IN THE TWENTY-FIFTH CENTURY…
As far as comic-strip retronauts go, ‘Buck Rogers’ was
there at the first lift-off, and he continues as one of the
great pantheon of twentieth-century heroes, still
making waves in the twenty-first century,
and – just possibly, the twenty-fifth too…
‘BUCK ROGERS: SCIENCE-FICTION’S
MOST EXCITING ADVENTURER!’
Consider this. It was a frame from a ‘Buck Rogers’ newspaper-strip that gave ‘ET’ the idea of ‘phoning home!’ Then, when ‘Star Wars’ was re-released for cinema-screenings in 1977, George Lucas specifically selected Chuck Jones’ 1953 Loony Tunes spoof ‘Duck Dodgers In The Twenty-Fourth-&-A-Half Century’ to precede the main feature. In these two ways, both Lucas, and Steven Spielberg were slyly acknowledging their debt to the same legendary 1930’s action hero. A bonus link is perhaps provided by the amazing Mel Blanc, who not only voiced ‘Duck Dodgers’, but also voices Twiki, the irritating robot in the 1980’s TV-series ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century’.
Way back then, at the very birth of the genre, it was assumed that an unsophisticated readership would be insufficiently familiar with the concept of future-time, so a present-day everyman had to be introduced into the story to function as the reader’s proxy-eyeballs. HG Wells set the precedent with his time-traveller journeying through the centuries so that a man of his own late-Victorian time could arrive at the year 802,701AD and look at its strangeness through contemporary eyes. He could ask questions on the reader’s behalf, about what had happened to the world he knew, how this future-time had become so different. Wells would repeat the plot-device with ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ (1910), an idea several degrees closer to the contribution made by Buck Rogers. But it was not necessarily a new idea even when Wells used it.
Washington Irving’s 1819 tale ‘Rip Van Winkle’ precedes it, the man who falls asleep in the cave to wake up decades later to find the world he knew unrecognisably changed. As a vehicle for satire, social commentary, and humour, it is a theme rich with possibilities. As a science fiction gimmick, it is one open to endless reinvention and reinterpretation. In the original text-version of the Buck Rogers story USAF airplane lieutenant Anthony Rogers is surveying the lower levels of an abandoned Pittsburgh mineshaft when he’s overcome by a ‘peculiar gas which defied chemical analysis’ – like Rip Van Winkle, he falls asleep in a ‘cave’, until a shift in the strata admits fresh air, and he awakes – five centuries later into a war-devastated gadget-filled future.
‘BUCK IS A ONE-MAN ARMY OF GREASED LIGHTNING’
(cover-blurb of ‘FAMOUS FUNNIES FEATURING
BUCK ROGERS no.209’ December 1953)
Philip Francis Nowlan started out as a bored financial writer for the ‘Philadelphia Retail Ledger’. But he’d picked up some newsstand copies of the garish new Hugo Gernsback pulp magazine, and responded to an editorial appeal for material from new and original writers. His story – ‘Armageddon 2419’, with illustrations by Frank R Paul, duly appeared in the issue of ‘Amazing Stories’ dated August 1928, the same issue that coincidentally included the first instalment of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s wide-screen ‘Skylark Of Space’ serial. Nowlan saw his story as text-fiction, he never envisaged that his future would lie in the realms of comic-strips. But a copy of the magazine happened to come to the attention of the head of the syndicated National Newspaper Service, a businessman called John Flint Dille in Chicago.
