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Collecting a Hero for the Ages: A Look at Flash Gordon Memorabilia

by James Burrell (02/21/12).

A vintage Flash Gordon Signal Pistol manufactured by Louis Marx Co., in 1935. The gun also came in green with red trim and greyish-purple with red trim. This one sold for $499.95 last June.

Long before “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” captivated audiences with their imaginative tales of heroes, villains, alien creatures and travel to other galaxies, science-fiction fans were enthralled by the gallant exploits of the fearless space adventurer, Flash Gordon. Created by artist and cartoonist Alex Raymond, the dashing, blond-haired hero—who was inspired, ironically, by another similarly heroic space adventurer, Buck Rogers—made his debut in a newspaper comic strip published by King Features Syndicate on Jan. 7, 1934.

A celebrated polo player and athlete, Flash is aboard a transcontinental flight one day when a hurtling meteor damages the plane and forces him to grab fellow passenger, the lovely Dale Arden, and parachute to safety near the laboratory of brilliant scientist Dr. Hans Zarcov. Engaged in a desperate mission to save Earth from destruction by the planet Mongo, the doctor procures the assistance of Flash and Dale and the three board a rocket ship Zarcov has built to travel to the strange planet. In addition to meeting a host of unusual beings and bizarre creatures, Flash must battle Mongo’s evil ruler, Ming the Merciless, and in doing so, becomes an intergalactic hero and defender of rights.

Buster Crabbe and Carol Hughes as the fearless space adventurer Flash Gordon and Dale Arden.

A sensational hit with readers of all ages, the “Flash Gordon” strip was featured in newspapers all across America and it wasn’t long before the character made the transition to other media as well. To date, the success of the comic strip has spawned two mid-1930s radio shows, three 1930s and ’40s movie serials starring popular actor/athlete Larry “Buster” Crabbe (which were also later re-edited into feature-length films), a 1954-55 television series starring Steve Holland, a late-1970s animated TV show, a 1980 big-budget theatrical film with Sam J. Jones in the titular role, yet another animated television series in 1996, and most recently, a 2007-08 series for the Sci-Fi Channel.

As one of the science-fiction genre’s earliest and most popular creations, Flash Gordon was also one of the first to be mass merchandized. Over the past eight decades, the character’s name and likeness (as well as occasionally that of Emperor Ming, Dale and Zarcov) has been used for a multitude of collectibles and memorabilia, including toy guns, statues, rings, miniature rocket ships, kites, puzzles, hand puppets, dolls, action figures, board games, coloring books, lunchboxes, record LPs, wallets, sunglasses, Halloween costumes, bobblehead figures and much more.

A collection of 1930s Flash Gordon Big/Better Little Books, published by Whitman Publishers. Approximate value: $10-$30 each, depending on condition.

Shortly after Flash’s introduction, the Home Foundry Company released two Flash Gordon Metal Characters Casting Sets in 1934. Consisting of figural casting molds, an electric heating base, ladle, paint, brushes and casting metal, the set allowed users to mold and paint their own 2 ½-inch tall lead figures, one of which included Flash riding a horse. The following year, Louis Marx & Co., released the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater Clicker Pistol. Measuring 10 inches in length, this was a beautifully lithographed tin gun that produced a “clicking” noise when fired. Employing a red, silver and black color scheme, along with images of Flash, a star and the planet Saturn, it is a highly desirable item amongst collectors. Other early items to be produced included a series of books from Whitman Publishing’s “Big Little Books” line. Aimed at younger readers, the first offering was “Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo” in 1934, with subsequent volumes like 1935’s “Flash Gordon and the Tournaments of Mongo” and 1936’s “Flash Gordon and the Witch Queen of Mongo” following on a near-yearly basis until the early-1940s.

Also seeing release in 1936 was a novel for slightly older fans titled “Flash Gordon in the Caverns of Mongo,” published by Grosset & Dunlap. Though written by Alex Raymond, the book’s colorful jacket artwork (of a helmeted and caped Flash battling against two green-skinned aliens with guns) and pictorial endpapers were curiously illustrated by another artist, Robb Beebe. Whitman would also put out a 96-page Flash Gordon Paint Book that year that, although similar to a coloring book, contained more rigid pages that allowed children to use watercolor paints.

A reproduction tin Flash Gordon Sparkling Rocket Fighter, released by Schylling in 2004. Value: $50-$75.

