King Features Syndicate Characters Get the Royal Treatment

For the 100th Anniversary of the King Features Syndicate, best known for publishing several iconic comic strips - including Mandrake the Magician, the Phantom and Flash Gordon - Dynamite Entertainment has come out with five interlocking mini-series featuring characters made popular by King. The aforementioned three, plus Jungle Jim and Prince Valiant, each start out in their own corners of the King universe, but will eventually cross over as the storyline culminates into... well, we'll see. After all, these are not characters who even live in the same century, so how can they meet?! Much as was done for Flash Gordon in Dynamite's superlative ongoing by Paul Tobin, each hero has been refreshed and updated, some more than others. But let's look at each #1 issue to see which are most worth your time...
Flash Gordon by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker and Lee Ferguson. This is the same Flash Gordon we know from Tobin's ongoing series. In other words, he's a fun (and funny!) roguish badass. Tonally, all the books in the King event have those qualities - pleasant reads across the board - and Flash's world is very much at the center of the overarching story. Or at least, Ming the Merciless is. He has the means to invade other worlds and scarred the other heroes' worlds. I imagine they'll all have to come together at the end to stop his next attempt. But though there's a greater story here, Flash Gordon #1 still gives us a self-contained story (with a cliffhanger), as the rocket age hero tries to help a rebellion get a foothold on a Mongo-loyal planet. The writers throw in some sexy shenanigans and comedy robots for good measure, while Ferguson's art, while not as sharp as the Flash Gordon ongoing's, produces a similar vibe. King is off to a good start.
Recommended? If you're a fan of the ongoing, this is cut from the same cloth. If not, you won't be too lost. Just a lot of fun.
The Phantom by Brian Clevinger and Brent Schoonover. Embracing the Ghost Who Walks' multi-generation nature, the book starts with the Phantom dead at the hands of Ming's army. A new Phantom steps up, but only in the interim, not realizing that his quest to find the next Phantom should likely be conducted inward. That man: Mandrake's old sidekick Lothar, ridding the event of the awkward black manservant trope without jettisoning a King Features character of long standing. Clevinger makes good use of Africa as a backdrop and puts the new Phantom is interesting situations, having to infiltrate a mercenary organization. Plenty of humor in this book too. As for the Euro-style art, its anatomy isn't always the strongest, but it's saved largely by Robt Snyder's subtle and moody coloring job.
Recommended? Any Phantom fans out there? I don't think you'll be disappointed. A strong action thriller that, like Flash Gordon above, has great pacing and moments of comedy.
Jungle Jim by Paul Tobin and Sandy Jarrell. The character I know the least about - to me, it's the name of a restaurant chain - it's also the hero most changed from the original concept. Tobin has done away with the Congo Bill, pith helmet, B'wana this and B'wana that version of the character and placed his Jungle Jim squarely in Flash Gordon's universe. Jim, a character that's more legend than fact, doesn't even come in until late in the first issue, the subject of the cast's quest. They are a mix of blue humanoids and animal men on a jungle planet recently attacked by Ming's forces, and they need the fabled Jungle Jim, who may not be as human as we imagine, to help in the coming conflict. This one is perhaps a harder sell because it really has little to do (to date) with the original comic strip, and is rather odd besides. Tobin brings his trademark humor to the table, but makes the same points several times (out of concern we won't get it unless it's repeated?), making the book feel padded at times. Jarrell's art is comparable to Flash Gordon's, if a bit sketchier. It's up to the task.
Recommended? Not sure who this new Jungle Jim really is yet, but we're presented with an interesting cast whose stories you'll probably want to see resolved.
Mandrake the Magician by Roger Langridge and Jeremy Treece. Whoa Nelly! The King series with the most extreme artwork, cartoony and yet painterly in the way Treece colors his work, it features some spectacular layouts and detailed sequences. Just when you thought King had a sort of house style. Langridge gives us a Mandrake who mostly uses hypnotism and stagecraft, as per the classic comic strip, but also real, if taxing, magic. It's up to you whether that's appropriate, though the existence of real magic creates a distinct feel to the series, less pulpy and more fantastical than it would otherwise be. In the wake of Ming's attack (same time frame as the Phantom's), Mandrake wants to give humanity hope and fill our lives with magic, an interesting idea, though he's soon having to fight his old enemy Cobra. Langridge has researched the old strip, but he and Treece also throw in other references when they can (there's a Tintin one I especially love), in some small way, expressing their love of classic adventure comics.
Recommended? I'm not sure about the crazy cartoon art when the other books are all a little more naturalistic, but the contrast isn't unwelcome either. Ultimately fun and charming, like it's title hero.
Prince Valiant by Nate Cosby and Ron Salas. I was perhaps most eager to see what Dynamite would do with Val seeing as it's one of the few King strips I'd read a lot of as a child AND that he was created by fellow Maritimer Hal Foster (represent!). Sadly, it's the King title that managed to disappoint me. It's not that I don't like the take on the character, I really do. He's an Arthurian knight burdened with the inability to say no to danger and adventure. The first issue divides its time between two time frames - his youth and the present day - and shows a boy who doesn't know when to back down, but what kind of man has he become? That's all quite interesting, and the art is frequently expressive or pretty. So what's the trouble? The trouble is that there are far too many double and single splash pages, giving the reader very little to read by the time he or she is done. For the collector who wants to read the complete King crossover, there are very few clues as to how Prince Valiant will connect to it as well.
Recommended? It can only pick up from here, but this is the title I'd trade-wait under normal circumstances. Plenty happens - it's not so relaxed as to try one's patience - but still too quick a read.

While I'd like all the titles to be equally great, these are all characters I want to read about and who have been in regular stapled comics surprisingly little. Hopefully, this story will lead to more projects with them in the future and Flash Gordon won't be the only one with his own series. Gorgeous, classy Darwyn Cooke covers should help sell all five (how it's the Rob Liefeld alternate covers are any kind of incentive is beyond me, but whatever turns your crank; these also exist), and hopefully bring some attention to these long neglected properties. They're all off to good-to-great starts with this King event.


SallyP said...

I have to admit to being intrigued by all of these books. They look... good! Whodathunk?

Andrew said...

I would love to see them take this idea even further into the various King Features properties, as long as existing licensing deals allow for it. Yes, Popeye, but how great would it be to see the troops at Camp Swampy rise to the occasion while staying completely in character?


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