You Wouldn't Be Reading This If It Weren't For Buck Rogers
The name is often spoken with a sneer, as if all of science fiction could be summed up with a single, iniquitous name—which makes it very hard to appreciate how much we owe him.
Buck freed SF from the confines of the adventure pulps and a narrow, specialized audience and put it in the average reader’s hand (and a toy raygun in the other!). Before long hordes of imitators followed Buck. Almost every newspaper had a SF strip. They would spill into the pages of the early comic books, into the movie theaters, the radio and TV, bringing SF to thousands of new readers. At least one—Ray Bradbury—gave Buck credit for his lifelong interest in SF (and who knows how many others weren’t quite as willing to admit it).
And perhaps the strip wasn’t quite as terrible as we think.
Originally, he was named “Anthony.”
Buck got his start in a singularly dull novelette by Philip Nowlan, “Armageddon—2419 AD”, in the August 1928 Amazing Stories (its cover looks so much like the classic images of Buck that no one notices it illustrates E.E. “Doc” Smith’s story, Skylark of Space).
By now everyone knows the story: Rogers gets trapped in a mine filled with a mysterious radioactive gas and wakes up almost five hundred years later. But then it bogs down in endless descriptions of future technology, future history, and future language. Even the “exciting” action is told in a detached tone, more suitable for a history text than a pulp adventure.
Yet, within a year, it became one of the most popular comic strips ever.
How that happened isn’t clear. Nowlan later claimed that he’d suggested the idea to John F. Dille, the head of the National Newspaper Syndicate, while Dille, in Coulton Waugh’s The Comics, failed even to mention Nowlan and took full credit for creating Buck. Some sources claim Dille persuaded the reluctant Nowlan to adapt his story. And supposedly Buck’s original artist, Lt. Dick Calkins, loved dinosaurs and wanted to draw a prehistoric strip instead.
Whatever happened, Buck Rogers awoke in the Twenty-Fifth Century on January 7, 1929. Dille gave him his new name, borrowed from cowboy star Buck Jones (or, depending on who’s telling the story, the Dille family dog).
The first strip rushed through the first eight pages of the original and the strips that followed introduced the Twenty-Fifth Century with a minimum of talk and a fair amount of action. True, the artwork is stiff, and the average strip has as many words as several weeks of a modern comic. But even these early strips have an intense readability as they rush headlong from one adventure to the next.
The novelette‘s “Han” became “Mongol Reds,” losing the SF backstory that appeared in Nowlan’s sequel “The Airlords of Han.” While many have accused the strip of “yellow menace” racism, the original Han were a “soulless” race, tainted by the mysterious influence of a “small planet or meteor” that crashed in a remote part of China. Nowlan even notes that Mongols from non-tainted regions were nothing like them.
While the strip refers to the Mongols as “Reds” it never actually calls them Communists: it merely notes that they came out of the Gobi desert and crushed the armies of the world with their “super-science.” But before the year was out something remarkable happens that severs most of the strip’s connections to its Amazing roots. Buck and his girlfriend, Wilma Deering, go to the Mongol Emperor’s Forbidden City, hoping to end the war. There they find a gilded, super-scientific Kublai Khan who didn’t know that his treacherous Viceroy has been oppressing the Americans.
Peace breaks out. Buck and Wilma return home to capture the Viceroy—and everyone forgets the Mongols who promptly vanish from the strip and are never heard from again.
But before things have a chance to get dull, a new menace appears: the Tiger Men of Mars!
Within the next few years, Buck would travel to Mars, then to the asteroid Eros, and eventually Saturn, the artwork improving enormously along the way. A Sunday page, featuring the adventures of Wilma’s little brother, Buddy, launched in March of 1930. A radio show followed in 1932, a TV series in 1950.
And then there were the toys.
The official Buck Rogers raygun hit the stores in 1934, setting off a price war between Macy’s and Gimbel’s that left both stores in shambles (Buck actually carries one in the 1936 movie serial). Tons of merchandise flooded the market, everything from Big Little Books to rocket ships, spacesuits, helmets, figures, buttons, watches, and rings. It was the first—and perhaps the most successful—SF franchise.
So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that hordes of imitators soon burst onto the comics page.
Oddly, Buck’s influence didn’t help his first competitor: Basil Wolverton (of “Lena the Hyena” fame) sold Marco of Mars to the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929, only to have them drop it before publication: Buck Rogers had just gone to Mars and they didn‘t think there was room for another Mars strip. Only a handful of samples survive.
However, Jack Swift, a copy of the successful Tom Swift books, did far better, reaching the comics page in 1930 and running for seven years—not that anyone remembers it today.
