I've never had a guest post before, but GW Thomas runs the very excellent Adventure! blog and not only are our blog's names similar, but our interests are so close that I was thrilled when he agreed to write a series of articles about classic Space Pulp heroes for me. And even more thrilled when he decided to cover them in chronological order, because my particular brand of OCD is all about chronological order. Thanks again, GW, and I can't wait to read the rest of the series.
People often forget where things begin. Take Buck Rogers for instance. If you asked anyone about Buck you’d probably hear about the new comic book or the old TV show with Gil Gerard or if you were lucky the old newspaper comic strip. But these and other incarnations of Buck were not the first. Buck Rogers began in the Pulps and is really the first true Space Hero. He was the first and because of that, for many years Science Fiction was known as “That Buck Rogers stuff.” (Said with a sneer usually.)
Buck started out in the world as Anthony Rogers. He was featured in two connected stories, “Armageddon 2419” (Amazing Stories, August 1928) and its sequel “Airlords of Han” (Amazing Stories, March 1929) by Philip Francis Nowlan. The magazine these stories ran in was the first all-Science Fiction Pulp, created by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. It shouldn’t really be surprising that the first Space Hero appeared in the first Space magazine. Gernsback was a crusader for Science, believing technology would change the world into a paradise. His background was radio and electronics and his magazines appealed to these kinds of readers, with lots of gadgets and pseudo-scientific speeches about them.
The plot of “Armageddon 2419” concerns the evil Han (yes, this was the era of Yellow Peril and racism is found in these stories) who take over the World. Anthony Rogers is a man from our time who is put to sleep by a mysterious gas in a mine and wakes to find his beloved America under the Han’s cruel thumbs. He joins a group of resistance fighters, who armed with their flying belts, take on the Han and begin to win back their homeland. Wilma Deering is one of these plucky rebels and the two eventually fall in love. In the sequel the rebels win the world back from their oppressors and all is well. Sounds clunky and just a little silly, doesn’t it? But Nowlan’s style was straight forward and the action scenes with flying men fighting the nasty Han ships are exciting and colorful. We all like to cheer for the underdogs.
At this point, Anthony Rogers is not yet Buck. On January 7, 1929, the National Newspaper Syndicate began a comic based on Nowlan’s story and Anthony became Buck, named after the 1920’s cowboy actor, Buck Jones. The strip was written by Nowlan and drawn by Dick Calkins. Beginning as an adaptation of the stories, the comic changed into tales of space and other fantastic adventures. It was in the comics that characters such as Black Barney, Killer Kane and Dr. Huer were added. The sign that Buck was influential far beyond those two original stories was that he was imitated. Flash Gordon began as a comic strip on January 7, 1934. Ironically, the man who played Flash in 1936, Buster Crabbe, would don the silver underwear to play Buck in 1939.
“That Buck Rogers Stuff” was here to stay. Radio, television, comic books, movie serials. All popular signs that Buck Rogers had gone from fighting the Han to becoming an SF icon, a fate some SF writers lamented. Adventure Science Fiction had begun and the pages of the Pulps, from Amazing Stories to Astounding Science Fiction to Thrilling Wonder Stories, would feature brash heroes who fight against fantastic enemies and win. Space adventurers would appeal to fans for generations to come. George Lucas, when he created his Star Wars franchise in the 1970s was thinking back to those Buster Crabbe serials and longing for the color and excitement they had. And all thanks to “That Buck Rogers stuff” and the first hero of space.