One of the last items to be produced during the 1930s was also one of the nicest. In 1939, Louis Marx’s Flash Gordon Sparkling Rocket Fighting Ship made its way to store shelves. Measuring 12 inches in length, this was a tin windup toy that could move on smooth surfaces and shoot sparks from its exhaust after being wound up with a built-in key mechanism. Lithographed in red, yellow, black and white, the impressive-looking toy also featured a tin Flash figure with gun inside the cockpit.

The 1940s also saw the release of numerous memorable Flash Gordon items. In 1944, a wood-and-composition figural statue of the intrepid space hero was produced. Standing roughly 5 inches tall, Flash was featured wearing a blue-shirted costume with his name etched onto the base. With no manufacturer markings included, the figure was long thought to be produced by the Syroco, Inc. company; however, in recent years, there has been speculation it (and other similarly-made figures of the time, such as Blondie, Dagwood, Popeye and The Phantom) had actually been made by another company, Multi Products of Chicago. In 1948, the Budson Company released a Flash Gordon Air Ray Gun. Featuring a large, oversized nozzle, the striking red and silver pistol was able to shoot bursts of air when the trigger was pressed.

A Flash Gordon Metal Characters Casting Set, manufactured by the Home Foundry Company in 1934. It sold for $200 in 2011.

One of the molds that includes Flash on a horse.

Some of the finished pieces and a book of directions.

Before the end of the 1940s, a number of premiums were made available through such products as breakfast cereal and confectionery items. In 1946, Kellogg’s gave out Flash Gordon pinback buttons in boxes of Pep cereal; Post offered kids a red and yellow lithographed tin ring in boxes of Toasties Corn Flakes; and two years later, the Jane Shaw Candy Company issued a red Flash Gordon “Pistol Packing” cardboard pop gun, with bubblegum included inside.

Come the 1950s, kids could put together a frame tray puzzle (released by Milton Bradley in 1951) of Flash and Dale in outer space; and even dress up as their favorite space hero with the Flash Gordon Space-Outfit costume, courtesy of the Esquire Novelty Company. Released in 1952, the dress-up set featured a vest, boot spats, wrist gauntlets and hat and is now highly sought-after by collectors. The company also put out a separate accessory kit that year containing a belt with plastic rocket ship-decorated buckle, a wrist compass and pair of space goggles, as well as a Flash Gordon Water Gun that came complete with a red wrist compass and silver holster. Also released in 1952 was the Flash Gordon Arresting Ray Gun from Louis Marx & Co. Reportedly made from the same tools and dies as the company’s previous Flash Gordon Radio Repeater Clicker Pistol, the tin gun was also 10 inches in length and featured a “clicking” feature.

During the ’60s, fans were given the Flash Gordon Board Game (released by Game Gems in 1965); several comic books lines—courtesy of Dell Comics, King Comics and Charlton Comics; and in 1966, the Captain Action Flash Gordon Uniform and Equipment Set. Released by the Ideal Toy Company, the set—which was comprised of a mask, white space suit, helmet, ray pistol, holster, compressed oxygen tank, silver colored space boots and more—was designed for use with the company’s 12-inch Captain Action figure, a doll whose identity could be changed by re-dressing it in other separately sold costume sets of TV and comic book heroes like Superman, Batman, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, The Green Hornet and Spider-Man. Although eschewing his more familiar red and blue costumes in favor of a white, NASA-like astronaut suit, the uniform is highly sought-after, and has been known to command in excess of a thousand dollars for one in mint condition. A coloring book, “Flash Gordon and His Adventures in Space” was also released by Saalfield/Artcraft in 1968.

Gold Key Comics' Flash Gordon No. 19 (Sept., 1978) Comic Book. Value: $3-$6.

Various DVD Releases, Clockwise From Left - the 1940 Movie Serial; 1954-55 TV Series; and the 1980 Feature Film. Value: Movie Serial and TV Series - $5 each; 1980 Film - $15

The 1970s saw a cornucopia of Flash Gordon-related collectibles hit the market, including a series of six novels published between 1973 and 1975 by Avon Books; a Space Water Pistol With Holster and a Sparkling Ray Gun, both released by Nasta Industries Inc. in 1976; a “Talking” View Master Reel set from GAF Corporation in 1976; a 1977 board game, Flash Gordon: Adventures on the Moons of Mongo Game released by House of Games/ Waddingtons; two 5-inch long die-cast metal and plastic Flash and Ming Star Ships and a boxed playset featuring ships and mini figures of Flash, Dale and Ming produced in 1978 by Tootsietoy; and a Medal and Insignia pin set manufactured by Larami in 1978.

