Merciless: The Rise of Ming had some great storytelling early on, giving Flash Gordon’s nemesis a level of complexity that’s rarely been seen in the character. Issue three failed in that regard, with Ming growing closer to his traditional, uninterestingly diabolical self. Issue four concludes the miniseries, but does it reverse the bad trend? Here’s the official description from Dynamite:
To cement his claim of power, Ming the Merciless launches a strategic war that shows once and for all that there is but one superpower on Mongo! But as Ming turns his attentions to new worlds to conquer, a betrayal within his own court might topple all of Ming’s carefully wrought plans! And what does a strange signal from a distant planet mean to the future of Mongo?
One of the great difficulties with writing prequels is in trying to create suspense. Anyone who knows the original story will have some knowledge of how the prequel ends. Not surprisingly, Ming survives the attack at the end of last issue, and goes on to conquer all of Mongo. A related problem with prequels is the need to align the status quo with that of the original story. Writer Scott Beatty is forced to get rid of Ming’s wife, as well as his hair, just because those things are missing from traditional Flash Gordon stories. The hair removal in particular is clumsy. When Ming’s hair begins to fall out, Beatty tries to use it to further illustrate Ming’s merciless nature by having him decree that all the men of Mongo shave their heads. It’s a petty action on the part of a villain who, just a few issues ago, always acted with calculated purpose.
Beatty’s writing has it’s strong points though. If Ming has to become a typical villain who’s prone to overreaction, destroying an entire populated planet to kill one person is a good start. The final arrival of Ming’s armada at Earth is predictable but makes for a good conclusion. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, but some is excellent: “This is not a war of expansion…The entirety of Mongo is mine. I’m merely showing all of you why.”
Ron Adrian‘s artwork is sketchier than in previous issues, a problem compounded by muddier colors on the part of Roni Setiawan. However, Adrian’s sci-fi style is as wonderfully overblown as ever, and the colors are still more eye-popping than those of most books you’ll see. I also enjoy Adrian’s off-kilter panel layouts; it’s a technique that’s almost undoubtedly more difficult that I imagine, but one that subtly enlivens the pages and lends a chaotic element to the action scenes. Adrian’s greatest failing is the apparent lack of a wound in Ming’s side, seconds after his near-fatal stabbing. It’s mistake that should have been easily caught and rectified in editing.
Merciless: The Rise of Ming #4 fails to live up to the promise of the series’ previous issues. Considering the burdens it’s under due to its status as a sequel, however, it could have been quite a bit worse.