[Editor's Note: March kicks off a season of big-time showdowns, grudge matches and maybe a few team-ups. Infamous as the month when Brutus betrayed Caesar, March will get even more epic because Batman will take on Superman on the big screen, Daredevil will get company in Hell's Kitchen in the form of The Punisher on Netflix, and The Flash shall race on over to CBS to meet Supergirl. And, of course, just a few weeks after this kickoff, we'll see a breakdown in the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel's Civil War movie. Because we love seeing a good battle between titans, we've dedicated March to versus. Over the next four weeks, check this space for stories on title fights in superhero stories, horror, science and more!]
In the creator-owned comic series The Only Living Boy, Erik is a kid mysteriously transported from his home in modern-day New York City to a patchwork planet where an annihilated version of the Big Apple has been overrun by jungles, fairies, mermaids, dragons, humanoid insects, a mad scientist and other strange creatures.
Created by author David Gallaher and artist Steve Ellis, the comic shares a tradition of sci-fi and fantasy pulps and is reminiscent of edgier children’s animated stories from the 1980s, such as the Dungeons and Dragons TV series and The Black Cauldron movie. Although the creators are releasing the comic for free, a page at a time, across multiple digital platforms, the first of five printed volumes hit stores last week.
Gallaher joined me to discuss the comic and his and Ellis’ strategy of giving the story away for free online before the printed volume was available. But, instead of just one interview, we’ve included a spirited talk about two titans of science fiction: Flash Gordon, the comic-strip Defender of the Universe, created by Alex Raymond, in 1934 vs. Star-Lord, Guardian of the Galaxy, created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan in 1976 for Marvel Comics.
Read ahead for our double Vs. feature, to learn about The Only Living Boy, Vol. 1, and to see who Gallaher thinks wins in several rounds between Flash and Star.
To kick things off, Flash vs. Star-Lord: Of whom are you a bigger fan?
I am a child of the ‘80s. I was born in ’75 but didn’t see the Flash Gordon movie at all. I didn’t know it existed. What I did know was about the Filmation Flash Gordon show (which now runs on Hulu, I think). I saw that growing up, and had action figures that went with it. I didn’t see the live-action movie as a kid, but did see this animated movie that has long since been forgotten: Flash Gordon, The Greatest Adventure of All. Very few people I know have seen it, but it was created by Filmation. It takes place in World War II, and Ming the Merciless is working with Hitler to create eugenics experiments. He wants to use Dale Arden to create eugenic-like creatures, and he has this harem of other exotic women. At the same time, he is empowering Hitler by giving him weapons of mass destruction. That was crazy, just in terms of the overwhelming stuff I was seeing at essentially age 7! That laser and sword exotic fiction, in which characters were bouncing from one interesting locale to another. You’d see King Thun of the Lion Men hanging out with Flash. You’d see King Vultan of the Hawkmen with his boisterous, Falstaffian voice, or Princess Aura trying to do her crazy, weird seduction of Flash in this lurid...I don’t know if they could imply what they were implying in a 1982 kids' cartoon, but OK. But there was all this cool stuff.
I’ve seen a lot more of Flash Gordon, and have more of a connection to him. I love Star-Lord, and really enjoyed him in the Star-Lord miniseries tied to Annihilation and the Abnett and Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy. And, clearly, I loved him in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. But he is an interesting character. I think he is fascinating, but there’s a nobleness to Flash. There are values I can get behind. They are very WWII values. While I like the rogue, smug obnoxiousness of Star-Lord, he’s got some weird stuff going on with his DNA. Spoilers, but he is half alien. But Flash is all human. He is a football player or Olympic athlete. He is more Captain America, where Star-Lord is more Han Solo. I am driven more to Flash’s experience, discipline, values, and skill set.
The Only Living Boy reminds me of this 1980s era in which child protagonists were caught up in wondrous, and a little scary, fantasy stories that overlapped with pulp. Is this influenced by the stories you were steeped in as a kid?
Oh, yeah. Before I was raised on comic books, I was raised on Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I traveled around a lot. I was born in Hawaii, and moved around a lot. I read Bridge to Terabithia at a young age, and Island of Dr. Moreau, Jungle Book, The Black Cauldron. All those things find their way into what we’re doing, here. I am heavily influenced by pulps, and heavily influenced by cartoons and children’s literature. Our goal is to hit that archetypal vibe, but still present a unique story that people can see and feel. The hope is to create something timeless.
Do you view Star-Lord as the successor of Flash Gordon, or are these characters wildly different?
I think about this all the time. I did see Star-Lord, in a way, as kind of a successor of Flash. The way he’s also a successor of Buck Rogers, so you can see that lineage. Also, in a way, a successor to John Carter.
This is the first printed volume of The Only Living Boy, with the second of five hitting in July. Meanwhile, you’ve been releasing free pages for the comic all over the place. What’s the strategy, here?
We’ve been working hard to remove the barrier of entry for our fans. We believe, just like broadcast television, we want to make certain it’s free so people can come to it and really enjoy it. Then, sell them on the trades and merchandise. We want to create that passionate, engaged fan.
Which of their worlds has a richer tapestry, or is more fleshed out? Flash has 82 years of a world that’s been added to. But Star-Lord is connected to all of Marvel Comics, where an Iron Man can show up or the larger universe is pulled in.
For me, I look at the world Alex Raymond created in Flash Gordon. It is so cool. Created 82 years ago? That’s profound. It is no different than the world that Edgar Rice Burroughs created for John Carter. There is a profundity in the imagination and archetypal stuff he is able to pull from. You have multi-headed monsters, evil cackling villains, Lionman-eating plants, those are cool things.