Just as ‘Sun’ label-boss Sam Phillips had the vague precognition that he could make a million-dollars by finding a white man who could sing like a negro – some time before he encountered Elvis Presley, Dille had prior intimations that some kind of futuristic fantasy-strip might prove popular with his readership. A step or several beyond Winsor McCay’s popular ‘Little Nemo’ strip. Reading Nowlan’s fanciful tale – and its sequel ‘The Airlords Of Han’ (1929), he knew he’d discovered his ‘Elvis’. He recognised in the story’s strong simplicity a potential for a vigorous afterlife. Negotiations followed – Dille only insisted on name-switching Nowlan’s ‘Tony Rogers’ to the more cowboy-themed ‘Buck Rogers’. Once agreed he recruited staff-artist Dick Calkins whose credentials were that he’d used his Army Air Corps World War I flying experience to originate a modest aviation strip called ‘Sky Roads’. Working from Nowlan’s script-adaptation, while drawing on the visual hints provided by Frank R Paul’s vivid spot-art, the first panels of ‘Buck Rogers In The Year 2429AD’ appeared in 7 January 1929 – bizarrely, the same day that the ‘Tarzan’ strip was launched.
As far as comic-strip retronauts go, Buck was there at the genre’s first lift-off. To Ray Bradbury, ‘the first Buck Rogers comic strip I saw in 1929 changed my life forever, because he was going into the future and I wanted to go there… when Buck Rogers came along, it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen – I went absolutely crazy. I lived hysterically waiting for that hour when Buck Rogers came into the house.’ Dick Calkins art could be naïve – even crude in its execution, and never as lavish as Alex Raymond’s would be for ‘Flash Gordon’. It could be wooden, cluttered and two-dimensional, but it was quirky, full of character and action too. What his cranky snub-nosed rocketships lacked in sophistication they compensated for in vibrant energy, with their conning-tower blisters and submarine-fins blasting through planet-strewn space.
Anticipating the Wall Street Crash by nine months, the escapist action doubtlessly benefited from the worsening economic straits of the Depression Years, by providing escapism. Eventually the strip was reaching a massive readership, syndicated through nearly 400-newspapers. The daily strip was complemented by a Sunday spin-off strip drawn by Russ Keaton, then by Rick Yager, and then by kiddy-time radio serials, leading the duo into further adventures on other worlds, Saturn, Venus, on the Martian ‘Island Of Doom’, or on Vulcan where Buck and Buddy Deering (Wilma’s brother) face Mekkanos made of Impervium. Dr Huer appears as Buck’s ‘Zarkov’, a scientist who devises useful gadgets, such as the ‘electro-hypno mentalphone’ for scanning the minds of villains to learn their dastardly plans. And there are new evil arch-enemies such as the villainous Killer Kane and his sidekick Ardala Valmar.
The first TV episode pits Buck against a couple of ‘Tigermen’ from Mercury who arrive on Earth intent on stealing the planet’s water. Meanwhile, once the highly lucrative ‘Buck Rogers’ industry acquired its enthusiastic following – branching out into everything from ‘The Buck Rogers Pop-Up Book: A Dangerous Mission’, to replica toy rayguns, it appears that Philip Nowlan was largely content to drop his more literary aspirations, and remain exclusively active within the comics field. Perhaps that was not always true. It seems he’d begun what was intended to be a new text-series for ‘Astounding SF’ in 1940, the year he died. But Buck Rogers outlived him, in the hands of new creative combinations.
‘BUCK ROGERS: AWAKENING…’
Buck Rogers was a cultural continuity for many decades. But there were spikes. Murphy Anderson, who illustrated the daily strip through 1958, recalls to Mike Benton that with the launch of Sputnik, and the real-world inauguration of the space-age, ‘Buck Rogers suddenly became hot again. The syndicate salesman sold the strip to every paper he called on during a trip back from Texas.’ Then, some time later, the spectacular supernova that was the ‘Star Wars’ cinema blockbuster seriously rebooted the bankable stock of SF, in its new Sci-Fi guise. It re-Generated the moribund ‘Star Trek’ franchise, and when network TV business-suits began casting around for further tie-in projects, surely Buck Rogers must have seemed too obvious to miss. After all, the three linked ‘Star Wars’ trilogies were George Lucas’ conscious attempt at recreating all the details of the adolescent thrills he’d experienced watching Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon movie-serials as a kid. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are the heroes of his own six-part movie-serial, compensating with bigger budgets and advanced CGI-effects for the intervening escalation of expectation.
