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Love That Buster!

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Love That Buster!

Written by Steven Ringgenberg 
Why Buster Crabbe? Why now? He was a pop culture icon in the ‘30s and ‘40s as an Olympic gold medalist and star of 103 films and serials, but mostly because he was the only actor who ever played all three of the top adventure strip heroes of the 30’s: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Tarzan. In addition to his lengthy film career, he also ran a chain of swimming camps and starred in several TV shows in the 50s, including two seasons of Captain Gallant, a French Foreign Legion series that ran in syndication. He was popular enough that he had his own comic book title, not once, but twice, with different publishers. It's safe to say that Buster Crabbe made an indelible impression on American pop culture, and was a real favorite of the Fleagles, especially Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta, though all of them were dedicated movie buffs.  One thread that ran through Williamson and Frazetta’s lengthy collaboration is a fascination with Buster Crabbe, undoubtedly inspired by Williamson’s childhood encounter with Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the last of Universal’s Flash Gordon serials. Williamson was enthralled by serials his entire life and undoubtedly saw the other two Flash Gordon serials, as well as other serials starring Crabbe, such as The Sea Hound, Red Barry, Buck Rogers, King of the Jungle, and ironically, the King of the Congo (subtitled “The Mighty THUNDA”) serial based on the character co-created by Frank Frazetta and writer Gardner Fox. In fact, a small insert on the Thun’da movie poster displayed Frazetta’s cover for Thun’da #1, which I guess makes it his very first movie poster, though he wouldn’t paint his first ‘official’ movie poster for another thirteen years.
Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta 

Olympic swimming champion, swimming coach, entrepreneur, TV host, stockbroker and King of the Serials, Buster Crabbe was an American institution for several decades, which is why he is still being talked about, written about, and having his visage used in comic book art and illustrations. In addition to his serials, films, Olympic career, and varied businesses, one thing that made Crabbe into such a pop culture icon was his appearances in comic books. In all, there were two different editions of Buster Crabbe comics from two different publishers (Famous Funnies and subsequently, Lev Gleason), as well as a comic book version of Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, his syndicated TV series in which Crabbe co-starred with his son, “Cuffy”. The four issues of this title were published by Charlton Comics, and none of the Fleagles worked on it. In many of the comics in the Famous Funnies Buster Crabbe series (published from 1951-1953), the stories and covers, and even some ads, were drawn by Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta, either working solo, or assisted by Roy Krenkel, George Evans or Joe Orlando.



One or more of the Fleagles had art in a total of seven of the twelve issues published. The second series of Buster Crabbe comics published by Lev Gleason, The Amazing Adventures of Buster Crabbe (published from 1953-54), only lasted for four issues, although Williamson and the other Fleagles had completed a story and a cover intended for the fifth issue that did not see print for twelve years. It is this story, untitled in its earliest iteration, but later rewritten by “honorary Fleagle” Wallace Wood and re-titled “Savage World”, that represents the absolute apotheosis of the Fleagles as a creative team. Its creation involved Williamson, Frazetta, Torres, and Krenkel, and it is truly one of the most beautiful stories ever created for an American comic book. When the comic was cancelled, the publishers offered to pay all the writers and artists for their completed work, but Williamson, who had poured his heart and soul into this story, asked if, instead of receiving payment, he could just get his art back. His editor at Lev Gleason probably thought Williamson was nuts, but agreed to return his artwork. Williamson loved this story and hung onto it for many years, not knowing if it would ever see print. However, one day in the mid-60s, old pal Wally Wood asked Al if he could print the story in his new prozine (at

first titled etcetera, but soon to find lasting fame as Witzend.) Al agreed, and Wood wrote a new script around the existing eight-page story, titling it “Savage World”, and giving the old Buster Crabbe story about battling an advanced race of subterranean aliens a new, more sardonic spin. So, in 1966, over a decade after it had originally been drawn, this Fleagles masterpiece was finally published. The combination of Wood’s intelligent (if rather cynical) sci-fi script and the
gorgeous art made it an instant classic, and it’s been reprinted a number of times since then, notably in the first issue of Marvel’s black and white science fiction anthology, Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, which allowed Williamson to finally pay Torres for his work on the story, since he had paid Frazetta and Krenkel for their contributions back in the ‘50s; but then it was republished in color in Alien Worlds #4 by Pacific Comics, retitled "Land of the Fhre" with yet
another rewritten script, this time by Bruce Jones, and then “Savage World” was published once more (in black and white this time) in Death Rattle #10 from Kitchen Sink.


