It’s often thought that the science fiction boom of the 1970s was started by Star Wars, which might be true for movies, but prior to George Lucas’ space opera, there was already a large market for science fiction novels – often drenched in pomposity and weighty seriousness even though the contents were ultimately lightweight stuff (seriously, wade through Dune if you can and try to find any actual substance). At the height of the sci-fi literary boom in 1974, Avon Books took comic strip space hero Flash Gordon – best known at the time as the central character in a series of much-loved Saturday morning serials starring Buster Crabbe, and the character that Lucas essentially copied for Star Wars after failing to secure the remake rights – and decided to adapt his adventures into novel form. The result was a six-novel series that managed to capture the vibe of Alex Raymond’s cartoon strip and could pass as ‘serious’ science fiction while still appealing to kids.
The novels were a nightmare of hidden sources – credited on the cover to Alex Raymond, once you got to the actual contents, the author of the first four books was ‘Con Steffanson’, a house pseudonym for Avon Books. In fact, the first three books were written by the hugely prolific Ron Goulart, who as well as writing numerous science fiction novels under his own name would be a hired gun writing everything from Vampirella and Incredible Hulk novels (showing that he had a certain affinity for comic book adaptations) to Kung Fu TV show novelisations as ‘Howard Lee’. He was replaced by Bruce Cassiday for the last three novels, with the credited name changing from Steffanson to Carson Bingham for the last two – Cassiday had previously used the Bingham name to novelise monster movie Gorgo at the start of the 1960s.
The novels featured impressive cover art by George Wilson, best known for his work on the covers of Dell and Gold Key comics. Wilson’s style was very much in the classic comic book pulp tradition, and his work gave a suitably retro style to the novels.
When Star Books picked up the series for release between 1977 and 1978, they went for a very different look, hiring British Artist Melvyn Grant to create very modern and adult science fiction imagery, featuring a trendy-looking Flash and – on one novel – a bare-breasted witch queen. More Flesh Gordon than Flash, you might think, and certainly not the sort of thing you might expect on pulpy novels based around a character that was still hugely popular with kids thanks to the BBC running the old serials during school holidays. It was, however, oddly predictive of the subtle (and not so subtle) kinks of the big-budget feature film version that was a couple of years away, and these images remain impressive slices of archetypal 1970s sci-fi.
In 1980, the novels were republished by Star to cash in on the new Flash Gordon movie. Ironically, while the British film poster was a classic, slightly retro slice of extravagance sci-fi art, the novels were all plastered with the same photo of lead actor Sam Jones. Very lazy!