Friday, August 30, 2013

That Crazy Buck Rogers Stuff

This month, Hermes Press has come out with a new incarnation of the classic comic strip character Buck Rogers, drawn by Howard Chaykin.  I haven't seen it yet, but it is a good excuse to re-post a piece I wrote recently for Daily Kos.

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These days, science fiction is considered fairly mainstream. Many of the top box-office films of the past few decades have been SF movies, and science fiction novels are considered a legitimate genre along with detective fiction, westerns and romance. True, it is rarely considered as Serious Literary Fiction, but neither is it dismissed as a trashy fringe genre. Yet just a couple generations ago, it was not uncommon for science fiction to be dismissed as "That crazy Buck Rogers stuff."

Buck Rogers has somewhat faded from the popular imagination, a dim memory of pop culture past; which is unfortunate, because although Heinlein was the first SF author to break into the "slicks" and Bradbury the first American SF writer to be taken seriously by the Literati, it was Buck who first made that first anti-gravity-propelled leap from the pulp magazines to the broader popular culture.

Rogers first appeared in a story by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories titled Armageddon 2419 A.D. As it happens, that same issue featured the first part of E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space. Although the cover of that issue illustrated a scene from Skylark, its image of a man in a flight suit suspended in the air might well have inspired the classic look of Buck Rogers.

John F. Dille, president of a newspaper syndicate, read the story and thought it would make a good premise for a comic strip. Philip Nowlan agreed to write the strip and a cartoonist named Dick Calkins was hired to draw it.

The first few strips followed the outline of the original novella. Anthony Rogers, renamed "Buck" for the comic strip, is a chemical engineer investigating strange phenomena related to an abandoned mine in a remote corner of Western Pennsylvania. A cave-in traps him in the mine and he is overcome by strange fumes which put him in a state of suspended animation.

He awakens 500 years later. The America he knew is no more; the fields and towns of Pennsylvania are now a forested wilderness.

He encounters Wilma Deering, a member of a small community living in the forest, and rescues her from a group of outlaws. This, by the way, is last time Wilma ever needs rescuing -- in the novel, anyway. She explains to Rogers what has happened while he was asleep.

America has been conquered by a Mongolian race called the Han who have obliterated its cities and all but exterminated its population. The Han Airlords possess devastating disintegration rays which, with the control of the skies afforded by their huge airships, make them seemingly invincible. America has been reduced to a wilderness and the remnant of surviving Americans live a furtive existence in the forests where they are hunted by the Han for sport.

Yes, this is quite racist. It was the 1920s and stories about the "Yellow Peril" were popular. It's not much of an excuse, but it's all I got. I suppose we're lucky, given the era, that the story didn't include a comical colored servant.

But the Americans have slowly rebuilt their civilization in secret, forming tribal units called "gangs." In their underground laboratories they have made scientific discoveries which will enable them to strike back. Chief among these is Inertron, an anti-gravity substance discovered shortly before the Han invasion which the Americans have re-discovered. They use this material to make contra-gravity harnesses which allow the wearer to make tremendous leaps in the air. Inertron also has the advantage of being impervious to the Han "dis rays".

Wilma brings Rogers back to her gang, where his knowlege of forgotten WWI military tactics proves useful in the guerrilla war against the Yellow Blight. (I mentioned the racism, didn't I?) His acumen and his leadership qualities become so evident that he quickly rises to "boss" of the gang and becomes involved with coordinating with the other regional gangs in the war against the Han.

In the book also get a good deal of what I call the National Geographic stuff: descriptions of the society in which Rogers finds himself. Although the comic strip specifically called the Han invaders "Reds", the society of the American underground is by necessity cooperative and socialistic. The good of the Community is of greatest importance, because without the Community the Individual is little more than a hunted animal.

And although I've made slighting comments about racism regarding the Mongol Han, I have to admit that Nowlan's 25th Century society is remarkably egalitarian towards women. True, when Buck first meets Wilma she is in peril and needs to be rescued, but she doesn't make a habit out of it the way some of Edgar Rice Burroughs's heroines seem to. Wilma's a soldier, and in her gang every citizen, male or female, is expected to rotate between civilian jobs working in the underground factories which produce the community's needs and serving as a soldier, defending the community, watching against Han raids and engaging in commando attacks on the gang's enemies. I can't say that her character is really written with a lot of depth, but she is presented as a strong woman and as an equal, usually fighting right along side of Buck. In The Airlords of Han, the sequel to Armageddon 2419, Rogers is taken captive for a time and we later learn that Wilma, and not some male lieutenant, has assumed his position as gang boss.

The novel focuses a great deal on military tactics and working out the uses of the 25th Century wonders: the Han's "dis" and "rep" rays, and the American's inertron, ultraphones and rocket pistols. In the comic strip, the focus is more on action and the visual aspect of the gadgets. The plot of the comic strip quickly diverges from the novel. In the book, a major subplot involved the regional gangs coming together to form a united organization; in the comic strip, the united "org" already exists, with it's capital in a fortified city at Niagara Falls. Buck also does a lot more traveling around North America in the comic strip, a conscious decision on the part of the syndicate to make the strip more appealing to newspapers in other parts of the country.