It’s one of those stories that’s too good to stay out of print for very long, and has been a favorite of Fleagles afficionados for decades. In the book, Al Williamson Strange World Adventures (Flesk Publications, June 2021), Angelo Torres recalled working on this now-classic story. “At its inception and for years to come, the job would be referred to as ‘The Buster Crabbe job’,”…“It became ‘Savage World’ when the story was rewritten. Working with Al meant working at his place in Brooklyn. I would show up around noon and stay until late in the
evening. During that time, we might hike down to the secondhand bookstore to rummage, watch some TV and enjoy his jazz collection. Roy would drop by and spend a day, then take pages home to do his work on the backgrounds. Frank would drive over, do some of the inking and hang out for a few hours before heading home with a page or two to do the same. “I was sitting with Al one evening as the job neared completion when he posed a new problem: ‘How will the story be signed after four guys had worked on it?’ We half-jokingly tried to figure out what to do when Al came up with an answer: ‘How about Alfange Krenzetta?’ At which point he laughingly decided to go with just plain Al Williamson.” However, in addition to drawing Crabbe in the two Buster Crabbe comic book series, Williamson and Frazetta also drew him in one panel (Page Six, Panel Five) in the story, “The Vicious Space Pirates” (Danger Is Our Business #1, Toby Press, 1953), which was reprinted by IW in Danger Is Our Business #9 (1964). And in the story “Spaceborne” (Weird Science #16, 1952) Williamson drew a protagonist who greatly resembled both Buster Crabbe, and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. To be honest, many of the blond males Williamson drew throughout the ’50s resembled Raymond’s Flash. In his obituary for Williamson, Mark Evanier paraphrased a statement by the artist, “Al used to joke that all the heroic males he drew either looked like him or like Mr. Crabbe.” Frazetta, who got his own newspaper strip, Johnny Comet, about an itinerate race car driver was soon out of work, when the strip was canceled after about a year and a half. He tried to create other newspaper strips, Amby Dexter (about an ambidextrous baseball pitcher), Nina (a lost world adventure starring a gorgeous blonde), and Sweet Adeline (a humorous girl strip scripted by Elliott Caplin, brother of Al Capp), and a single Sunday page for a proposed Buster Crabbe newspaper strip. Frazetta drew Crabbe in a one-page Public Service Announcement comic strip where he demonstrated the “Red Cross New Method of Artificial Respiration” that appeared in Heroic Comics #72, Buster Crabbe #4, and Personal Love # 16. Oddly enough, it was not as widely circulated as the handful of other PSAs he did advocating an anti-drug message, promoting religion, and advertising the Boy Scouts of America that were appearing in various comics around the same time. Various fanzines, including also printed miscellaneous illustrations of Buster Crabbe by Frazetta that appeared to have been done for his own amusement and that of his friends, including a watercolor of Crabbe that was printed in black and white on the back cover of Witzend #1, and a strikingly realistic penciled headshot of Crabbe that ran on the back cover of the Flash Gordon Fanzine Heritage, Vol. 1, #1, and was recycled in a digitally painted version based on Frazetta’s pencils on the cover of the Fall 2001 issue of Space Cowboy. So, it’s obvious that it wasn’t just Al Williamson who enjoyed drawing the serial star’s handsome features. Another time Williamson tackled drawing Crabbe was in a miscellaneous illustration of Buster garbed as Flash Gordon fighting a short but ferocious dinosaur (probably just drawn for fun) that was inked by old pal Wally Wood and wound up being used for a fanzine cover, Third Rail, in 1981. Yet another penciled illustration of Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon was used as one of the plates for the Williamson/Frazetta Space Heroes portfolio (1976), and was later recycled in color as a fanzine cover (Visions #3, 1981), though that version was inked by editor Lamar Waldron, not Williamson. Given Williamson’s love of Buster Crabbe serials, it may seem a little odd that he didn’t draw Buster more often. 

