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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

BUCK ROGERS in the 25th CENTURY-The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume One 1929-1931 (2008)

The sci-fi comic that started it all, finally collected from the very beginning.

When I was but a wee Bunche of seven, my dad gave me the enormous coffee table book THE COLLECTED WORKS OF BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY, and I fell in love with it immediately. Loaded with breakneck adventure and amazing sci-fi concepts, that book fed my young imagination for years and inspired me to draw my own primitive attempts at planet-hopping adventure, but unfortunately it only gave a sparse look into the series' then-forty-year-plus run, focusing mostly on the first few years. I longed to read these wondrous old school stories in their unexpurgated form, and now the kind people at Hermes Press have answered my pleas by launching a series of volumes reprinting the entirety of the sci-fi landmark in gorgeous hardcover volumes. When I saw the first of them laying there without fanfare at Manhattan's St. Mark's Comics I almost swallowed my own head and surrendered the $39.99 cover price without hesitation, and, brother, am I glad I did.

The issue of the pulp sci-fi mag that introduced Buck Rogers to the world.

Having its roots in the August 1928 issue of AMAZING STORIES as a novella entitled "Armageddon — 2419 A.D." and seen by many to be the most important science-fiction comic of all time thanks to it setting off shock waves of interest in the genre way back in the days (1929 to be precise) that have continued unabated ever since, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY can be considered Ground Zero for the science-fiction genre as we know it, and this handsome edition collects the seminal series from the very beginning and will probably surprise readers with its initial post-apocalyptic setting and total lack of space adventure for nearly the entirety of its first year. Although very quaint to modern eyes, Buck Rogers was loaded to the gills with breakneck adventure and heroics that kept readers glued to the pages and gave their imaginations free rein to roam the uncharted cosmos with its heroes.

While surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh in 1929, Buck Rogers — a typical all-American Joe with military experience during WWI — is trapped in a cave-in and, thanks to the effects of a strange radioactive gas, plunged into a state of suspended animation for five centuries. Upon awakening after the shifting of strata allowed ventilation into the mine, Buck's first experience of his new environment is that of an attractive young female soldier crashing to the earth after falling from the sky while trading fire with hostile "half breeds." Picking up the unconscious girl's strange-looking pistol, Buck kills her pursuers and rouses the soldier, who tells him that it's the year 2429. An understandably shocked Buck is then thrust headlong into a conflict between the "Orgs" of America (and what remains of the free world) against the gravity-repellor-equipped airships of the Mongols (translation: evil Asians, aka "Yellow Peril"), a heartless race that has conquered the world with their devastating disintegrator beams. His soldier companion, one Wilma Deering by name, fills him in on how the Mongols reduced American civilization to near stone-age levels that it took several generations to claw its way back from, all the while decent Americans being hunted like wild animals by the Mongol scum, so, being the decent American that he is, Buck joins the cause and begins his tempestuous partnership with Wilma, the woman who would become both the love of his life and an unfailingly "female" pain in his ass.

Buck Rogers wakes up 500 years in the future to discover some things haven't changed as much as one might think.

But while Wilma may display many of the sexist tropes common to female characters of her era, the depiction of a woman as a fully-capable soldier with considerable knowledge of weaponry and vehicles of many varieties must have been revolutionary in the mass media and gave the little girls in the audience someone of their own to root for and pretend to be in their play — to hell with Cinderella, Wilma had atomic rayguns, a jumping belt, a rocket-pack and spaceships!!! — and I think that's pretty damned cool.

This first year of the series spends about 98% of its time dealing with the Mongol threat and the eventual restoration of humanity to its proper level of whiteness (with a tribe of helpful techno-savvy Injuns thrown in for good measure), but while that storyline is an entertaining introduction to the future landscape and its technology and helps us get to know the protagonists (and douchey recurring antagonist "Killer" Kane), the whole Yellow Peril thing gets old rather quickly, so it's like the series got attached with electrodes to a four-million-volt power source when the outer space angle is finally brought into play with the arrival of a hostile interplanetary survey craft and we meet the Tiger Men of Mars. From that point BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY took off like one of its myriad rocketships and became a classic.

Artist Dick Calkins' art style and design of everything in the strip, from scientific hardware to the style of clothing, reflects the jazz age from which it all stemmed, so Wilma looks like a 1920's flapper transplanted to a more "used"-looking future than the pristine metropolises of STAR TREK, and the assorted vehicles look rather clunky and rivet-festooned, all of which lends the series a great amount of retro/industrial charm that's diametrically opposed to the lush and (if truth be told) much better-illustrated romantic vistas of Alex Raymond's FLASH GORDON, which came along about five years later. And while both strips share a certain amount of common ground, it should be made clear that FLASH GORDON is more of a swashbuckling operatic romance set against a fantastic deep-space backdrop, while the adventures of Buck and Wilma feature a cast driven by exploration and a semi-militaristic flavor that felt kind of like its heroes were enlistees in some kind of outer space Air Force. While both could be enjoyed as seminal space adventures, odds are if you dig BUCK ROGERS you may not cotton to FLASH GORDON and vice-versa, so keep that in mind.

BOTTOM LINE: this first volume in the series is a fun intro, though the stuff with the Mongols gets a bit tedious, but once the Tiger Men show up it's off to the races and things only heat up with each subsequent collection. I love this stuff and I will most assuredly return for subsequent volumes. RECOMMENDED.

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