The Worlds Of Science Fiction Comics

Science fiction and comics may not be a marriage made in heaven, but it's obvious that they were made for each other. As two genres concerned with the imagination of the fantastic, it's not surprising that they share much in common. Many of the editors, writers, and artists in comics have also been active as science fiction professionals. Edmund Hamilton, Manly Wade Wellmen, and Alfred Bester are some of the s.f. writers who have moonlighted in comics, while artists like Alex Schomberg, Frank Frazetta, and Wallace Wood have worked in both fields.

Comics editors Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger published an early science fiction fan magazine (or "fanzine") called the Time Traveler. Superman himself first appeared in a fanzine edited by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933. And then there's the subject matter: rockets, robots, aliens, time travel, all colorful images of worlds beyond our own and rich visual material for writers and artists to explore.

Science fiction as panel art first appeared in the newspapers as Buck Rogers in the Year 2429 A.D,a strip created by Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins. It had originally been published in Hugo Gernsbach's Amazing Stories in 1928 as a story, debuting as a strip a year later (providing some people with a negative description of science fiction, "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff").

Other s.f. newspaper strips soon followed, notably Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo. in 1934 A year after Flash's debut, the first science fiction feature in a comic appeared as an obvious rip-off: Don Drake on the Planet Saro was produced by Clemens Gretter and Kenneth Fitch, who teamed up that same year for perhaps a more original series, Super Police 2023. In 1937 the two produced another s.f. series about a super scientist, Don Hastings, which first appeared in Harry "A" Chesler's Star Comics. The series would continue for almost a decade, at times written by s.f. writer Otto ( Adam Link) Binder.

Buck Rogers hadn't been neglected by the sincerest form of flattery: Star Comics also came out with Dash of the 100th Century, and Sub-Mariner artist Bill Everett came up with Skyrocket Steele in the Year X. More Rogers/Gordon clones followed ( Rocket Riley, Prince of the Planets, Streak Chandler on Mars), named after every planet in the solar system and from various centuries extending right up to A.D. 1,000,000!

Outside of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon reprints, the main comics title in the 1940s to publish continuous science fiction was Fiction House's Planet Comics, a spin-off of the company's Planet Science Fiction pulp magazine. Pulps were hardly known for sophistication and Planet Comics followed that tradition by relying on lurid covers and stories that followed the "guy, gal, and monster" formula. Pin-up style women were menaced by grotesque aliens in almost every issue. Two of Planet's writers were women, Lilly Renee and Frances Hooper, a rarity for those times. Strangely enough, judging from the comic's letter page, Planet Comics also attracted an enthusiastic female readership.

With the detonation of the atomic bomb and the increasing sophistication of science fiction itself, the 1950s saw a corresponding growth of maturity of comic book science fiction. E.C. Comics' Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were proof of that, inarguably the best the best s.f. comics of all time.

As editor Al Feldstein put it in one interview, "We never underestimated our audience… We were writing for ourselves at our age level, and I think perhaps that was responsible for the level we reached." Stories for the two titles were co-plotted by Feldstein and publisher Bill Gaines. The two went beyond the usual cowboys and Indians in outer space treatment, concentrating on tightly written short stories, four to a book, that were designed to deliver a surprise ending.
The stories dealt with themes about dystopias, nuclear holocausts, bigotry, time travel paradoxes, and sexual betrayal.

Gaines and Feldstein were both science fiction readers and, with the stress of having to turn out about 28 stories a month for seven titles, were not above lifting plots from their favorite authors. One such swipe was Home To Stay, cobbled together from two Ray Bradbury stories in The Illustrated Man.

Bradbury, a cartooning fan, noticed the swipe and sent Gaines a gently chiding letter. This resulted in authorized Bradbury adaptations in all the E.C. titles (except the war books and Mad). Bradbury was pleased with the results. Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were some of the best-illustrated comics ever produced. Wally Wood did an impressive job on There Will Come Soft Rains, and Bernie Krigstein turned out one of the best jobs of his career with The Flying Machine. My own personal favorite Bradbury treatment is Al Williamson's A Sound Of Thunder.

Sadly, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were the low sellers of the E.C. line. By 1952 they began to lose money. By the end of 1953 Gaines combined the two into one title, Weird Science Fantasy. Thanks to the Wertham-inspired attacks on horror comics, he was soon forced to drop "Weird," for fear of offending timid news dealers, and changed the title to Incredible Science Fiction. Compared to the early titles stories were watered down in deference to the newly instituted Comics Code Authority. Sales continued to decline and, due to a ridiculous tussle with the CCA over an anti-bigotry story, Gaines quit in disgust, dropping all his books save Mad.

E.C. had inspired other publishers to bring out their own s.f. titles. Among them were DC Comics' Strange Adventures (August 1950) and Mystery In Space (April 1951). Ziff-Davis, publisher of Amazing Stories magazine, entered the field with Weird Thrillers (September 1951) and Space Busters (1952). Virtually all the publishers carried science fiction titles and all them were to suffer a drop in sales until The Space Race began between Russia and the United States, sparking the public's interest in the genre. Two other boosts later came from television and film; Star Trek, the1966 tv series, and George Lucas' Star Wars movie (1977). Both were adapted in comics format, with a Star Wars series enjoying a ten-year run. There were other adaptations of television shows, among them The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Time Tunnel, and The Invaders.

In more recent times, while it existed (1986-1995), Kitchen Sink Press published the Harvey and Eisner Award winning Xenozoic Tales, a post-cataclysm series written and drawn by Mark Schultz (I did the back up stories). The comic has been collected in three anthologies and had a brief run as an animated cartoon, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

Heavy Metal magazine (once edited by s.f. writer Ted White) has run numerous s.f. stories by European and American creators, and in 1996 DC Comics launched a science fiction line, Helix Comics. That line regrettably folded after a relatively short run, but many science fiction comics are still around to entertain readers today. I suspect that, as long as in an interest in the future remains part of human nature, it will continue to do so in the years to come.

--Steve Stiles