Part of the Superannular series
Between 1936 and 1940 Universal Pictures made three serial films inspired by the Flash Gordon comic books. Starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, first to be made was Flash Gordon (in 13 instalments); then Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (15 instalments); and finally Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (12 instalments).
The films were designed by Universal to revive American cinema-goers' appetites for serials, and correspondingly were shown in 'A' theatres. In the UK however they found their place in what was known colloquially as the Saturday Morning Pictures, a half-day programme of British and American A- and B-movies, some cartoons and a serial adventure or two. The programme was largely aimed at younger people and provided a regular activity for teenagers in the post-war 1940s and 50s.
By the time I saw the Flash Gordon serials on television it would have been the early 1980s. Shown on the BBC on Saturday mornings, these serials filled out an otherwise thin schedule despite there only being three television channels to fill. At that time children's television was a mix of commissioned materials and batch-bought programmes from other territories, and as such was really only a continuation of the Saturday Morning Pictures format.
It seems impossible now that the children of the 1980s in Britain were largely watching serials and cartoons that had been made for American audiences almost 50 years earlier. Indeed, while I was thrilling to Flash's latest adventure, and the cliffhanger endings that were their hallmark, my father was reminiscing: these were the serials he had seen, at about the same age as me, in London theatres decades previously.
In this sense it was something we could enjoy together without the controversies of generation-gap differences. But while he was momentarily remembering a youth past, I was fully engaged, and bound by the urgency of the young to know what happens next.
Of the serials that made the strongest impact on me — Flash Gordon and Zorro — deep down, Zorro perhaps meant the most to me, as the thrills were rooted in a possible, and therefore realistically desired, world. (It was also cheaper, and thus more practicable, to dress up as Zorro, something I did regularly).
What they had in common, however — though it would be some time before I was able to articulate this — was that none of these heroes had any supernatural powers. Superman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman meant relatively little to me: they seemed to have an advantage that was inherent, and thus any foe conquered was only conquered in those terms. But Flash and Zorro were more-or-less ordinary human beings who found themselves in extraordinary situations, and had to adapt to survive. Courage, valour, honour, honesty, integrity, justice, and of course love: these were their watchwords. Such qualities were beyond the superheroes: it's easy to be brave when your skin is like steel; easy to maintain a noble pose when you can fly to those in need; hard to love when you are more or less immortal.
But for Flash and Zorro, their skins were never guaranteed, and if they needed to rescue someone, they had to travel hard and fast, arriving exhausted and maintaining their energies only through sheer strength of character. Such characteristics have fed my ambivalent attitudes to ideas of gifts and talents ever since.
I loved them — both the characters and the TV shows — though I have since grown up and, being suspicious of nostalgia anyway, have found that the serials themselves have lost some of their lustre. But the archetype of this kind of hero remains burned into my sense of self, and I call on it still.
As with all the works in the Superannular series, Flash is a connection between two thoughts, held in the imagination, and discovered visually. These artefacts are usually connected across space and time, with a childhood influence connecting with an adult experience.
With Flash, I have chronologically placed the 40 episodes of the three Flash Gordon serials on a field based on Flash's decorative collar from Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. During the making of the piece, which was as much a meditative process as the finished diagram itself is designed to effect, I found myself requiring a centrepiece. (All circular diagrams insist on this, in the manner of Jung's mandalas. It is what, in the final reading, the diagram is 'about'.) That Flash and Dale are at the centre of the diagram is directly connected with my adult interest in Kabbalah, and particularly the diagram of the Sephirot, the Tree of Life.
Of the ten sephirah (or attributes) of The Infinite that make up the Tree of Life, at the centre lies Tiferet, commonly associated with balance and thus beauty. It is the fusing of opposites — male and female; intellect and emotion; strength and compassion; giving and receiving; and other seemingly opposite but necessarily complementary forces which, in combination, effect completeness and thus an opportunity for creation. It is no coincidence that this aspect is set at the centre of the system, and as such it is easily read as an impetus to love: when love is forged, the remaining Sephirah are given new meaning. Without the acknowledgement of this opportunity, the ability to understand and experience the remaining attributes of The Infinite is limited.
And so, while the Flash Gordon serials may appear to have been about thrills and spills, danger and derring-do, for me, this is merely what happens in the serials. What they are about, in light of the later influence of the Tree of Life, is love: all of Flash's energies are focused on his emerging love for Dale and his real fears for her loss. Before her influence, he was merely potential: with her influence, his destiny is fulfilled, and as such it is she that provides him with the opportunity to grow. The fantastic circumstances in which this love is proven is merely the thrilling (to a ten year-old boy, at least) arena of battle.
It is, of course, a juvenile understanding of love, found amid the thrill of an adventure held in the imagination — as all such stories, and desires, are. In this sense, every archetype could be said to connect to the juvenile in us, as this is when we are first exposed to them, in a pure, unknowing state. It is why, for me, all the culture that I absorbed as a youth still rings truest; and why the adventure of love remains implacable.