SKY MASTERS OF THE SPACE FORCEMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: George Matthew Adams Service
First Appeared: 1958
Creators: Jack Kirby (artist), Dick and Dave Wood (writers)
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By the late 1950s, American newspaper comics had a rich legacy of science fiction. Flash Gordon, Beyond Mars even Buck Rogers himself, whose name was practically
synonymous with that genre before World War II! Sky Masters of the Space Force, which came out less than a year after Sputnik, was the first to appear during the actual so-called "Space Age" itself.
But Sky Masters lasted only a couple of years, part a minor fad of astronaut adventures in various media (e.g., the 1959 CBS show Men into Space, the newspaper comic Drift Marlo and the Dell comic book Space Man). It's remembered today mainly because it was by Jack Kirby, the legendary co-creator of Captain America, Boy Commandos and the entire idea of romance as a comic book genre.
Kirby's co-creators here included, as writers, the brothers Dick and Dave Wood, who had worked at Quality Comics in the 1940s and early '50s, then at DC, where their later work included such oddball series as Dial H for Hero and Ultra the Multi-Alien. Their writing appeared largely in dialog, as Kirby created many of his own plots. The inker was Wallace Wood (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, EC Comics, and no relation to the writing Woods), who was also, at the time, collaborating with Kirby on DC's Challengers of the Unknown. Wood was later replaced by Dick Ayers, who also inked (and later took over) many of Kirby's 1960s works, such as The Two-Gun Kid and Sgt. Fury. The final element of the DC connection was editor Jack Schiff, who brought them together with Harry Elmlark of The George Matthew Adams Service, which syndicated the strip. The Adams Service handled quite a few comics over the years, but few that left any real mark other than this, Ed Wheelan's Minute Movies and Edwina Dumm's Cap Stubbs & Tippie.
The Sky Masters daily strip debuted on September 8, 1958. The Sunday version was added exactly five months later. Pertaining, as it did, to the recent world-wide flare-up of interest in space travel, even as minor a comics syndicate as Adams was able to place it in over 300 papers.
The name "Sky Masters" did not refer to people entering the sky and establishing mastery in that locale, but was actually the name of the hero, Major Sky Masters of the near-future military branch, the United States Space Force. The Space Force operated a 1950s-style wheel-shaped space station, and traveled between the station and Cape Canaveral in vehicles that looked like the Mercury space capsules that were soon to become familiar sights in the news. It was, to use a phrase that later became popular in describing near-future sci-fi, "as up-to-date as tomorrow's headlines".
One drawback to tomorrow's headlines is that tomorrow quickly becomes yesterday, then continues receding into the past. Sky Masters was doomed from the start to seem dated within a few years, but its demise may have been accelerated by a dispute that quickly erupted into a legal battle, between Schiff and Kirby over whether or not Schiff was due a commission for having, according to his own version at least, put together the creative team.
Schiff prevailed in court, which considerably dampened Kirby's enthusiasm for the venture (and for syndicated comics in general). Not only did the Sunday Sky Masters end on Feb. 7, 1960, and the daily on Feb. 25 of the following year — Kirby also left DC and didn't work there again until the 1970s, long after Schiff had retired. He went over to Marvel Comics, where he and Stan Lee soon created The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men and most of the other characters that put Marvel on the comic book world's map.
Sky Masters languished in obscurity for years, but obscurity of rather a non-obscure sort. That is, it was well known to Kirby's many enthusiasts as part of his ouevre, but seldom seen by them. In 1991, Pure Imagination, a comics specialty publisher, brought the first few months of it out in book form. Five years later, Comics Revue magazine began reprinting the strip where Pure Imagination had left off, even using its covers to run the Sundays in color. The project was completed in 2000. That same year, Pure Imagination brought out a new edition, reprinting the whole series, beginning to end.
Today, Sky Masters is easy to find and read. Modern-day fans can see for themselves that it's the work of a master of the form, at the peak of his powers. But they can also see that it is very definitely a product of its time.