Buck Rogers promotional drawing. Artist: Lt. Dick Calkins.


Original Medium: Pulp fiction
Published in: Amazing Stories
First Appeared: 1928
Creator: Philip Francis Nowlan
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Many comics aficionados consider the adventure strips of the 1930s to constitute a Golden Age. And many who feel that way consider that Golden Age to have started with …

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… the simultaneous debut of Tarzan and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D., on Jan. 7, 1929.

Both had appeared previously in the pulps — Tarzan in several stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and "Anthony" Rogers as the hero of "Armageddon 2419 AD", which appeared in the August, 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. The latter story caught the attention of newspaper syndicator John F. Dille, who commissioned Nowlan to turn his story into comic-strip continuity. It was Dille who suggested a snappier first name for the character, drawing inspiration from a contemporary western movie hero, Buck Jones.

The artist on the new feature was Richard Calkins, a veteran both of the newspaper illustration business, and of World War I. (He used his U.S. Army rank as part of his byline decades after the war ended.) Calkins's idiosyncratic drawing style was emulated by few other comics artists, but did have some influence on Harry G. Peter, who later became known for his work on Wonder Woman. One of Calkins's early assistants, Zack Mosley, went on to create Smilin' Jack. Another, Russell Keaton, created Flyin' Jenny. Calkins himself also did Skyroads.

Initially, the strip recapitulated the plot of the prose version of the story. Buck, a 20th century American, was overcome by fumes while being trapped in a mine cave-in. Apparently, the gas had a preservative effect, because 500 years later, fresh air entered the cavern and he woke up. The future America in which he found himself had been conquered by evil Asian overlords, and Buck was quickly recruited by the resistance. Supporting characters included his love interest, Wilma Deering, and his brainy back-up man, Dr. Huer.

The straightforward story Nowlan originally wrote was eked out by many side adventures; but still, after a couple of years, the Mongols were overthrown. There followed a series of alien invasions, space voyages, and other sci-fi plot devices of a sort that had already become standard in pulp magazines, but were brand-new to comic strip readers. It was Buck Rogers that first brought such stalwarts as rocket ships, robots and ray guns to public consciousness. Years later, devotees of the genre were to become familiar with the phrase "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff" as a common description of their favored branch of literature.

The Buck Rogers strip was popular enough to spawn imitators, including Brick Bradford and Flash Gordon — both of which proved more durable than the original. Buck was an early star of Famous Funnies, generally considered the very first modern-style comic book, where he appeared alongside Mutt & Jeff, Joe Palooka, and other comic strip stars, from 1935-55. He even anchored an occasional comic book of his own. Like many comics heroes, he was the subject of a 12-part movie serial starring Buster Crabbe. Such was his fame, he was spoofed in one of the most fondly-recalled Daffy Duck/Porky Pig cartoons, Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century, directed by Chuck Jones in 1953 and revived a half-century later as a weekly TV show.

But its fame was fleeting. Both Nowlan and Calkins left the strip during the 1940s, prompting a succession of disparate art and writing styles. Things stabilized toward the end of the 1950s, with comic book veteran George Tuska (Zanzibar the Magician, The Black Terror) illustrating stories by such well-known science fiction writers as Judith Merril and Fritz Leiber — but the strip had lost a lot of momentum, and in 1967 it was cancelled.

Buck was back two years later, at least in fossil form. In 1969, Chelsea House published The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a coffee table book of reprints, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury.

An actual revival occurred in 1979. That year, he was the subject of a feature film, starring Gil Gerard, followed by a TV series. Based on renewed interest, the comic book version was revived by Gold Key Comics for a three-year run; and a new newspaper strip was commissioned by The New York Times Syndicate. But the revival was short-lived. The strip suffered another quick succession of diverse writing and art styles, and ended again in 1983.

Buck was back once more in 1990 when TSR, a game publisher, dabbled briefly in comic books. In this series, Dr. Huer was an artificial intelligence software package called huer.doc. Flint Dille (grandson of Buck's original syndicator) was the publisher and editor, and co-wrote the first three issues, which were adapted from a graphic novel written by Steven Grant. Buzz Dixon did all the rest of the writing. The art was done by Frank Cirocco, Kevin Altieri, Chuck Wojtkiewicz, Gray Morrow and Mark Winchell. This series lasted ten issues, the last of which came out in 1991.

Since then, Buck Rogers has lain dormant — but it still commands a great deal of public recognition, so another revival can't be ruled out.


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