In the first panels of the Flash Gordon comic strip, Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player Flash Gordon and his fellow airplane passenger, Dale Arden survive its crash during an intense storm and stumble upon the secret laboratory of Dr. Hans Zarkov. Zarkov explains that the storm is one of many catastrophes caused by a mysterious planet’s approach and forces Flash and Dale to accompany him on a rocket ship to the planet to save the Earth.
Arriving there, they are captured by its cold and ruthless ruler, Ming the Merciless, and learn that the arrival of Mongo, as the planet is known, is no accident, but part of Ming’s larger plan to conquer Earth and add it to his empire. The three Earthlings manage to escape, however, and embark on a series of adventures across the planet’s vast geography and terrain. They encounter its many other denizens and eventually form alliances with them to overthrow Ming’s tyrannical rule over Mongo.
As its name’s shortened reference to Mongolian or Mongoloid and Ming’s vividly yellow continence indicated, Mongo, the Planet of Doom, was science fiction’s adaptation of 19th and 20th century Orientalist adventure stories. While Ming’s dominion over Mongo was the presumed threat for the strip and its later adaptations, that premise validated the exploits of Flash, his friends, and allies as adventures and struggles against tyranny rather than attempts to overthrow a sovereign ruler and state. In this sense, their adventures paralleled the history of the late 19th and early 20th century where European nations and the United States colonized and/or forced neo-colonial relations onto the “Near East,” the Indian subcontinent, and “Far East” of Asia in the name of “civilizing” the peoples of those regions. Like other forms of Orientalism, the dynamic of this imagined world inverted actual relations of power, legitimating imperialism and conquest as liberation.
Nonetheless, Mongo was more than it appeared. The more Flash Gordon revealed of the planet and its people, the more the strip reveled in their actual diversity and heterogeneity. Ming remained a constant menace, but Mongo itself complicated the idea of a “Planet of Doom.” Parts of the planet were hospitable, if not inviting and beautiful, and many of its inhabitants proved friendly, kind, and courageous.
In another sense, then, the planet Mongo represents the potential and possibility within the contradictions of race’s overdetermined categories and dynamics. It speaks to life’s complexity beyond theorized and abstract ideals, even in something as apparently simple as a comic strip. It may be laughable in its obviousness, but that is exactly the point. Popular culture does not ignore nor underestimate the importance of politics and power; it illustrates their extent and influence. Hegemony is an imperialism that denies the power it achieves. Understanding its dynamic reveals, and offers a way to address, its power. To chuckle at culture’s unintended humor is the first, if hopefully not last, step to changing the conditions that produce it.