The Buck Rogers I grew up with wore a white jumpsuit, had a little robot buddy named Tiki, and adventured with the impossibly sexy Wilma Deering. It turns out my Buck Rogers was far less cool than the original original, who leapt from airship to airship with a gravity-defying jumping belt, dodged disintegration beams on a rocket cycle, and never met a problem he couldn’t punch in the face.
The original Buck Rogers, it turns out, is a lot like Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western Firefly. A genre-crossing adventure series, Buck is on camelback swinging a scimitar in one panel and holding his breath in the vacuum of space in the next–and just like Firefly, Buck Rogers has his own lingo. In Buck’s world, everything isn’t shiny; it’s clicky.
Buck Rogers showed up in 1928 in Amazing Stories with the story Armageddon 2419 A.D.. He made the leap into the brave new world of daily adventure comic strips in 1929. Along with strips like Tarzan, Buck Rogers was one of the first heroes to incorporate continuity–a series of continuing adventures that connected into a single story. Most newspaper strips were single gag-comics, while Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, and Dr. Huer had epic adventures that took years to complete a single story.
This second volume in the Hermes Press release of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century contains the daily strips from 1930-1932. Each strip is reproduced two per page in their original size. There are 478 strips in all. It is a big book–and heavy.
There are two main stories, later collected as Buck Rogers and The City below the Sea and Buck Rogers and the Moons of Saturn. In the first story, Buck and Wilma find a strange albino girl who leads them down to the mysterious world of Atlantis under the sea. Hot on their heals are Killer Kane and the treacherous and beautiful Ardala Valmar. Atlantis is brimming with gold, and Kane and Ardala want to get their hands on some of that clicky goodness. In the next story, they veep to outer space and find adventure of the Nine Moons of Saturn.
Writer Phil Nowlan (who created Buck Rogers) juxtaposes the glittering future with desert adventures featuring shifting sands and turbaned maharajahs. Science fiction was a relatively new genre, with few rules or conventions, and Buck Rogers wasn’t constrained by logic. The future was all about gadgets, and Nowlan spends time teaching us what gadgets Buck has and what their limitations are. I was surprised to discover that Buck doesn’t actually fly with a rocketpack; he has a jumping belt that reduces his gravity–letting him leap vast distances.
Probably the coolest tool in Buck’s arsenal is the non-recoil energy tube that breaks the basic Newtonian law of action and reaction.
I loved Wilma Deering in this series. I often forget that the stereotypes we have of characters from a certain era largely come from the 1950s, and were in reaction to the excesses of the 30s and 40s. This Wilma Deering is no damsel in distress, and she has no problem popping Killer Kane in the jaw.
Unfortunately, artist Dick Calkins is not one of the great talents of the era. His work on Buck Rogers pales next to giants like Alex Toth, Hal Foster, and Will Eisner. In fact, Calkins’ artwork is more charming than great, more imaginative than well-drawn. His anatomy is stiff and clunky, but his costumes are fabulous and his futuristic vehicles are Steam Punk before Steam Punk had a name. His funky sense of style has every gal wearing the equivalent of a swimsuit topped off with a visored helmet.
Hermes Press did an outstanding job with this release. It was more fun than I had imagined it would be running around in Buck Rogers’ world for a while. But be warned. In the tradition of the classic cliffhangers of old, Hermes Press doesn’t give us a full story. As you flip to the last page in the book and see Buck and Wilma trapped in a rocket careening towards Earth, with Killer Kane and Ardala still on the loose, you are inevitably going to want to know what happens next. . . .
. . . and we are all going to have to wait for Volume Three to find out.