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Space Heroes
Buck Rogers

July 10, 2009

Buck Rogers first appeared as Anthony Rogers in the pages of the August 1928 issue of the long running science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories. The story, “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” was written by Phillip Francis Nowlan. A sequel, “The Airlords of Han,” appeared in the magazine’s March 1929 issue.

After being exposed to strange radiation in an abandoned mine, Rogers, a World War I veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, falls into a state of suspended animation. Awakened 500 years later, he teams up with the beautiful Wilma Deering to free the world from the "Mongol" hordes.

Just a few months prior to the second story, though, the more familiar title of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. had debuted in newspapers across the nation. John F. Dille, head of the National Newspaper Service syndicate, had seen a lot of promise in the original story and had commissioned Nowlan to launch the first on-going science fiction newspaper strip. Illustrated by Dick Calkins, the strip began its run on January 7, 1929, the same day Tarzan made his comic strip debut.

In addition to the daily strip, a Sunday page joined the family on March 30, 1930. The daily ran until July 8, 1967, while the Sunday page concluded in 1965. Although it is difficult to always gauge correctly what creators worked on the strip at a particular time, along the way, those who guided Buck’s adventures in the daily and Sunday incarnation of the strip included Murphy Anderson, Leonard Dworkins, John Dille, Rick Yager, George Tuska, and Fritz Lieber, among others. Many of the early strips were re-published as Big Little Books, which remain highly collectible.

Buck Rogers was not, of course, relegated to the printed page.

Just as he was the first science fiction character in the arena of newspaper comic strips, Buck became the first science fiction character featured on a regular radio program. The show debuted in 1932 and for the next 15 years appeared four times a week. It was sponsored first by Kellogg’s, then Cocomalt, Cream of Wheat, Popsicle, and General Foods.

Seven years later, Buck Rogers became a 12-part serial from Universal Studios. It starred former Olympic gold medalist Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Buck, who had previously played Tarzan in 1933 and, more importantly, Flash Gordon in two movie serials (and would later follow with a third in 1940). While Buck had been the first space hero and Flash was clearly inspired by him, Flash beat him to the silver screen.

The then-new medium of television first ventured to the 25th century in 1950, with a Buck Rogers television series ran on ABC from April 15, 1940 to January 30, 1951. Three actors ended up playing the role of Buck (Earl Hammond, Kem Dibbs and Robert Pastene) and two actresses portrayed Wilma Deering (Eva Marie Saint and Lou Prentis, with Saint being the only cast member readily familiar to modern audiences).

Following the end of the daily and Sunday newspaper strips, the late 1960s and early 1970s were the first prolonged period without a strong Buck Rogers presence. That changed when the first Star Wars film (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) obliterated all previous box office records and sent the studios into their vaults looking for science fiction properties.

On March 30, 1979, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century debuted in theatres. It starred Gil Gerard as Captain William “Buck” Rogers and Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering. It performed respectably at the box office and was quickly picked up as a television series by NBC.

The premise was updated to include Buck as the pilot a deep space probe who accidentally finds himself in suspended animation until his return to Earth 504 years later. The planet has been devastated by wars and while certain parts have been beautifully rebuilt, it is still a troubled world, ripe for marauders and enemy powers. What didn’t change was that Buck was once again enlisted by the powers of good and quickly proved his worth. Following a strike by the Writer’s Guild of America, the series ran for only two full seasons.

Spurred on by the TV show, a new incarnation of the newspaper strip ran from 1979 to 1983 with artist Gray Morrow (followed by Jack Sparling) illustrating and writer Jim Lawrence (followed by Cary Bates) scripting. A comic book series, published by Gold Key, ran until number 16, although Buck Rogers #10 was never published. A later comic book incarnation came from the gaming company TSR, which released 10 “comic modules” between 1990 and 1991.

The collecting market for the character remains strong. Buck Rogers is one of the largest categories in The Official Price Guide To Pop Culture Memorabilia: 150 Years of Characters & Collectibles by Ted Hake, the photo illustrated guide book produced by Gemstone Publishing for Random House. Buck has appeared on licensed toys and promotional items for decades, and each new incarnation has generated its own gems.

The new Buck Rogers comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment is already under way. What more does the twenty-first century hold in store for this twenty-fifth century man? Although you can never tell with Hollywood until you're actually watching the movie, a new feature film is said to be in development from Nu Image and Millennium

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