Lost Comic Strip: Buck Rogers 2429 A.D.

Recent columns in this space reviewed the seminal science fiction adventure novellas of Anthony Rogers, namely ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. and its sequel AIRLORDS OF HAN by Phillip Francis Nowlan. It seems fitting to review the author’s adaptation of his tale into a daily comic strip, which catapulted his protagonist widespread success and enduring fame.

The pulp tales were written in a dull but workmanlike fashion, and should have been forgotten even by aficionados of early science fiction, save that from this inauspicious seed grew the first and perhaps most famous of fictional space-adventure heroes, namely, Buck Rogers, whose name, in many ears, for many years, was synonymous with science fiction itself.

Other space-heroes who might compete for the title of most famous, Flash Gordon or Luke Skywalker, must admit that they are imitators or homages to the comic strips or film serials of Buck Rogers, following in his footsteps.

In terms of literary merit, the Anthony Rogers stories of  Phillip Francis Nowlan are far inferior to the work of contemporaries, such as A. Merritt, Jack Williamson and E.E. Doc Smith. Ironically, they are also inferior to the Comic Strip penned by Phil Nowlan and drawn by Dick Calkins.

This is one of the rare occasions where adapting a work to a new medium improves it.

There original pulp story was drab, and yet there was a certain trace of magic to the tale which made it worth carrying into the daily comic strips, which was only the beginning of a remarkable flourishing of fame.

John F. Dille, the head of the National Newspaper Syndicate, agreed with Phillip Nowlan to adapt his story, with Dick Calkins illustrating. Accounts differ as to who initiated the agreement. Dille suggested a new name borrowed from cowboy star Buck Jones — although some versions say the name was borrowed from the family dog.

Another innovation was the year. Pulp hero Tony Rogers woke in AD 2419, but Comic Strip hero Buck Rogers woke in AD 2429, to keep the action exactly five hundred years from the current date. In 1930, the title of the comic strip was dutifully changed to AD 2430.

A Sunday strip, based on the adventures of Wilma’s younger brother Buddy the Boy Air Scout, premiered in 1930. A radio show debuted in 1932, a TV series in 1950, and an endless plethora of toys, space-guns, space-helmets and so on.

It was the comic, not the pulp work, which created this phenomenal popularity.

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This is the first time this reviewer has ever critiqued a daily comic strip, so please permit a digression on method.

In a review of a written work, it is traditional for the reviewer to assess the objective elements of the craftsmanship, namely, characters, plot, setting, theme, prose. For science fiction the additional element of world-building or speculative verisimilitude also should be assessed.

The reviewer should venture his professional opinion what artistic effect the work was aiming to produce in the reader, his judgment as to whether general readers are likely to have the desired reaction.

Finally an egotistical reviewer, one who thinks his readers more interested in him than in the work he reviews, may perhaps give his subjective report on whether he had the desired reaction, whether the work was to his taste or not, et cetera.

In a review of a comic book or graphic novel, the elements to be reviewed are much the same, albeit the prose is less important, but the composition, layout, and drama of the draftsmanship is an element significant over and above any text, including shading, color, inking, and such.

But a daily comic strip is not a comic book, any more than telling a story one paragraph at a time is a novel.

A daily strip has no space nor time for world-building, plot-weaving, or character development. A strip of four or five panels, with minimal references to prior events, printing a few words to adorn striking images of kinetic action is all that can be fitted into the confines. Color is for the Sunday strips only.

There can be no plot in a daily strip, only sub-plots. A plot requires a beginning, where the hero faces an obstacle, a middle where he tries to overcome it, and a climax resolving the issue. Obviously any episodic tale, such as an ongoing serial or series with no endpoint in contemplation, can only have the local problem of the local obstacle resolved: to have Flash Gordon slay Ming the Merciless and establish a republic on planet Mongo would end the series, or change it beyond recognition. Whereas in an episodic story, the readers would like the hero to be must the same before as after the episode, so that, let us say, Sherlock Holmes still has the same profession and personality before he solves the Case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra as after.

Given these limits, the reviewer can only speak to the elements by which a daily strip succeeds or fails: namely, simplicity,  imagery, and elegance.

It is like judging a cameo portrait rather than a wall mosaic. The question is whether the wording is concise and clear enough to explain the situation and keep the action moving; whether the drawings are well executed, clear, and arresting to the eye; and the final question is how well and how briefly is story told in abbreviated, daily, four-panel bursts.