At one point in the strip, Buck visits one of the western "orgzones" with a predominately Indian population. Buck is surprised to learn that the aren't backwards and primitive at all; in fact, they have a considerable air force, comprised of easy-to-build and maintain biplanes.

The comic strip also introduced new characters into the story, most notably the brainy Dr. Huer and the man who would become Buck's nemesis: "Killer" Kane. (Much later, it would be revealed that Kane's first name was "Coe". And that he had a brother named "Nova". Don't know if he had a sister named "Candice.") Kane is Wilma's ex-friend and when we first meet him he is the best fighter in the gang. Buck quickly bests him with his superior U.S. Army training and Kane never forgives him for that humiliation. Of course Buck's exposing him as a traitor selling out to the Han didn't make Kane any less antagonistic. Kane is a slimy creep, and with his girlfriend Ardala make the perfect villainous couple.

For its first year, the strip involved the war against the Han, but over time the "Yellow Peril" stereotypes began to soften. I suspect this might have been because the syndicate wanted the strip to be accessible to a wider audience. Buck discovered a secret society of Han dissidents who sympathized with the American's plight and condemned their government's corrupt system.

The war against the Han came to a dramatic turning point when chance enabled the Americans to capture the Han viceroy of North America. With this important hostage, Buck and Wilma were sent on a diplomatic mission to negotiate personally with the Grand Emperor of all the Han.

To Buck's surprise, the Emperor turns out to be a pleasant fellow, if a bit over-trusting. It seems he's been spending most of the last century in scientific pursuits, and was under the impression that his viceroy was using their advanced Han science to uplift and enlighten the backwards races of North America. The Emperor is shocked -- shocked, I say -- to hear that this is not the case. He promises that the Viceroy shall receive due punishment and signs a lasting peace treaty with the American orgs.

This marked an important turning point in the strip. The end of the Second War for Independence, as the novel called it, is a bit abrupt and anticlimactic in the comic strip; but I think that if the strip had continued to be America vs. the Yellow Blight, it would not have endured. Even before this point, the strip had begun to explore other corners of the world, like South American sky pirates. Now the strip turned its attention to space.

Buck encounters a rocket from outer space bearing tiger-like aliens from the planet Mars. This first meeting is fairly benign, all things considered, but the Tiger-Men of Mars quickly develop into major antagonists. (And yes, I pay tribute to them in the "Cat-Men from Mars" storyline of my own webcomic). But the important thing is that this meeting between humans and Martians changed "Buck Rogers" from an early version of Red Dawn to something more inspiring and more wonder-filled: a story of rockets and adventure and interplanetary exploits.

Besides the Martian Tiger-Men, Buck encountered other exotic alien races and wonders on other planets in the solar system.

Buck Rogers became popular enough to be spun off into a radio program, the first ever science fiction series on the futuristic medium of radio, which aired off and on from 1932 to 1940.

In 1934, Buck gained his only serious rival, a dashing blond polo player named Flash Gordon. Drawn by Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon had frankly better artwork, and his adventures leaned more towards Burroughs-style planetary romance than gadget-based space opera like Buck.

Universal produced a big-budget Flash Gordon movie serial starring Olympic swimming star Buster Crabbe which was popular enough to lead to a similar Buck Rogers serial (recycling many of the costumes and sets from Flash). Buster Crabbe starred in that one too, and was happy not to have to peroxide his hair.

Buck's first appearance on TV was in 1950. He had already been beaten to the airwaves by the cheesy but popular Captain Video. Buck aired opposite Uncle Miltie's Texaco Star Theatre and lasted only a single season. No copies of any episodes have survived.

Over a quarter century later, thanks to the success of Star Wars, he returned to TV, played by Gil Gerard. The TV series also occasioned a revival of the comic strip, which had ended in 1967, but was brought back for a brief run from 1979-1983. At the time that series aired, I used to have arguments with a friend of mine over Buck Rogers vs. Battlestar Galactica. In retrospect, I have to admit he was right; Galactica probably was better.

The '90s saw an attempt to revitalize Buck Rogers. TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, got the rights to produce a role-playing game based on Buck's adventures, which they supplimented with a line of paperback novelizations and comic books. I thought they did a good job of combining themes popular in contemporary SF like genetic engineering, terraforming and artificial intelligence with the Buck Rogers characters. The line faltered, however. TSR put out a second, completely different game based on the original comic strip with Mongol airlords, jumping belts and the works. I loved it because I love retro stuff, but the general gaming public disagreed.

Since then, Buck has kind of faded into the background again. Sometimes a new Buck Rogers project is announced, but so far none of them have come to much. But I prefer to think that Buck Rogers isn't really dead.

He's just in suspended animation.

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