Random musings: 85 years of the 25th Century

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Buck Rogers first comic strip

Anthony Rogers first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, in Philip Francis Nowlan’s novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” He would return in “The Warlords of Han” in March 1929, but not before John Flint Dille, president of the National Newspaper Syndicate of America, had convinced Nowlan to adapt his story for a newspaper strip. That strip first appeared on Jan. 7, 1929— initially written by Nowlan and illustrated by Dick Calkin— and ran until the late 1960s. And it made Anthony a household name.

What? You’ve never heard of Anthony Rogers? Maybe you know him better by the name given him for the strip:

Buck Rogers.

Armageddon 2419 A.D

Although he first appeared in 1928, it wasn’t until his arrival in newspapers in 1929— 85 years ago— that Buck Rogers became a household name. And if you’ll pardon the obvious pun, the 20-year-old (27 in the novella) former Army Air Corps officer caught in a mine cave-in and preserved in suspended animation by the release of radioactive gases took off like a rocket. For good and/or ill, science fiction became labeled as “that Buck Rogers stuff.” Though some of the derisive comments ended once actual spaceflight began.

Buck wasn’t the first character to reach the future via suspended animation, but he was the most famous. True, many remember Rip Van Winkle, but he only slept for 20 years (and aged during that time); but who in the general public today remembers Julian West from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) or Graham from Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)?

Initially called Buck Rogers 2429 A.D., the strip was updated each year to remain 500 years ahead, until it finally stabilized as Buck Rogers in the 25th century.

According to the revised edition of The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, certain credos were established at the strip’s inception: It was to be based on the scientifically possible and plausible; it was to portray science fiction & education in a positive manner; it was to carry no heavy handed social message. The strip was to be non political and non discriminatory; the importance of the female sex was to be underscored. “Women were to play prominent roles in the strip, usually from a position of authority”; and the strip was to be basically adventure and entertainment.

Collected Buck Rogers

By 2014 standards, the strip probably fell short in terms of racial and/or sexual equality, but the fact that such concepts were even entertained in 1929 are worth noting.

In 1932, Buck got his own radio show. It would air until 1936 on CBS; then in 1939, 1940 and 1946-47 on Mutual.

Buck’s popularity was such that according to the “Talk of the Town” in the Dec. 22, 1934 New Yorker, 125,000 maps of the planets had been mailed the previous year to radio listeners who’d requested one.

1934 also saw the debut of Buck’s primary rival, Flash Gordon, who first appeared Jan. 7 in a newspaper strip by Alex Raymond. Gold medal winning Olympic swimmer Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who had portrayed Tarzan in a 1933 serial, would play both Flash (in 1936) and Buck (in 1939).

The 1939 Buck Rogers serial.

The 1939 Buck Rogers serial.

Crabbe would also appear in an episode of the 1979-1981 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV series as a character called Brigadier Gordon.

Buster Crabbe and Gil Gerard on the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Buster Crabbe and Gil Gerard on the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Buck first came to TV in a 30 minute series airing from 1950 to 1951.

Two years later, Daffy Duck starred in the Chuck Jones-directed parody, Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century.

I don’t remember when I first heard of Buck Rogers, but I first saw him in the spring of 1979, in the movie Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. In it, Buck (now an astronaut) was frozen in a freak accident in 1987, to awaken in 2491.

The movie, slightly re-edited, became the two part opening episodes of the NBC TV series that fall. By this time, he had become “William Anthony Rogers.” How he came by the nickname “Buck” was never explained.

Buck Rogers DVD

Long before anyone at NBC had thought of the phrase “Must See TV”, especially with respect to Thursday nights, Buck Rogers, which aired on Thursdays, was my “must see” TV. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as it seemed to be when I was a kid, but I enjoyed revisiting the series on DVD a few years ago.

One thing that annoys me about Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is that Buck, who was supposed to be from the then-future year of 1987, dressed in 1979 fashions when he was off duty and trying to feel at home. Didn’t anyone associated with that show bother to extrapolate what fashions in 1987 might be like and have Buck dress like that? It showed a complete lack of imagination. Buck might as well have left Earth in 1979.

But anyway…

In the late 1980s, TSR released Buck Rogers role-playing games, novels, and graphic novels. And in 1995, Martin Caidin, author of Cyborg—the basis for The Six Million Dollar Man— wrote Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future.

And in 2008, Hermes Press began publishing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: the Complete Newspaper Dailies. The publisher has also released a collection of Sunday strips.

Buck Rogers newspaper strip

No doubt Buck Rogers will return to the TV or movie screen one day. But will he remain in the 25th century or move into the 26th, so he’ll continue to be 500 years ahead of us?

It wouldn’t surprise me if he’ll be remembered in the actual 25th century.

Happy 85th, Buck.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

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