 However, there is a simple explanation for this. In the second
installment of his “Days of Wine and Fleagles” column (Squa Tront #4), Nick Meglin recalled, “Williamson…was probably one of the most devoted artists to ever work for the comics. He was never in it for the buck, as his working methods alone kept him from really living high financially. His aim was to get out of the best possible job he could, no matter how long it took, or how much he spent doing it. He felt that Krenkel drew the best gadgets, palaces, caves, arenas, etc., and so he’d call in Roy to help him. He felt that Torres was a great brush man—Al was
primarily a pen man—and so he worked with Ange when he felt a better story could be told utilizing the best of both their talents—Al’s line work, Ange’s use of sparkling blacks, etc. And when Buster Crabbe has to be drawn, well, then Fritz—the Buster Crabbe drawer of all times—gets the nod. However, since the ostensible subject of this article is Buster Crabbe, it bears noting that as time went on, English actor Stewart Granger, the star of Scarmouche, King Solomon’s Mines, The Prisoner of Zenda, and countless other period swashbucklers, superseded Crabbe as Williamson’s favorite actor, and in the EC Comics story, “Food for Thought” (Incredible Science Fiction #32), and later used Granger as his protagonist in the Epic story, “Relic” (1984), a story Williamson felt was one of his best. In a 1981 interview for The Comics Journal, I asked Williamson about his fondness for Buster Crabbe.

RINGGENBERG: Are you still a fan of Buster Crabbe?
WILLIAMSON: Sort of. Yes. He’s still Flash.
RINGGENBERG: Always will be.
WILLIAMSON: Always will be. I guess after a while you can only see so many Buster Crabbe films, because, unfortunately, they weren’t that good. One of the best films he did was the first one, King of the Jungle. From there on, it was downhill, which was kind of a shame. He could
have done better stuff.”


By the way, Williamson’s many versions of Flash Gordon, for King Comics (in the ‘60s), Whitman and Marvel (in the ‘80s) were all based on his take on Alex Raymond’s Flash, not Buster Crabbe, but in the ‘70s he returned to the actor he liked so much in a sequence for Secret Agent Corrigan in the ‘70s, basing a character on the way Crabbe looked in the ‘70s. He had the Crabbe character, a dark-haired, mustachioed big-game hunter named Stryde, team up with Corrigan, and a soldier of fortune based on Stewart Granger, his very favorite actor. The two month story arc had Phil Corrigan kidnapped, along with nine other hardcases and spirited away to a remote island by the minions of a dying millionaire. The oligarch put Corrigan and the others through a “Most Dangerous Game”-style ordeal until there are only four men left, Corrigan, a stuntman named Guido, and the Crabbe and Granger characters. By the end of the sequence, it’s revealed that the millionaire had the men kidnapped so they could fight to the death, with only one survivor, who would provide the body, into which the ailing millionaire’s brain could be transplanted. Fortunately for fans of the strip, Corrigan and the other three survived, but this exciting adventure was a fitting farewell for Williamson’s fascination with Buster Crabbe. To the best of my knowledge, he never did another character based on Buster

1 comment

  • Judy: February 29, 2024

    Interesting. I too was obsessed with Flash Gordon/Buster Crabbe in my younger years. I still feel there’s never been anyone who was or is more handsome ever. I was able to meet him once in 1976 at a nostalgia convention in NYC. He was very gracious making sure I got photos. He was my hero, I always thought he should have been a leading man in Hollywood but there are a lot of Holkywood leading men. As it is, he remains famous for being the King of serials & adventure & that is as it should be!

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