Star-Lord is a cool character, but one of his biggest problems is, right now, he is a snake eating its own tail. In the comics, you have this great take by Abnett and Lanning. And then Chris Pratt did a great job in the movie. But now, everything in the comics reflects the movie more, which is reflective of the comics. It is a weird cycle of, are the comics imitating the movies, or are the movies imitating the comics? It gets hard separating the nuance of the character, or finding the meat of the character. It is hard to find what is influencing what, and find the joy of the character.
With Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, especialy in the early strips, you were able to find it. It was created with such a glorious, devil-may-care attitude. Just comparing strip for strip, the imagination is just richer. And the characters are more interesting, immediately. In a lot of ways, they created the archetype. They created the Hawkmen, the Lion Men. the Shark Men. Yeah, it’s all earth, water, sea, but there, it’s interesting. The challenge is, when Star-Lord is in the broader Marvel Universe, he has a harder time standing out. Yes, there’s the movie and he has risen to prominence, but he doesn’t have decades and decades to fall back on.
Do you think you’re ahead of the game in the comics industry to give The Only Living Boy content away like this?
I don’t necessarily think we’re ahead of the game, but we’re doing it a little differently than a lot of people. I don’t know that there are a lot of people releasing their content on as many platforms for free as we are. It is not just our sites, but Tumblr, HumbleBundle. We make it available. That’s what is different: we’re going for the audiences rather than create a platform and driving them to where we are. Every month, every Wednesday, new comics come out. Comic creators who are independent are always fighting for that shelf space. They’re always fighting to bring up the brand awareness for their books. But by releasing content for free, we create broader awareness so when we do do a trade, or go on tour, people are aware of it. Every page we put up online is an advertisement for the book; it’s a giant advertising campaign for when the book comes out.
Dynamite Comics has some Flash Gordon comics, but he’s not currently a major pop culture figure. So, who is the more viable pulp hero? Who is going to be more relevant moving forward?
In a way, Flash Gordon stopped being relevant. Even though there are Flash Gordon comics, in a way, that story is dead. I want it to live beyond the radio shows and movies, but there isn’t a really good legacy for more Flash stories in keeping with what Alex Raymond originally did.
Right now, it’s Star-Lord. He has an immersive community built around supporting him. Torch bearers Kevin Feige, Axel Alonso, Joe Quesada, Bendis, and the community – that see him in the cartoon, the movie, comics – bring that character up. Right now he is being pushed up by an incredible groundswell.
Flash has had so many false starts: A less than reliable TV show by Syfy that kind of died on the vine. There’s the cheesy movie everyone likes to make fun of. The Republic black-and-white serials were great. The radio serials were great. The Filmation cartoon was great, even though it was a little static. The Defenders of the Earth cartoon was cheesy but a lot of fun. But there hasn’t been a lot of really great, definitive Flash Gordon stuff. When people think of Flash Gordon, they go to the Sam Jones movie, but there hasn’t been a Kevin Feige of the Flash Gordon universe. The property and hero are treading water. There is no larger than life story for him to go beyond.
Talk about New York City as a character on this patchwork planet of The Only Living Boy, and how it is reflected throughout the story.
I have lived in New York for about 12 years now. When I came to New York, there was always a sense of wonder and isolation that came with living here. I live near Ditmas Park, so I’m close to a lake and not far away from a boathouse, skating rink, and bandshell with all this art, and community, and parks. It is awesome! It is so wondrous. The park is the biggest reason I’ve never left New York. Especially when you hit Manhattan, the rest of the city is depressing, gray, and feels like sensory overwhelming miasma of everything. So, I enjoyed the opportunity to highlight the exotic locales of New York, just beyond the skyscrapers. There are forgotten asylums in Staten Island, a cemetery in Prospect Park, and all these cool little bits of ephemera that highlights how unique, and wondrous New York is. Both by showing the skyscrapers, and some of the city, but also the more exotic tunnels. It is fun to play with that isolation and wonder.
Who has the better archnemesis? Lately, Star-Lord has been outfitted with Thanos, but between him and Ming the Merciless, who is the superior bad guy?
Even though he’s problematic, archetypically, Ming is the best. The best. He is rich in all sorts of all sorts of awful, problematic, sometimes derogatory depictions. But in terms of his character, he’s sinister, with an almost Cobra Commander-esque voice. There’s something to that that, to me, is a very evil, very cackly way. Thanos doesn’t have that accepted voice. He doesn’t have the same sinister, evil, pulpy awesomeness. As problematic as he is, Ming has this evilness. He feels sinister. And having the context of watching that movie, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, there are definitely plans there. There is this insidiousness. He says he wants to marry Dale Arden to create this eugenic thing. That’s really creepy. That’s the grossest, creepiest thing. That is an evil thing. Enslaving women and wanting them to breed babies for you for this race of eugenic-like things is crazy. Thanos’ obsession with death and love sometimes gets more nebulous.
And Flash Gordon and Min the Merciless are intertwined, whereas Thanos and Star-Lord are not quite. They don’t have that same sort of emotional connection.
When you reach the end of these five volumes of The Only Living Boy, will you have also reached the end of the story and pack it away?
Yes, but as with any good storyteller, you make sure there are threads you can continue later if you want to. It is packed away, and the major plot points come to a resolution. But you have to ask, “What’s next?”
Finally, who wins in a fight between Flash Gordon and Star-Lord?
In a fight, Flash Gordon totally kicks Star-Lord’s ass. Totally. Star-Lord is really cool and smug, but doesn’t necessarily have the skill. He clumsily gets out of a lot of things, but Flash has skill. Skill over ineptitude wins out every time.