, cross-hatching and more bold brushwork. The plots and dialogue were conceived during weekly storywriting sessions with King Features general manager Ward Greene and editor Sylvan Byck. Greene's role in the 'Rip Kirby' writing team was taken over by Fred Dickenson in 1952. Shortly after the feature's launch, Alex Raymond hired Ray Burns to do the lettering and some additional background art. Burns stayed with Raymond throughout his run on 'Rip Kirby', with the exception of short period in the early 1950s when he joined the Navy and Bob Leaterhbarrow filled his place. Attempts were made to launch a Sunday page as well. Leonard Starr and Bob Fujitani were possible artists for the feature, but Raymond abandoned the idea realizing a Sunday page would generate further financial benefit.

Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond
Action-filled 'Rip Kirby' strips from 26 and 27 July 1956.

Final years, recognition and death
Alex Raymond had relocated to the the quiet back country of Stamford in Fairfield County, Connecticut, in 1940. The county was the homebase for many cartoonists and illustrators, largely because there was no state income tax. Raymond enjoyed the same lush lifestyle as his main hero. He was a member of the local Country Club, played golf with his colleagues and became an avid sports car collector. He was also an active member of the National Cartoonists Society, and succeeded Milton Caniff as its president in March 1950. Although the society was largely a social group, Raymond helped establish several functioning committees which offered trainings, studies of the comics art form, aid to financially struggling members and legal advise. Although Raymond was held in high esteem by his peers - he won the NCS Reuben Award in 1949 - he always maintained a desire to become a magazine illustrator and fine artist. Alex Raymond had however no disdain for comics at all, as he wrote in 'Famous Artists & Writers of King Features Syndicate' (1946): "I decided honestly that comic art is an art form in itself. It reflects the life and times more accurately and actually is more artistic than magazine illustration - since it is entirely creative. An illustrator works with camera and models; a comic artist begins with a white sheet of paper and dreams up his own business - he is playwright, director, editor and artist at once." Unfortunately his other ambitions remained unfulfilled. On 6 September 1956 he crashed Stan Drake's Chevrolet Corvette convertible into a tree while speeding in bad weather, killing Raymond and seriously injuring Drake. He ironically had a planned meeting with top illustrator Robert Fawcett later that evening, which could have propelled his career even further...

Raymond's mercedes is Rip Kirby, July 1956
Alex Raymond often depicted his Mercedes SL300 in his comic strip, such as here from 2 July 1956, only two months before he died in a car crash.

Legacy and influence in the United States
To continue the 'Rip Kirby' strip, King Features Syndicate quickly found a replacement in John Prentice, who drew the feature until 26 June 1999. Even after his lifetime, Alex Raymond has remained an influence on nearly the entire industry. Both the romantic 'Flash Gordon' and the modern 'Rip Kirby' have become templates for their respective genres. Although it had started several months earlier, William Ritt and Clarence Gray's 'Brick Bradford' (1933-1987) borrowed heavily from 'Flash Gordon'. The future artists of the 'Flash Gordon' feature itself are also indebted to Raymond. After Austin Briggs came Mac Raboy, Dan Barry, Bob Fujitani, Bruce Jones, Ralph Reese, Gray Morrow and Jim Keefe until the strip came to an end in 2001. Influences of Raymond's sci-fi imaginery can be found in other media as well, most notably in George Lucas' 'Star Wars' films. The contemporary photo-realistic soap opera had followers like John Cullen Murphy's 'Big Ben Bolt' (1950), Stan Drake's 'The Heart of Juliet Jones' (1953), Leonard Starr's 'Mary Perkins, On Stage' (1957), Alex Kotzky's 'Apartment 3-G', (1961), Neal Adams' 'Ben Casey' (1962), Lou Fine's 'Peter Scratch' (1965). Comic book artists like Allen BellmanJohn Buscema, Jerry DumasGil Kane, John JohnsJack KirbyRuss Manning, Frank Thorne, Al Williamson and Juan Ortiz have also cited Alex Raymond as an important inspiration for their work.

Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond
'Rip Kirby', 3 February 1951.

Legacy and influence elsewhere in the world
The artist is also frequently mentioned as a major influence by artists from Europe and South America. Flash Gordon's publication in the Italian comic magazine L'Avventuroso (1934-1938) served as an inspiration for an entire generation of Italian adventure comic authors, including Kurt Caesar, Annibale Casabianca, Leo Cimpellin, Gianni De Luca and Gallieno Ferri. When Mussolini banned the import of US comics in 1938, the Italian publisher Nerbini began a local production of the strip, written by future filmmaker Federico Fellini and drawn by either Giove Toppi or Guido Fantoni. A similar thing happened in Belgium, when 'Flash Gordon' was discontinued in Bravo magazine after the outbreak of World War II. Local artist Edgar Pierre Jacobs finished the running story, and then used Raymond's visual approach as an inspiration for his own story 'Le Rayon U' (1943). Among the many other French-speaking artists influenced by Raymond are Chott, Eddy Paape, Paul CuvelierPatrice Pellerin and Albert Uderzo. In the Dutch-speaking territories, Raymond's influence can be traced back in the work of Karel Verschuere, Buth, Hans G. Kresse, Hans Borrebach, Bert Bus, Thé Tjong-Khing, Dick Matena, Piet Wijn and Minck Oosterveer. Spanish artists like Enrique Badía Romero, Jordi Bernet, Francisco Darnis, Carlos Freixas, Luis Garcia, Jaime Tomás, Victor Mora and José Luis García López have expressed their admiration, as did the South Americans Emilio Cortinas, Oscar Carmino, Getúlio Delphim and José Luis Salinas. His influence can also be seen in the work of artists from the UK (John Gillatt, Frank Hampson, Sydney Jordan, Ron Turner, Mike Western), The Philippines (Rudy Nebres), Turkey (Abdullah Turhan, Orhan Halil Tolon - who downright plagiarized 'Jungle Jim') and many other countries.

Alex Raymond and his model Beulah Bestor in 1949
Alex Raymond and his model Beulah Bestor in 1949.

Of course Alex Raymond's work, especially 'Flash Gordon', has been the target of spoof and parody. Harvey Kurtzman and Wallace Wood had their take on the character with 'Flesh Garden' in the eleventh issue of Mad (1954). In France, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Nikita Mandryka parodied Flash in 'Jules L'Éclair' (1975-1980) in Métal Hurlant. 'Flash Gordon' is also mentioned in Richard O'Brien's stage show 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' (1973) and its 1975 movie adaptation directed by Jim Sharman, which was a parody tribute to the science fiction and horror B movies of the 1930s through to the early 1970s.

Rip Kirby by Alex Raymond
'Rip Kirby' (28 October 1946).

Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon' stories have been reprinted in comic books by Harvey Comics and King Features in the early 1950s. Nostalgia Press released the first two actual book collections in 1967 and 1971. Kitchen Sink Press published six hardcover collections in the early 1990s, and Checker stepped in in 2004 with their complete collection of the 'Flash Gordon' Sunday pages by Alex Raymond. Alex Raymond's 'Jungle Jim' was compiled in 16 comic books under the title 'The Official Jungle Jim' by Pioneer Comics in 1988 and 1989. IDW began collecting 'Flash Gordon' and 'Jungle Jim' in large format single volumes in 2011. Nostalgia Press and Kitchen Sink Press have also collected Alex Raymond's 'Secret Agent X-9', respectively in 1976 and 1990. Pacific Comics Club published 16 issues of 'Rip Kirby' in the early 1980s. The complete 'Rip Kirby' became part of IDW's Library of American Comics in 2010 and 2011 with the subtitle 'The First Modern Detective' (edited by Dean Mullaney).

Flash Gordon, by Alex Raymond
'Flash Gordon' (18 May 1941).

Series and books by Alex Raymond in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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