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Let us see how BUCK ROGERS 2429 AD holds up under scrutiny of these three elements.

The first few strips are quite wordy, needlessly so, but Nowlan becomes properly brief and concise within his first month of work, about episode 30 or so.

The tale is elegantly told, which I mean the tale is concisely captured in a few words and images, and the action moves rapidly along. This is particularly evident in contrast with the pulp version.

To be blunt, the pulp novella version of the story had more drawbacks than merits. The novella displayed overdetailed descriptions of futuristic weapons, but included clever speculations concerning tactics. There is a trenchant theme that overdependence on automation and telecommunication leading to luxury and corruption.

In the pulp, Anthony Rogers has no personality at all, whereas his equally bland love interest, girl-soldier Wilma Deering is noteworthy only for being knocked unconscious in every single fight scene in which she appears. Other persons in the pulp version are less than one-dimensional, without even a quirk of language to give anyone any memorable traits. The plot is monotonous, action rare, descriptions are stiff and detached, emotional drama absent, dialog drab.

Yet for all this, it must be admitted the tale is an excellent choice to adapt to the comic strip format, because the premise has the simplicity and wonder of a fairytale:

A modern Rip van Winkle, overcome by radioactive gas, awakens five hundred years in the future, when Americans are hunted outlaws like Robin Hood of old, equipped with levitation belts and rocket pistols, fighting against the tyrannous Mongol invaders, who trampled the continent with their superscience. The Twentieth Century man, an air veteran of the World War, immediately joins the fight, and is able to suggest tactics and tricks the men of the far future may have forgotten.

Nowlan wrote both, but the selfsame opening is better in the comic strip than the tedious written version,  if not far better. The extra details present in the pulp version are simply not necessary, and the need to abbreviate plot, character, and action, to give the characters at least a one dimensional quirkiness to them, and to speed up events made the action non-stop. All of this was to the better.

For one thing, Buck and Wilma have personality quirks absent in the pulp version, as when he calls her “sister” and she scoffs, not knowing 1920s slang.

Buck has at least a one-dimensional personality, for in the very first panel, when he is caught in a mine cave-in, his last word spoken in the Twentieth Century is a pathetic call to his mother trailing into silence. It was endearing, but there is nothing like this in the pulp version.

In the pulp version, when he first meets Wilma and explains his origin, she listens patiently,  incredulously at first, then thoughtfully. In the comic strip version, she pulls a gun on him and accuses him either of being a madman or a spy.

The first one is a realistic if bland and forgettable reaction as one might expect from a written story. The second is overly melodramatic, visually striking, brief, and memorable, as one ought to expect from a comic strip panel. I know which I would prefer.

Moreover, when Buck hears the short-hand summary of the history of the conquest of America by Mongols, his response is a short and quippy: “Count me in. Where is the recruiting office?”

Even the Mongols have a bit more personality in the comic strip. They are all dressed like Mandarins from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and make ironic mistakes about America culture.

Indeed, everyone has more personality because a one-dimensional character is more than a zero-dimensional character. A one-dimensional character at least has a name, or a schtick, or an outrageous accent or mannerism or tic which identifies him.

In the pulp book, there are no characters worth remembering, because all the action is impersonal. There is no villain nor rival to Buck.  In a comic strip, every person must be drawn as a particular person, so the menacing hordes must be represented by particular Emperor or Mongol officer.

In the comic, Wilma is immediately portrayed as peppery, filled with moxie, flirting with Buck, angling to marry him, instantly jealous, willing to kill him, by turns. Buck is now a slang-talking, quip-slinging, two-fisted roughneck, which he was not in the pulps. Wowee!

——– For the record, a Mills Bomb is a Hand Grenade ——–

Other characters who show up include Killer Kane, who, surprisingly enough, is a loyal officer of the American army and is Buck’s romantic rival for Wilma; Nunah and Lone-Wolf the Navaho Org, who are staunch allies with the Pennsylvania Org; Lanlu, the friendly Mongol lady-in-waiting; the drunk and lascivious Emperor; Two-Gun Pete the Outlaw, along with Cyclone Kid and Lariat Luke; MacGregor the Scotsman from Canada who speaks in an outrageous brogue.

Killer Kane does not become a traitor and a toady of the Mongol Emperor until after Wilma breaks his heart.