To emphasise this cross-media link, a 71-year-old Buster Crabbe was induced out of retirement to make a guest appearance – as ‘Brigadier Gordon’, in the first episode-proper of ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century’, the TV series that producer Glen A Larson powered into the early months of the 1980’s. Some comic-book purists may disapprove, for Gil Gerard plays a fun tongue-in-cheek Buck Rogers wearing his blaster in a rakishly low-slung Han Solo holster-style, but there are as many continuities are there are dislocations. The series did not take itself too seriously, setting its controls firmly at slick escapist entertainment, redesigning futuristic femme Wilma Deering into a feisty sex-weapon in the ratings war, poured into skinny-fit jumpsuits one size too small. But then again, despite the limitations of Dick Calkins’ artwork, and the prevailing moral climate of the time, the abbreviated costumes worn by Alura ‘Princess of Mars’ had proved pretty wild for 1934!
In new escapades with seductive episode-titles such as ‘Unchained Woman’, ‘Planet Of The Amazon Women’ and ‘Flight Of The War Witch’ Buck faces new threats in the form of the Vorvon – a galactic soul-stealer, the Omni Guard – three treacherous women who become omnipotent when they link hands, and then he pilots his ship The Searcher through a black hole into a counter-universe in which he’s coerced into an alliance with Ardala against an even more deadly dictator called Zarina. The feature-length pilot-episode was even cut loose for audiences for full cinema-release, and – to Frederik Pohl, ‘what is most wrong with ‘Buck Rogers’ as a movie is that it wasn’t made to be one. It was made to be a TV series. Stringing together bits and pieces into a theatre film was a good money idea – it is supposed to have grossed over $25-million, on an investment most of which was already written off against production costs for the television series – but it is a shabby film. The special effects designed to look good on a twenty-one-inch screen look tacky in a movie theatre’ (‘Science Fiction Studies In Film’, Ace, 1981). Yet when the ITV series was scheduled in direct opposition to the BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’, it briefly notched up higher viewing figures.
Renewed together for new generations in the 1980’s, the two space-heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon had already defined what the SF strip could be, and refined the visual language it would use. Democratised through repetition, followed by countless imitators, it was they who had provided the models for a process of replication that virtually created the cultural artefact we recognise as the comic-book, even as the genre invented itself through the 1930’s. Junk culture, of course. The kind of trash-fiction that parents derided as an early example of dumbing-down. ‘Why can’t you read a proper book…?’ they implore – too late, for the battle was already lost. The addiction had already taken hold. And it would only become more voracious.
STORY BY STORY…
Daily strip 7 January 1929. Script: Philip Francis Nowlan. Art: Dick Calkins (he lived 1895-1962) Sundays 1930. Script: Philip Francis Nowlan: Art Russ Keaton (then Rick Yager 1932-1958, Murphy Anderson (he illustrated ‘Star Pirate’ for ‘Planet Comics’ 1944-1947, then the daily ‘Buck Rogers’ 1947-1949, before moving on the DC Comics. He returned to Buck in 1958), Gene Tuska 1959-1967. After Nowlan’s death John F Dille and others wrote scripts) 1967 - series ends, but continues intermittently as reprints