Arguably, the nicest items produced that decade were a set of four 10-inch figures and a playset produced by the famed Mego Corporation in 1976, and a line of 3 ¾-inch figures from Mattel in 1979. Comprised of Flash, Dale, Dr. Zarkov and Ming, the Mego dolls were beautiful-looking offerings with well-sculpted heads, colorful, highly-detailed cloth outfits and numerous accessories like helmets and guns. The Mattel figures were based upon the 1979 animated Filmation series and in addition to Flash and Ming, included such characters as Lizard Woman and Thun, The Lion-Man. A 30-inch long inflatable Rocket Ship was also offered as well.

A Flash Gordon Bobblehead Figure, made by Bosley Bobbers & O.D.M. Inc. in 2002. It sells for $10-$14.

The Flash Gordon Classic Comic Character Series Statue, made by Dark Horse Comics, Inc. in 2000. Value: $50-$80.

Surprisingly, the release of the campy, big-budget 1980 film starring Sam J. Jones as Flash and Max Von Sydow as Ming did not inspire a bevy of collectibles. Aside from a few film-specific examples—such as a comic book adaptation by Whitman, a movie program and a soundtrack record LP of the film’s score by iconic rock band, Queen—there were few items produced at the time (though new toy company, Bif Bang Pow! has made up for that with several recent releases). Overall, the majority of ’80s Flash Gordon collectibles would consist of generic items like ray guns, pins and target sets from toy company Ja-Ru and a modest number of items marketed from the mid-1980s animated program, “Defenders of the Earth.” The cartoon, which saw Flash working alongside such heroes as The Phantom, Mandrake The Magician and Lothar to save the universe spawned an action figure and vehicles line (by Galoob), puzzles (by Golden) and a comic book series (from Marvel/Star Comics).

In 1996, Playmates released figures and vehicles for another animated TV series, and in 1998, Playing Mantis reissued the 1960s Captain Action costume set (now complete with figure), as well as a never-before issued costume/figure for Ming. In 2000, Dark Horse put out a tin lunchbox incorporating Alex Raymond artwork into the design, as well as a fantastic 5 ½-inch faux-wood and composition statue in their Classic Comic Character Series line. In 2002, Bosley Bobbers produced a bobblehead figure; and a series of mini vehicles and rocket ships would be released by Gearbox in 2005.

A Flash Gordon tin lunchbox, released by Dark Horse Comics, Inc. in 2000. Vintage lunchboxes can go for quiet a bit, but a modern one can be had for as little as $15.

Recently, a number of other products have been making Flash fans happy: in 2009-10, Bif Bang Pow! produced several collectibles based on the 1980 film, including Mego-styled 8-inch figure of Flash and Ming, a 7-inch action figure line, and a bobblehead of the blond-haired hero; in late 2011, Cast-A-Way Toys released highly-detailed 12-inch figures of the iconic Buster Crabbe in both blue-shirted and pilot versions; and a brand-new comic book series, “Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist” is now underway, courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment.

From comics strips to radio, film and television, few figures have managed to thrill readers and audiences as much as Flash Gordon. Long immortalized on paper, the silver screen, and in plastic, the character is an endearing icon whose popularity remains as strong as it was eight decades ago. And thanks to the efforts of Alex Raymond, Buster Crabbe, Sam J. Jones and others, it’s safe to say that future generations of fans will continue to relive the character’s swashbuckling adventures—through comic books, cartoons, films and toys.

James Burrell writes about film, pop culture and collectibles for a variety of publications and online sites, including Rue Morgue and Canuxploitation! A life-long collector of vintage science-fiction, fantasy and monster-themed toys and movie memorabilia, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

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2 Responses to “Collecting a Hero for the Ages: A Look at Flash Gordon Memorabilia”

  1. Debbie says:

    I have a 1966 unopened action figure of Dale Arden from Flash Gordon made by Playmates and would like to sell it. How do I find out what it is worth? Thanks

    • James Burrell James Burrell says:

      Hi Debbie,

      When you say the Dale Arden figure was made in 1966, did you mean to say 1996?

      I ask because as far as I’m aware, Playmates (which was a newly formed company in 1966) did not manufacture any “Flash Gordon”-themed toys until 1996, when it released merchandise to tie in with that year’s animated TV series.

      Unfortunately, this particular series of figures has not gained much value over the years, with the Dale Arden figure currently fetching between $4 and $10 on sites like eBay.

      If you are interested in the value of other “Flash Gordon” toys, feel free to look at the WorthPoint Worthopedia, which will provide you with additional information.

      Hope that helps.

      -James

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