Testing Flash Gordon Cards!
By Kurt Kuersteiner ©2008 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards for The Wrapper Magazine

Of all the unusual nonsports series Topps tested in the last century, few are as rare or mysterious as the Flash Gordon set. Manufactured around 1968, this series of 24 cards continues to raise more questions than answers among the few folks who have dared to collect them. But before examining the cards themselves, lets consider the colorful history of the franchise.

Flash Gordon was a science fiction comic strip originally published in 1934 and created to compete with the super popular Buck Rogers series (which first appeared as a pulp magazine story inside Amazing Stories in 1928 (see Wrapper #118)). Both space heroes were big hits and went on to spawn competing radio series, comic books, and movie serials. The Flash Gordon radio series began in 1935 and starred Gale Gordon as the swashbuckling hero. That's right, that Gale Gordon--the portly Mr. Mooney who played Lucy's cantankerous boss on The Lucille Ball Show. If that's not a contrast to Flash Gordon, imagine him as the up tight Oliver Douglas in Green Acres. (He played the radio version of Douglas in 1950!)

But Flash really reached stardom a year after his radio debut, with the King Features movie serial, Flash Gordon. Buster Crabbe played the blond athletic hero, who's exploits went on to generate two more serial sequels, Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). Crabbe starred in all three productions and they were big blockbusters. Flash Gordon was the most expensive serial made and the only one with real sexual tension-- not one, but two beautiful women wanted inside his tights! The attendance was so phenomenal, that it was commonly advertised above the name of the main feature (a first and last in movie history).  

Today, such success would probably result in a special theme park ride like King Kong and Jurassic Park got at Universal Studios, complete with giant animatronics. And whatdayaknow? So did Flash Gordon, only it was the 1939 New York World's Fair. According to Popular Science magazine from that year, "150 people at a time would enter a rocket ship (mockup) with a motion picture screen and vibrating seats for a simulated ride to another planet. Then the fairgoers would walk around a simulation of Venus as a jungle planet inhabited by (mechanical) dinosaurs to enter a 'Martian Headquarters', where weirdly costumed Martians and mechanically animated models of giant beasts enacted episodes from the adventures of Flash Gordon."

Now imagine if you were a little kid in 1939 and experienced that? This was before television, computer games, jet planes, and long before the space program. Would such an exhibit blow your mind or what?

The artist who created Flash Gordon was Alex Raymond. His art was both colorful and seductive. The men were muscular and the women well curved. He was a master at feathering, a shading technique that used a soft series of parallel lines to create a three-dimensional contour to the subject. His comic was an epic space opera. The gallant hero battled an evil emperor who terrorized the galaxy using ruthless soldiers equipped with futuristic weapons. But Flash proved that courage and perseverance triumph over troops and technology. His determination to fight evil inspired new allies and he eventually beat the Emperor and freed the entire Empire. Sounds a lot like Star Wars, doesn't it? ("There is nothing new except that which is forgotten"- Marie Antoinette)

Flash Gordon was actually bigger than Star Wars . Everyone loved it. This was a rare example where the original version was more X-rated than the modern imitation. After all, Princess Leia was attractive in a wholesome way, but Princess Aura was hot ! She was not a farmer's daughter, innocent and pure of heart. (That was Dale Arden's role.) No, Aura was the Emperor's daughter, and she was lusty and busty! Not only did the boys find her alluring, so did the dads. (She was lucky her famous father was Ming the Merciless and not Woody Allen!)

Consider the imaginative and action packed plot: Earth is bombarded by fiery meteors, so Dr. Zarkov invents a rocket ship to locate their place of origin. Half mad, he kidnaps Flash and Dale, whose plane happened to crash-land near his lab. The three travel to the planet Mongo, where they discover that the meteors are weapons devised by the evil Emperor Ming. He orders Dale to marry him and Flash killed, but Ming's daughter, Aura, wants Flash as her mate and undermines her father's schemes.