None of these cardboard cutouts have anything to them other than a name, an accent, and a one-word description, but the draftsman had the wherewithal to put feathers in the bonnets of the Indians, an oily hairdo and pencil moustache on Kane, and a kilt on the Scot, while the western outlaws dress in chaps and five gallon hats. Since Dick Calkins cannot draw a face to save his life, having obvious visual clues in the form of operetta costumes was welcome.

Nor do these cardboard cutouts need more. This is a daily strip, aimed at children. It is a form of art where one tells a story using cardboard cutouts for characters, and simple, obvious, broad visuals. In its own way, it is as restrictive a form as an Elizabethan sonnet, or a Japanese haiku.

In terms of science fiction elements, there are none, unless one counts visuals showing futuristic television screens or radio-writing devices; but Buck periodically displays Twentieth Century Yankee Can-Do innovation, for example, by hooking inertron jump-belts to horses to create a flying cavalry out of a group of cowboy outlaws.

Nothing is more fairytale-like than a flying horse.

As for the imagery, I find the illustrations to be simply terrible, certainly when compared to the magnificent draftsmanship of Alexander Raymond in the strip’s most famed imitator and competitor, Flash Gordon, or the breathtakingly masterful work in perspective and vista of Winsor McCay of Little Nemo fame.

The presentation is flat, lacking in proper perspective, dramatic viewpoint, proper shading, recognizable faces. The fight scenes are rendered in a childish fashion, with stars flying up from wounds. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby this is not. Limbs lack due proportion, and linework and shading is bad. Milton Caniff or Jonny Romita this is not. The women are boyish. J Scott Campbell this certainly is not.

But, having denounced his work, nonetheless, from time to time, the images of orgmen leaping weightlessly in their flying leathers, or the images of ornate futuristic skyscrapers, or elaborate Mandarin costumes, despite his lack of basic drawing skills, Dick Calkins manages to conjure an eerie magic, or striking visual image.

The warning theme in the pulp version that reliance on automation may lead to decadence is remembered only for one line in one panel of one strip.

Otherwise, the sole theme in the comic, if it can be said to have one, is an uncluttered schoolboy notion of  heroism and persistence. Buck does not outwit natural disasters,  air crashes, obstacles or enemies, he merely pummels through on guts and grit and stick-to-it-iveness.

The fact that Buck is from the Twentieth Century is largely forgotten after the opening adventure or two. By then the action is merely rollicking along.

The character of Wilma is simply told, as she has only three salient characteristics: (1) she is so beautiful that everyone Buck meets, Oriental or Occidental, wants to take her from him by force;

(2) she suffers bursts of savage jealousy, as is only proper for the love-interest in a melodrama;

(3) she is brave and resourceful, as were most adventure-story girls of the 1930s.

As for the plot, it is simply told, and that simplicity is the great strength and prime virtue of this comic. The reader is never at a loss as to what is going on.

I must admit I have a fondness for the kind of reckless, ceaseless, endless action, scrapes, escapes, fights, chases and deeds of derring-do to which the comic format lends itself so readily.

The first year of the strip, 300 daily strips or so, follows the basic formula established in the pulp story, beginning with Buck Rogers waking from suspended animation, saving Wilma Deering, and joining the fight against the superscientific Mongol invaders.

However, unlike the pulp, the adventures of Buck and Wilma are varied and hair-raising. Buck immediately joins the fight against the Mongols. The American fighting organizations or ‘orgmen’ live ordinary family lives, save that everyone, male and female alike, is in military service, and must do regular patrol duties, and so on.

Wilma is on patrol when she is spotted and captured by the Mongols, who struck by her great beauty, offer her to the Emperor as a bride.

She escapes into the wilderness, Buck rescues her, and he uses his knowledge of old wilderness survival tricks, how to make a fire without matches, or kill a rampaging bear with a hand-made survival bow, which the men of the Twenty Fifth Century had forgotten.

Returning to camp, Buck runs afoul of Killer Kane, Wilma’s rival suitor, they enter the ring  and fight. Buck triumphs and Wilma despises him a as brute.

Not to worry! Wilma is immediately captured again. Buck disobeys orders, steals a biplane, and goes racing across the skies to find her, crashes, is lost in the Western deserts, trapped in a sandstorm, robbed by halfbreeds, menaced by outlaws, fights his way to become their leader, rides a bucking bronco, is rescued by Red Indians but then he is arrested by them as a deserter.

