With all these pulp action heroes coming back in the indies, I thought we’d take a look at a well-known space hero (his name, at least) whom I really know nothing about.
Buck Rogers is a fictional character who first appeared in Armageddan 2419 AD by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories as Anthony Rogers. A sequel, The Airlords of Han, was published in the March 1929 issue.
Nowlan and the syndicate John F. Dille Company, later known as the National Newspaper Syndicate, contracted to adapt the story into a comic strip. After Nowlan and Dille enlisted editorial cartoonist Dick Calkins as the illustrator, Nowlan adapted the first episode from Armageddon 2419 AD and changed the hero’s name from Anthony Rogers to Buck Rogers.
The strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929. Later adaptations included film, radio, a TV series (where his first name was changed from Anthony to William), and other formats, including comic books.
The adventures of Buck Rogers became an important part of American pop culture. This phenomenon paralleled the development of space technology in the 20th century and introduced Americans to outer space as a familiar environment for swashbuckling adventure.
Buck Rogers has been credited with bringing into popular media the concept of space exploration, following in the footsteps of literary pioneers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and especially Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.
The text of the first three frames of the series set the scene for Buck’s leap 500 years into Earth’s future:
“I was 20 years old when they stopped the world war and mustered me out of the air service. I got a job surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh, in which the atmosphere had a peculiar pungent tang and the crumbling rock glowed strangely. I was examining it when suddenly the roof behind me caved in and …”
Buck is rendered unconscious, and a strange gas preserves him in a suspended animation or coma state. He awakens and emerges from the mine in 2429 A.D., in the midst of another war.
After rescuing Wilma Deering, he proves his identity by showing her his American Legion button. She then explains how the Mongol Reds emerged from the Gobi desert to conquer Asia and Europe and then attacked America starting with that “big idol holding a torch.” Using their disintegrator beams, they easily defeated the army and navy and wiped out Washington D.C. in three hours. As the people fled the cities, the Mongols built new cities on the ruins of the major cities. The Mongols left the Americans to fend for themselves as their advanced technology prevented the need for slave labor. The scattered Americans formed loosely bound organizations, or “orgs,” to begin to fight back.
Wilma takes Buck back to the Alleghany org in what was once Philadelphia. The leaders don’t believe his story at first but after undergoing electro-hypnotic tests, they believe him and admit him into their group.
On March 30, 1930, a Sunday strip joined the Buck Rogers daily. There was, as yet, no established convention for the same character having different adventures in the Sunday strip and the daily strip (many newspapers carried one but not the other), so the Sunday strip at first followed the adventures of Buck’s young friend Buddy Deering, Wilma’s younger brother, and Buddy’s girlfriend Alura, later joined by Black Barney.
It was some time before Buck made his first appearance in a Sunday strip. Other prominent characters in the strip included Dr. Huer, who punctuated his speech with the exclamation, “Heh!”, the villainous Killer Kane, his paramour Ardala and Black Barney, who began as a space pirate but later became Buck’s friend and ally.
Calkins, an advertising artist, drew the earliest daily strips, and Russell Keaton drew the earliest Sunday strips. Keaton wanted to switch to drawing another strip written by Calkins, Skyroads, so the syndicate advertised for an assistant and hired Rick Yager in 1932. Yager had formal art training at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and was a talented watercolor artist; all the strips were done in ink and watercolor.
Yager quickly moved from inker and writer of the Buck Rogers “sub-strip” (early Sunday strips had a small sub-strip running below) to writer and artist of the Sunday strip and eventually the daily strips.
For all of its reference to modern technology, the strip itself was produced in an old-fashioned manner—all strips began as India ink drawings on Strathmore paper, and a smaller duplicate (sometimes redrawn by hand) was hand-colored with watercolors. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has an extensive collection of original artwork. The strip’s artists also worked on a variety of tie-in promotions such as comic books, toys and model rockets.
The relations between the artists of the strip (Yager et al.) and the owners of the strip (the Syndicate) became acrimonious, and in mid-1958, the artists quit. Murphy Anderson was a temporary replacement, but he did not stay long. George Tuska (Tuska was drawing Iron Man when I first began reading it!) began drawing the strip in 1959 and remained until the final installment of the original comic strip, which was published in July 1967.
Of course, Buck went on to star in all kinds of media, and remains a piece of pop culture even in today’s day of digital entertainments.
Now ya know!