‘FAMOUS FUNNIES FEATURING BUCK ROGERS’ (John S Dille, Co/ Eastern Color Printing). 10-cent anthology-format editions reprinting newspaper strips, featuring ‘Buck Rogers’ from issue no.3 (dated October 1934) with art by Dick Calkins (from 1932), Frank Frazetta (from 1953) etc alongside other strips such as ‘Joe Palooka’. ‘Buck Rogers’ newspaper strips were also reprinted in the ‘Big Little Books’
‘BUCK ROGERS’ (Eastern Color Printing Company/ Famous Funnies) Winter 1940-September 1943 (six issues) After a successful six-year run in ‘Famous Funnies’, Buck was awarded his own comic book in 1940. Issues no.1-5 reprint Sunday pages by Rick Yager. Issue no.6 reprints daily strips by Dick Calkins as well as an original 2-page story. The stories roughly parallel the Buck Rogers reprints in ‘Famous Funnies no.3-79
‘BUCK ROGERS’ (Gold Key) October 1964. Buck fights ‘The Space Slavers’ in this one-off original full-length comic-book story
‘THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY’ hardback edition edited by Robert C Dille
‘BUCK ROGERS’ (TSR Inc) 1991, three issue revival created by Flint Dille – grandson of original syndicator John Flint Dille, a return to the distinct ‘Buck Rogers look’ with Wilma, Killer Kane and ‘space slut’ Ardala, but updated ‘in a plausible future’. Each issue tied into a game-module and Buck Rogers role-playing SF computer game
First UK ‘Buck Rogers’ serialisation was in ‘EVERYBODY’S’ magazine
‘BUSTER’ (23 December 1961-8 September 1962) Buck Rogers serial with art by Murphy Anderson ‘LOOK-IN’ (1981-1982) picture-strip linked to TV series, with art by John Burns (there’s also a tie-in ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century Annual 1981’)
‘AMAZING STORIES’ (August 1928) original text publication of ‘Armageddon 2419’. Reprinted in the ‘Amazing Stories’ 1961 35th Anniversary Issue
‘ARMAGEDDON 2419’ by Philip Francis Nowlan (US, 1962) paperback combination of his original ‘Anthony Rogers’ story plus its sequel ‘The Airlords Of Han’
‘BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY’ by Addison E Steele (Sphere Books, 1979) Based on TV-series
‘BUCK ROGERS 2: THAT MAN ON BETA’ by Addison E Steele (Sphere Books, 1979)
‘BUCK ROGERS’ HOUR’ (from 7 November 1932)
‘BUCK ROGERS’ (1979, Universal) 89-minutes. Executive producer: Glen A Larson. Producer: Richard Caffey. Director: Daniel Haller. Script: Glen A Larson & Leslie Stevens. Art Director: Paul Peters. Editor: John J Dumas. Special Effects: Bud Ewing. Music: Stu Philips. An edited version of the TV pilot, the cast is the same as below, Gil Gerard, Pamela Hensley, Erin Gray, Henry Silva, Tim O’Connor. Joseph Wiseman, Felix Silla and Mel Blanc
‘BUCK ROGERS’ (1950) ABC-TV 25-minute black-&-white episodes. Producer & Director: Babette Henry. Writer: Gene Wyckoff. With Ken Dibbs, Lou Prentis, Harry Kingston, Harry Sothern, etc
‘BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY’ (A Glen A Larson Production) Exec Producers: Glen A Larson, and John Mantley (Season 2). 34 sixty-minute colour episodes, plus pilot (‘Awakening’ 120-mins). US premiere: 20 September 1979. UK premiere: 30 August 1980 through to mid-1981. With Gil Gerard (as Captain Buck Rogers), Erin Gray (as Colonel Wilma Deering), Tim O’Connor (in Season 1 only, as Dr Huer), Thom Christopher (Hawk), Wilfred Hyde-White (Dr Goodfellow), Jay Garner (Adm Asimov), Pamela Hensley (Princess Ardala), Michael Ansara (Kane), Eric Server (Dr Theopolis, computer in Season 1), with Felix Silla as Twiki, Mel Blanc as voice of Twiki, and Jeff David as Voice Of Crichton. Guest stars include Buster Crabbe, Roddy McDowall, Frank Gorshin, Ray Walston & Cesar Romero. In the UK episodes were rerun on BBC2 in 1989 and again in 1994.
‘BUCK ROGERS: COUNTDOWN TO DOOMSDAY’ (Strategic Simulations, 1990) role-playing game
with acknowledgements to ‘THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION COMICS’ by Mike Benton (Taylor Publishing Company, 1992)