Before Battlestar Galactica, before Babylon 5, before Star Trek & Star Wars, at the dawn of it all – it was Buck Rogers.
Ready for some time travel? Good.
The year was 1928. That’s how far back Buck Rogers goes, and here in the year 2013 we are a scant fifteen years from Buck Roger’s 100th birthday.
Buck Rogers is a fictional character who first appeared in a novella called Armageddon 2419 A.D (download it from this Project Gutenberg link). by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. A sequel, The Airlords of Han, was published in the March 1929 issue. He was called Anthony then.
When the author and syndicate John F. Dille Company, later known as the National Newspaper Syndicate, adapted the story into a comic strip drawn by cartoonist Dick Calkins, Nolan adapted the first episode from the novella. That’s when Anthony Rogers got his fateful name change and became the Buck Rogers we know today. The strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929. It was the first science fiction comic strip ever, and it made its appearance in newspapers across the country and around the world until 1967.
Readers hung on every strip each week. It was electrifying stuff. It’s hard to overstate the impact it had and how excited people were about it. Additionally, they ran different story threads in the daily strip as contrasted to the Sunday color one – something unheard of at the time. There were fan clubs, official and otherwise. And oh, the toys.
Most toys in the 1930’s through the 1950’s were made of cast or sheet metal, sometimes with lead paint, sometimes having clockwork motors or flint wheels so that they sparked as they moved, but often as not toys like this depended strongly on the imagination of the recipient for their play value. That they were extremely solidly made is the only reason we have examples of them today in the hands of collectors.
We time travel forward to the year was 1953. Buck Rogers is still in the funny papers, but he’s been enjoying a long popularity in the movie theaters. Towards the end of it, the Buck Rogers story arc Planet Outlaws, is assembled into an hour long motion picture. Stuck in that no man’s land between featurette and full length feature because of its length, the film was none the less rereleased to the theaters as a feature, back to back with another film made the same way called Mars Attacks the World.
As you watch this fun blast from the past, take note of the story elements in it: there are the traditional trappings of good versus evil, but there are the gadgets, and the spaceships, and the techno-babble that goes with it all. Note the sound of the spaceships – they don’t sound like jets or real rockets, because in 1939 nobody had ever heard what either of those sounded like. Instead, all the ships made this electric buzzing noise, or sounded like traditional propeller-driven aircraft.
Effects were done in wood, plaster, rubber, paper mache and wire. And that was it. Few plastics, no hot glue, no superglue, no model kits to steal parts from. No rotoscoping, no animated anything, no compositing – it was about as primitive a production situation as you can imagine. Yet still, they managed it all and created a world of wonder.
While Buck had a lot of sidekicks and helpers to move the stories along, the role of the damsel in distress was more or less missing. Lieutenant Wilma Deering first appeared in 1928 along side Buck Rogers in the 1929 novella that started it all (she wouldn’t get that promotion to Commander until the 1979 television series). It’s true she was sort of a magnet for trouble, and a some-time love interest for Buck, but often as not she’d be there fighting her way back out, far from the helpless wimp you’d expect. She was especially progressive for the period, and was the heroine little girls looked up to.
Buck 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 Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars).
Buck Rogers is arguably one of the original heroes of space opera. Make yourself some popcorn, get comfortable and watch Planet Outlaws. Because Buck boldly went where no-one had gone before.
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