Please note that the Navaho characters are portrayed as equal members of the American orgs with no trace whatever of any racial animus — those loudmouths who accuse Nowlan of racism because he wrote a story about Mongol invaders can shut their silly mouths now.

Mongols are clearly the best people to invade futurian post-collapse America, because they have the best costumes. Chinamen are smart, enjoy an ancient civilization, and have a well deserved reputation for pagan cruelty, and so can be taken seriously as a threat. Who else should invade futurian post-collapse America? Australian aborigines? Frenchmen?

Being invaded by a Christian nation, even Russia, is innately less dramatic, because the less alike Americans the invaders are, the more outrageous is the invasion. Martian invaders are best of all, but they do not show up until later strips.

Meanwhile a Navaho girl-soldier named Nunah the rescues Buck from her tribe’s jail in order to secure his aid in infiltrating the Mongol metropolis where her beloved, a brave named Lone-Wolf, awaits dissection. Wilma is imprisoned in the Imperial tower. Buck and Nunah successfully rescue Wolf, but when Buck smashes the tipsy Emperor smartly in the jaw, and carries off his gold-masked bride, this turns out to be Lanlu, the friendly Mongol lass, in love with the Emperor, who had dressed in Wilma’s wedding gear to help the imprisoned Wilma to escape marriage to him.

One odd note of anachronism is seeing the soldiers of AD 2429 in Sopwith Camels, prop-driven biplanes held together with canvass and wire, until episode 79, when the Canadian Scotsman in a kilt comes flying in with a rocket-ship. Like a biplane, the rocket-ship has an open cockpit, which seems odd indeed to modern eyes, but it might have been easier to draw the character’s heads if they were exposed to the wind.

Then there are more chases, escapes, shoot-outs, spy rings, mistaken identities, burst of jealousy from Wilma, betrayal from Killer Kane, new superweapons, flying horses, new rocket planes, and on and on. Buck proposes marriage, but the laws of the militarized society do not allow during their period of enlistment. Alas! Something always parts our star-crossed lovers!

Wilma is kidnapped and menaced more often than Dejah Thoris of Barsoom, which is only fitting for a comic strip, since the menace and the motive of racing to rescue a beautiful space-girl will never fall out of style, nor should it.

She is also spunky enough to clobber any Mongols who get in her way during escape attempts.

However, let it be admitted that Wilma’s younger sister Sally, is the one kidnapped by the Tiger Men of Mars once they replace the Mongols as the villains of the piece.

Speaking of which, it is not until episode 333 that the Mongolian invasion plotline is resolved, and the strip turns to larger themes. At slightly less than a year into the strip’s run, Buck and Wilma enter the germ-free “asceptic” dome of Emperor’s  Forbidden City, hoping to end the war, only to discover the monarch did not know his treacherous Viceroy has been oppressing the Americans. Buck in short order rescues the Emperor from a palace coup.

Peace erupts! This is a welcome change from the gruesome worldwide genocide that culminated the pulp story.

The evil Viceroy makes a last ditch attempt to overthrow the Emperor with a robot army, and some of the ideas from Nowlan’s pulp version, such as using disintegrator rays to create vacuum pockets to topple aircraft, make a reappearance.

Then, while the Viceroy is escaping disaster in his flying disk, Wilma, giving chase, is clinging to the hull, falls into the sea and is pulled out by a space-sphere from outerspace, manned by the Tiger Men of Mars — and the Mongols promptly vanish from the strip and never to be seen nor mentioned again.

The strip then becomes an interplanetary space opera, involving Mars and Jupiter, Gold Men and Tiger Men, and all the corny regalia of space adventure, as well as the first recorded landing on the Moon. (First, that is, after the landing of Cavor and Bedford, of course.)

And on and on the story goes, through every medium from radio to film to television, toys and games and eventually to immortality.

It is a fun comic strip, fast-moving, simple, poorly drawn, pitched at a childish reading age, but telling a simple story in a concise and elegant fashion. It has none of the story telling elements that would interest an allegedly sophisticated readership, and certainly no draftsmanship or illustrative interest for fans of graphic arts, but there is a mesmeric ongoing allure to the endless cliffhanger thrills, like a tale old one paragraph at a time.