Buck’s first serious competitor rode into the comics on the back of a dinosaur in 1933. Rather than a futuristic setting, the NEA chose the distant past. V.T. Hamlin created a rollicking, energetic strip about the “bone age” adventures of a caveman named Alley Oop, featuring some of the most stunning Sunday pages ever created.
But Hamlin did something even more stunning six years later, when Alley and his girlfriend get sucked into the modern world by Dr. Wonmug’s time machine. Oop quickly joins Wonmug’s research team and journeys through time and space, going everywhere from ancient Troy and prehistoric Egypt, to the Old West and a rocket trip to the moon. Of all the SF newspaper comics of the thirties, Alley Oop is the only one still published.
Brick Bradford started in 1933 as an aviation strip very like Dick Calkins’ other strip, Skyways. His adventures would take him through space and time and even deep into the subatomic world. While it was never quite in the same league as the best SF comic strips, Brick appeared in a 1947 movie serial and actually outlasted Buck Rogers, surviving until 1987.
Buck’s greatest competitor did not reach the comics page until 1934. Flash Gordon was the rarest of all things, the imitation that was far greater than the original.
King Features had considered a cartoon version of Edgar Rice Burrough’s, John Carter (ERB’s son would write and draw John Carter of Mars in 1941). Instead they let loose Alex Raymond—one of the greatest illustrators ever—on an incredible Sunday page that hurled the readers into a world of monsters and fantastic machines.
Modern readers used to the general blandness of the comics page will probably be stunned by how brutal Flash could be. In its most outrageous sequence, thousands of warriors from all over Mongo gather to vie for their own kingdom in the monstrous “Tournament of Death,” knowing that all but one of them will die in the arena.
The strip added a daily version by Austin Briggs in 1940, who took over the Sundays in 1944, after Raymond volunteered for the Marines. Various other artists succeeded him. The strip lasted until 2003.
It is hard for us to understand the influence the comics had back then. Everyone read them. When a newspaper strike hit New York, Mayor LaGuardia went on the air to read the latest installments of Little Orphan Annie and other strips.
At their peak, every syndicate tried to develop a complete package to compete with their rivals’ most successful strips—a detective strip, a soap opera strip, an adventure strip . . . and, of course, an SF strip.
Some, like Dash Dixon were just plain ugly, but if your paper couldn’t get Flash Gordon, you could settle for his doppleganger, Don Dixon and the Hidden Empire (1935-1941), instead. Speed Spaulding (1940-1941) adapted the novel When Worlds Collide into comics form, adding a two-fisted hero and a love interest.
SF also found its way into a number of established strips. Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse fought mad scientists and mechanical men, explored floating cities, and even hunted dinosaurs in a lost world. A mad scientist named O.G. Wotasnozzle moved into the upstairs bedroom in the Sappo top strip of E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theater (a.k.a., Popeye): he and Sappo would go on a five month tour of the solar system in 1937, and his bizarre inventions dominated the strip long after Segar’s death.
Even odder was the sudden lurch into SF and fantasy taken by Harry Tuthill’s bitingly satiric portrayal of a feuding couple in The Bungle Family. His unlikable hero accidentally traveled to the future in 1934 (in a sequence reprinted in The Comic Strip Century) and the strip was never quite the same.
And then there’s Connie, by master illustrator Frank Godwin. She started out in 1927 as yet another flighty flapper, became an aviator when the daily strip debuted two years later, then a detective, and then an adventurer. Before long, her exploits took her through time and on an epic 1938 space trip.
By the 1950s, the comics market had changed. The adventure strip—the mainstay of SF comics—was in decline, thanks in part to Peanuts and the visually simplified gag strips that followed—and in part to television and changes in readership.
But a few new SF strips tried to buck the trend. Twin Earths (1952-1963), which revolved around the discovery of a parallel earth, featured separate continuities for the Sundays and dailies, each set on a different earth.
In 1952, the New York Daily Sun tried to attract new readers with an exclusive strip not available anywhere else. Beyond Mars was written by Golden age SF Grandmaster Jack Williamson and loosely based on his Seetee novels (these strips will finally be available in a full color collection this October).
Art Sansom, best known for The Born Loser drew Chris Welkin, Planeteer, a strip once described as Terry and the Pirates go to Mars. His Caniff-inspired artwork, however, was far better than that of the 1950s George Wunder’s Terry. And Jerry Robinson, the creator of the Joker, drew Jet Scott, a near-future SF spy strip that ran from 1953 to 1955.
The sixties were not as kind to the SF strip.
Only Australian artists Reg and Stanley Pitt managed to sell a new SF strip, Gully Foyle. However, while the Ledger Syndicate convinced fifty papers to take their adaptation of The Stars My Destination, all their hard work came crashing down when Alfred Bester tangled up their rights to the book.
Even Buck Rogers couldn’t survive and ended in 1967.
But that didn’t stop Dick Tracy from going into space.