The Earthlings have many adventures on Mongo. They visit the forest kingdom of Arboria, the ice kingdom of Frigia, the jungle kingdom of Tropica, the undersea kingdom of the Shark Men, and the flying city of the Hawkmen. Gee, subtract the women and add an iron man, and you have the basic outline of Jets-Rockets-Spacemen!

Flash Gordon has returned numerous times in movies and comics. Dino De Laurentiis produced a popular movie version in 1980, with elaborate costumes, ornate production designs, and a soundtrack by Queen. It won the 1981 Saturn Award for Best Costumes, Best Science Fiction, and Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow as Ming). Flash, played by Sam Jones, was nominated for the Golden Raspberry award as the worst actor (but alas, he didn't quite make it).   It was also a popular TV show in 1954 starring Steve Holland. It has been recreated several times as a cartoon series. Sci-Fi Channel recently brought it back as a live-action series in 2007 (which lasted 22 episodes).

Flash Gordon not only influenced much of the entertainment from our past and present but also our future as well. Loyal viewers of Star Trek Voyager will recognize the Captain Proton simulation that Lt. Paris plays on the holodeck to be a glorified version of Flash Gordon, complete with the evil Ming-like Emperor. It's the only holodeck experience played out in black a white, another homage to the original 1930s serial.

  Considering all the impact Flash has had on our pop culture, is it any wonder Topps considered making it a card series in 1968, especially given the race to the moon and the science fiction craze that were occurring at the time? What isn't clear is why the card set was never released as a regular issue.   That's just one of many unusual aspects to this unique series. Here's more:

It's one of the rarest of the rare. Only four boxes were found, and less than a dozen complete sets resulted from all of them. Bob Marks made the discovery in 1984, and he wrote about it in Wrapper #124. He noted several interesting facts...

•  There are only 24 cards in the set.

•  Each 5 card pack was sealed in cellophane with a stick of gum, and wrapped again inside a generic "fun pack" wrapper.

•  The packs were found inside generic (24 pack) 5¢ baseball boxes, providing 120 cards per box.

•  Of the 480 available cards, 96 had significant gum stain damage, others had "gripper" damage, and two cards (#10 & 11) were especially scarce, allowing less than three sets per box to be made up overall.

It took another thirteen years before an actual Flash Gordon box was discovered, and again, Marks reported it. The empty 24 pack box was printed in electric blue with a dramatic black and white photo of Buster Crabbe as Flash on the top and sides. The price stated 5¢, but Marks believes this was a proof box and the actual product was never sold inside it. He believes it wasn't even officially tested, but rather, cancelled before testing for some unknown reason. (I suspect licensing problems.) The few cards that were printed were basically used as filler inside fun packs, and few if any of those made it onto retail shelves. The four boxes he discovered were saved by a Topps employee, and only unconfirmed rumors exist of anyone ever finding these cards anywhere else.

The card fronts feature clear black and white photos from the first two Crabbe movies (which is why Dale's hair goes from blond to brunet on card #13). The reverse has an art rendering of Flash holding a laser pistol next to the narrative. The salmon-colored backs are reminiscent of Topps' 1960s Superman, Battle, and Lost In Space.

  Thanks to the approximately 200 extra duplicates left over from the ten or so sets made from the four boxes, collectors can still find samples from this super rare test series for around $100 to $250 (depending on condition). Piecing together a complete set is nearly impossible. I've been trying since 1994 to finish just one card, and it's not even one of the two really tough ones. (I need #24.) Because of overall scarcity, I've scanned the cards and posted them for public viewing at the following address: www.monsterwax.com/flashset.html. (A special thanks to Marty Quinn for providing the image to card #24.)

So if you want to take a fun journey into the future by way of the past, check out the Flash Gordon cards in cyber-space! Better yet, find a real one and add it to your collection. Just like Flash, they're far out!


 

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