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Buck Rogers is a fictional character who first appeared in Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories as Anthony Rogers. A sequel, The Airlords of Han, was published in the March 1929 issue.
Philip Nowlan and the syndicate John F. Dille Company, later known as the National Newspaper Syndicate, contracted to adapt the story into a comic strip. After Nowlan and Dille enlisted editorial cartoonist Dick Calkins as the illustrator, Nowlan adapted the first episode from Armageddon 2419, A.D. and changed the hero's name from Anthony Rogers to Buck Rogers. The strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929. Later adaptations included a serial film, a television series (where his first name was changed from Anthony to William) as well and other formats.
The adventures of Buck Rogers in comic strips, movies, radio and television became an important part of American popular culture. This pop phenomenon paralleled the development of space technology in the 20th century and introduced Americans to outer space as a familiar environment for swashbuckling adventure.
Buck Rogers has been credited with bringing into popular media the concept of space exploration, following in the footsteps of literary pioneers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars).
The character first appeared as Anthony Rogers, the central character of Nowlan's Armageddon 2419 A.D. Born in 1898, Rogers is a veteran of the Great War (World War I) and by 1927 is working for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation investigating reports of unusual phenomena reported in abandoned coal mines near Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. On December 15, there is a cave-in while he is in one of the lower levels of a mine. Exposed to radioactive gas, Rogers falls into "a state of suspended animation, free from the ravages of catabolic processes, and without any apparent effect on physical or mental faculties." Rogers remains in suspended animation for 492 years.
Rogers awakens in 2419. Thinking that he has been asleep for just several hours, he wanders for a few days in unfamiliar forests (what had been Pennsylvania almost five centuries before). He notices someone clad in strange clothes, who is under attack. He defends the person, Wilma Deering, killing one of the attackers and scaring off the rest. On “air patrol”, Deering was attacked by an enemy gang, the Bad Bloods, presumed to have allied themselves with the Hans.
Wilma takes Rogers to her camp, where he meets the bosses of her gang. He is invited to stay with them or leave and visit other gangs. They hope that Rogers’ experience and knowledge he gained fighting in the First World War may be useful in their struggle with the Hans who rule North America from 15 great cities they established across the continent. They ignored the Americans who were left to fend for themselves in the forests and mountains as their advanced technology prevented the need for slave labor.
In the sequel, The Airlords of Han, six months have passed and the hunter is now the hunted. Rogers is now a gang leader and his forces, as well as the other American gangs, have surrounded the cities and are attacking constantly. The airlords are determined to use their fleet of airships to break the siege.
In 1933, Nowlan and Calkins co-wrote Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a novella that retold the origin of Buck Rogers and also summarized some of his adventures. A reprint of this work was included with the first edition of the 1995 novel Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future by Martin Caidin.
The story of Anthony Rogers in Amazing Stories caught the attention of John F. Dille, president of the National Newspaper Service syndicate, and he arranged for Nowlan to turn it into a strip for syndication. The character was given the nickname Buck, and some have suggested that Dille coined that name based on the 1920s cowboy actor, Buck Jones.
On January 7, 1929, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D., the first science fiction comic strip, debuted. Coincidentally, this was also the date that the Tarzan comic strip began. The first three frames of the series set the scene for Buck's 'leap' 500 years into Earth's future:
Buck is rendered unconscious, and a strange gas preserves him in a suspended animation or coma state. He awakens and emerges from the mine in 2429 AD, in the midst of another war.
After rescuing Wilma, he proves his identity by showing her his American Legion button. She then explains how the Mongol Reds emerged from the Gobi desert to conquer Asia and Europe and then attacked America starting with that "big idol holding a torch". Using their disintegrator beams, they easily defeated the army and navy and wiped out Washington D.C. in three hours. As the people fled the cities, the Mongols built new cities on the ruins of the major cities. The Mongols left the Americans to fend for themselves as their advanced technology prevented the need for slave labor. The scattered Americans formed loosely bound organizations or "orgs" to begin to fight back.
Wilma takes Buck back to the Alleghany org in what was once Philadelphia. The leaders don't believe his story at first but after undergoing electro-hypnotic tests, they believe him and admit him into their group.
On March 30, 1930, a Sunday strip joined the Buck Rogers daily strip. There was, as yet, no established convention for the same character having different adventures in the Sunday strip and the daily strip (many newspapers carried one but not the other), so the Sunday strip at first followed the adventures of Buck's young friend Buddy Deering, Wilma Deering's younger brother, and Buddy's girlfriend Alura, later joined by Black Barney. It was some time before Buck made his first appearance in a Sunday strip. Other prominent characters in the strip included Dr. Huer, who punctuated his speech with the exclamation, "Heh!", the villainous Killer Kane, his paramour Ardala and Black Barney, who began as a space pirate but later became Buck's friend and ally.
Nowlan is credited with the idea of serializing Buck Rogers, based on his novel Armageddon 2419 and its Amazing Stories sequels. Nowlan approached John Dille, who saw the opportunity to serialize the stories as a newspaper comic strip. Dick Calkins, an advertising artist, drew the earliest daily strips, and Russell Keaton drew the earliest Sunday strips. The author of Buck Rogers told the inventor R. Buckminster Fuller in 1930 that "he frequently used [Fuller's] concepts for his cartoons"
Keaton wanted to switch to drawing another strip written by Calkins, Skyroads, so the syndicate advertised for an assistant and hired Rick Yager in 1932. Yager had formal art training at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and was a talented watercolor artist; all the strips were done in ink and watercolor. Yager also had connections with the Chicago newspaper industry, since his father, Charles Montross Yager, was the publisher of The Modern Miller; Rick Yager was at one time employed to write the "Auntie's Advice" column for his father's newspaper. Yager quickly moved from inker and writer of the Buck Rogers "sub-strip" (early Sunday strips had a small sub-strip running below) to writer and artist of the Sunday strip and eventually the daily strips.
Authorship of early strips is extremely difficult to ascertain. The signatures at the bottoms of the strips are not accurate indicators of authorship; Calkins' signature appears long after his involvement ended, and few of the other artists signed the artwork, while many pages are unsigned. Yager probably had complete control of Buck Rogers Sunday strips from about 1940 on, with Len Dworkins joining later as assistant. Dick Locher was also an assistant in the 1950s. For all of its reference to modern technology, the strip itself was produced in an old-fashioned manner—all strips began as India ink drawings on Strathmore paper, and a smaller duplicate (sometimes redrawn by hand) was hand-colored with watercolors. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has an extensive collection of original artwork. The strip's artists also worked on a variety of tie-in promotions such as comic books, toys and model rockets.
The relations between the artists of the strip (Yager et al.) and the owners of the strip (the Syndicate) became acrimonious, and in mid-1958, the artists quit. (See Time, June 30, 1958.) Murphy Anderson was a temporary replacement, but he did not stay long. George Tuska began drawing the strip in 1959 and remained until the final installment of the original comic strip, which was published on 8 July 1967.
Revived in 1979 by Gray Morrow and Jim Lawrence, the strip was retitled Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1980. Long-time comic book writer Cary Bates signed on in 1981, continuing until the strip's 1983 finale.