The creation of 1920’s pulp novelist Philip Francis Nowlan, Buck Rogers is a mixture of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Rip Van Winkle and a little of John Carter Warlord of Mars. In other words, he is the perfect modern hero.
A World War One veteran, Anthony Rogers is exposed to radioactive gases that cause him to become frozen in time for over four hundred years. Discovered by the young Wilma Deering (whom Rogers mistakes to be a boy), Rogers realizes that he has survived into the 25th Century. However, the future version of the America he had fought for is a war-torn country desperately attempting to escape defeat at the hands of foreign invaders referred to as the Hans (probably a derivation of Huns or Mongols). Through the use of Rogers’ fighting skills, the uncoordinated gangs of rebellion become effective in routing the Hans. Elevated to leader of the gangs, Rogers also gains the hand of the young Wilma.
The initial novel (originally serialized in Amazing Stories) was later adapted by John F. Dille convinced Nowlan to introduce Rogers as a comic strip character and reach a wider audience (as well as sell lots of newspapers). Renamed Buck Rogers, the freedom fighting man out of time quickly became a national icon and hero of the sci-fi comic strip genre.
Continuing the literary tradition of outer space adventure, Buck Rogers was a pioneer and swashbuckler in a strange setting yet he retained qualities and mannerisms that the readers would recognize and relate to.
From one medium to another, the brave Buck Rogers seemed to excel. Making the leap from the printed page to radio, Buck made his explosive debut at the 1934 World’s Fair in a short film (starring John F. Dille himself as the lead hero). Watching it today you can practically hear the roar of children urging Buck to attack Killer Kane in the heated outer space battle… and if I don’t miss my guess one of those kids was more likely than not a starry eyed George Lucas hopped up on ice cream and soda pop.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars
After such an exciting adventure, it was only a matter of time before a Universal Pictures serial was filmed with Buster Crabbe donning the trademark blond locks and deadly raygun. Liberties were taken with the initial plot, causing Buck to be caught in a dirigible accident along with his friend Wade. Fighting the forces of Killer Kane instead of the Hans, Buck and Wade struggled to release humanity from his tyrannical grip. The serial has often been criticized for its lack of budget, evident by the fact that the Buck Rogers serial saved some cash by simply re-using the sets from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. But if you are going to re-use any serial’s sets, you can do worse than those used in Flash Gordon. Casting Crabbe as both Flash and Buck is also confusing.
Nevertheless the influence of Buck Rogers is so great that for decades it was synonymous with any outlandish science fiction concept from space travel to space suits (usually named ‘Buck Rogers outfits’ by the layman). The Looney Tunes Duck Dodgers character, as much an homage as a spoof, held the flame high for Buck Rogers and why not? A fresh mixture of high adventure and suspense and dazzling special effects (for the time), it was the Star Wars of its time.
Planet Outlaws (renamed compilation of the Buck Rogers serial)
After a 1950’s TV series, Buck Rogers disappeared from the limelight for almost 30 years. It was in 1979 that Buck Rogers soared into space once more, this time played by the sexy Gil Gerard in trousers so tight you could see if he had remembered bus fair. The series also starred Erin Grey as the slim and lovely Wilma (this time a skilled fighter pilot) and the wise cracking Twiki (who annoyingly said beedie-beedie-beedie in each sentence). Twiki wore a much more brilliant and lucid computer named Dr. Theopolis around his neck like the biggest disco medallion you have ever seen. Buck became part of an Earth defense force against the evil Killer Kaine, but in this new version Kaine was actually the lapdog of the Princess Ardala (who looked more like an exotic dancer than the leader of a people, but what do I know). Buck’s unconventional fighting techniques took a back seat to his bold behavior and constant desire to expose his chest and bed women.
The series was an almost instant hit and spelled certain doom for the BBC’s Doctor Who when it went into overseas syndication. So threatened by the superior special effects and sexy leading man that a younger actor was cast as the Fifth Doctor (along with a teenage supporting cast) and a revamped opening sequence and logo developed to bring the series up to date.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1980’s)
Since the 1980’s series, the Buck Rogers franchise has been decidedly quiet until a new comic book series emerged from Dynamite Entertainment (the same people behind Zorro, the Lone Ranger and many more classic pulp comics). The latest comic book series is on its sixth issue this week and features spellbinding designs by Alex Ross and covers by John Cassaday that stand out even in today’s market. Using the current American can-do attitude as our nation crawls out from under a near-depression, the new comic book series has much in common with the original concept from 1928.
Rumor has it that Frank Miller (300, Sin City, The Spirit) is in talks regarding a modernization of the Buck Rogers character as a feature film… but after the disappointing results from his latest project (the aforementioned Spirit), this may be a very old rumor indeed.
A national icon embodying the spirit of defiance and determination against impossible odds, Buck Rogers is as much a hero of American culture as later creations such as Captain America. From a contemporary viewpoint, Buck Rogers can be seen as xenophobic and jingoistic in its simplicity, but taken in parts it makes a bold statement about our culture. One of the grandfathers of the modern adventurer, Buck Rogers remains an important and powerful symbol of the freedom fighter driven by his beliefs to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Buck Rogers by Philip Nowlan
Wings Over Tomorrow: The Collected Science Fiction of Philip Francis Nowlan
Buck Rogers: The Comic Strips
Buck Rogers: The 1939 Serial
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1980s series)
Buck Rogers (Dynamite Entertainment) Volume 1