In 1962, Diet Smith, the genius entrepreneur behind the two way wrist radio, unveiled the space coupe. Two years later, Tracy reached the moon where he encountered the Moon Maid, and the people of Moon Valley.
Mike Curtis, the strip’s current artist, claims that it was The Jetsons that inspired Chester Gould to create the sequence. Others credit John F. Kennedy’s speech about putting a man on the Moon. Either way, the violent earthbound detective suddenly found himself in fantastic adventures that would have been more at home in a children’s SF strip of the thirties. His adopted son even married the Moon Maid.
Gould quietly dropped the Moon storyline after Apollo Eleven, shoving the Moon Maid into the background and only referring to her as “Junior’s wife.” The sequence has been an embarrassment for Tracy aficionados for years and Gould’s successors killed the Moon Maid off as soon as they could.
Ironically, the current team decided to bring back the Moon Maid in 2012. Whether Staton and Curtis will now abandon the Moon—or how much longer the octogenarian sleuth will survive—remains to be seen.
The SF comic strip wasn’t quite dead, however.
Three new SF strips (and a revived Buck Rogers)—hit the comics page in the wake of Star Wars.
Star Hawks began in 1977. Written by SF humorist (and comics historian) Ron Goulart and drawn by Gil Kane, the strip hearkened back to comics like Flash Gordon. It originally came in an unusual two-tiered format that allowed more room for the artwork, but this proved too radical for most editors to accept. It quickly reverted to standard size, but it was too late to overcome those first impressions. The strip only lasted until 1981.
The others followed in 1979. March brought a Star Wars comic drawn by Magnus Robot Fighter’s Russ Manning. When he retired, the dream team of comics legends Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson took over. Sadly, it died in 1984.
Inspired by the success of the new TV series, Buck Rogers returned in September, in a modernized version that had nothing to do with the show. He survived until 1983—two years longer than his TV incarnation.
In December, Paramount cashed in on Star Trek: The Motion Picture with a strip based on the film but featuring new stories. After The Wrath of Khan came out, they updated the art without comment. It never ran in many papers and even the most diehard Trek fans had no idea it existed. In its four years at least 24 artists worked on it, more than many strips that ran for forty or fifty years. Larry Niven even wrote a 1982 sequence.
But it still wasn’t enough.
Perhaps the problem was that there had been too many SF strips. Or perhaps it was the general decline of the newspaper. Whatever the reason, they all died, leaving only Alley Oop and Flash Gordon.
And Flash went into endless re-runs in 2003.
SF never quite died on the comics page, though.
While SF tropes appear on the comics page almost everyday—after all, most strips are now drawn by the post-Spielberg generation—a select few offer a steady diet of SF humor, whether in the fantasy sequences in Calvin and Hobbes and the brilliant but little noticed Franklin Fibbs or the SF adventures of Jim Meddick’s Monty, and Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows. Mark Buford’s Scary Gary and Mark Tatulli’s Lio mix it with a little horror and Ink Pen with superheroes.
Brewster Rockit: Space Guy! by Tim Rickard is perhaps the most science fictional strip in the newspapers today. But it never aspires to be more than a broad parody of all things Star Trek.
And then there was the one, last great missed opportunity, the potential classic that died far too young:
In 2005, Universal Press Syndicate launched Captain Murphey on the Comics.com website.
Their web-only strips were a twist on the “development contracts” offered to promising cartoonists. Instead of honing their skills drawing comics that would probably never be seen, their work appeared online, with the promise of syndication should they attract an audience. Pearls Before Swine may have been the only strip to make that leap.
Mark Seydewitz loved the pulpy feel of classic Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and brought it to his story of a Rocket Ranger who shoots first and shoots later. Perhaps more than anyone else, Seydewitz’s work resembled V.T. Hamlin at his peak, combining humor and non-stop adventure. Like Alex Raymond, his artwork changed with each new story, from Steadman-esque ink splatters to Roy Crane duotone landscapes. And then there were the close-ups of Murphey’s incredibly expressive face, inspired by Bill Watterson’s much newer classic.
But after two years Mark had to quit. Murphey never managed to escape from the digital slums, and the strips vanished from the internet overnight. They have never returned.
SF has become one of the staples of the webcomic. Some are even quite good, although few of them attempt to match either the complex artwork or grueling schedules of the classics. Universal’s GoComics continues to run original material, although not much of it even pretends to be formatted for the newspapers.
Most newspapers continue to run strips that have long since outlived their creators’ replacements—and few are willing to risk running anything new. It hardly looks likely that the dearth of SF comics will end any time soon.
Well . . . Mark Seydewitz is trying to syndicate a new—and very different—SF strip. You never know. Some heroic editor out there might take a chance on it.
After all, we know it will be great.