That Crazy Buck Rogers Stuff

Although there are many reasons to enjoy Star Trek, as a jaded old science fiction fan I mostly appreciate one particular by-product of Roddenberry's series: It  *finally * replaced Buck Rogers in the public's mind as being synonymous with science fiction. For far too many years we suffering science fiction aficionados were confronted with the descriptive and dismissive phrase, "Oh, that crazy Buck Rogers stuff!" When applied to the works of, say, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, or Philip K. Dick, it could be pretty galling. Now the phrase is "Oh, like Mr. Spock!," which is, of course, a vast improvement.

"Buck" Rogers first saw life as a novelette written by Philip Francis Nowlan, Armaggedon 2419, which appeared in the science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories in 1928. Anthony Rogers, a veteran of the Great War, is trapped in a gas pocket after a mine cave-in, and, due to radioactive gas, falls into a 500 year slumber. When he awakens he finds a devastated United States occupied by oriental despots called Hans, who, we are told, are mentally advanced but have "a vacuum in place of that intangible something we call a soul."  Rogers joins forces with a variety of American groups and tribes, eventually uniting them to defeat the dictatorial invaders.

One of Amazing's readers for that issue was syndicator John F. Dille. Nowlan was contacted to adapt his story into a comic strip, with one change: "Anthony" became "Buck." Once again, on January 7, 1929, Rogers would repeat his half a millennia long nap in the new syndicated strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Buck sprang into action in the very first installment, awakening to spot Wilma Deering soaring through the air with the aid of her flying belt, or "Rocket drifter." Now accompanied by Wilma, Buck employed his old-fashioned 20th century American gumption, joining forces with guerrilla bands ("Orgs") to oust the conquerors (now "Mongol Reds"). No sooner do they do so when the country is again attacked by the Tiger-Men of Mars. As Gilda Radner's Roseana Dana would say, "It's always something." (Later on, in the Second World War, the Martian Tiger-Men would take on distinct Japanese racial stereotypical characteristics.)

The Red Planet invasion, early in the second year of the strip, had one benefit in that it launched Buck's career as a space traveler. Wilma is kidnapped by the Tiger-Men and taken back to the home planet, forcing Buck to build his own spaceship ("Roaring rockets! We'll show these Martians who's who in this solar system!"). Joining Buck in subsequent adventures were Wilma's brother Buddy, who became Buck's teenage sidekick, his friend and mentor, the brilliant Dr. Huer, and Killer Kane, a traitorous freebooter.

The first artist on the strip was Dick Calkins (1895-1962), who had started his career as a newspaper sports cartoonist and artist. During the First World War Calkins had been commissioned as a lieutenant in the air force. The war ended before Calkins could see action, but for years afterwards he often added "Lt." to his signature on the strip. It must be said that Calkins was hardly an accomplished artist. His drawings were crude, the anatomy, perspective, and inking barely adequate. His sole strength (admittedly an important one for that strip) was his ability to draw futuristic gadgets and riveted, pulp-style spaceships with some flair.

The Sunday Buck Rogers debuted on March 30, 1930, and, although signed by Calkins, was actually ghosted by Russell Keaton, whose draftsmanship abilities were far superior to his employer's. The artist had assisted Calkins on another strip, Skyroads, which he would eventually work on under his own name. Keaton, an aviation buff, divided his time between strip work and his other profession as a flying instructor, unfortunately dying of leukemia at the young age of 35 in 1945.

Nowlan was forced off the strip in the 1940s. According to cartoonist Murphy Anderson, "Phil Nowlan was fired from the strip before he died. He was fired for getting too 'far out'." A succession of writers and artists followed his departure. Murphy Anderson, most remembered for his work at DC Comics, replaced Calkins in 1947, and was then replaced by Leonard Dworkins, who drew Buck from 1949 to 1951.

Dworkins was followed by Rick Yager (my own favorite on the strip), who both wrote and drew Buck from 1951 to 1958,
giving it a much greater flair.

Yager had actually started working on the spaceman's adventures in the 25th century sometime in 1932, soon after graduating from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. Gradually taking over over more of the art chores until, by the mid to late '30s, he was drawing as well as writing the Sunday episodes. By the early 1950s, Yager took over the dailies too, and continued on (with Dworkins assisting) until a contractual dispute with the syndicate forced him, after nearly three decades on Buck Rogers, to quit.

Science fiction writers Fritz Lieber and Judith Merril took over scripting after Yager's departure. George Tuska handled the art until 1965 when Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was abruptly canceled, leaving Tuska to go on to pencil Iron Man and many of Marvel Comics' other characters over the next 22 years.

Buck Rogers has also appeared in other genres. The Yager strips were reprinted in Famous Funnies, which ran brilliant Buck Rogers covers by Frank Frazetta. Original Buck Rogers stories ran in a Gold Key version from 1979-1983. In 1939 Universal produced twelve chapters of a Buck Rogers serial, starring Buster Crabbe. (The serial was re-released in 1953 as Planet Outlaws and in 1965 as Destination Saturn.)

In 1979 Buck returned to the big screen in Buck Rogers of the 21st Century, a probable attempt to cash in on the success of 1977's Star Wars. An equally mediocre television series followed the movie, and the revived interest in the property prompted the New York Times Syndicate to launch a revival of the Nowlan strip, this time with writer James Lawrence and science fiction. artist Grey Morrow. Cary Bates replaced Lawrence in 1981 and Jack Sparling became the strip's artist in 1982. In 1983, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, plagued by syndicate distribution problems, sputtered to an end.

Whatever the strip's flaws were, Calkins introduced the general public to a number of science fiction concepts that, in 1929, had been limited to the pulps and novels. For better or for worse, flying belts, ray guns, robots, once the stuff of fiction, are all now becoming part of our reality.
 
 

--Steve Stiles