The art may seem a little crude, but the sense of wonder is palpable in the early Buck Rogers newspaper strips.
Jumping belts, ray guns, rocket ships, robots, domed cities, tiger women — fresh fantasy delights daily that began for America’s children before the Great Depression and helped sustain them right through it. Whatever their privations, they always had the Future.
“Anticipating the Wall Street Crash by nine months, the escapist action doubtlessly benefited from the worsening economic straits of the Depression Years, by providing escapism,” noted Andrew Darlington. “Eventually the strip was reaching a massive readership, syndicated through nearly 400 newspapers.”
A bored financial writer for the Philadelphia Retail Ledger named Philip Francis Nowlan had penned a tale for Hugo Gernsback’s new science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories, calling it Armageddon 2419. The head of the syndicated National Newspaper Service, John Flint Dille, spotted its potential as something new, a newspaper adventure strip. The first episode by Nowlan and artist Dick Calkins appeared on Jan. 7, 1929 – oddly enough, the same day that the Tarzan comic strip was launched
In another synchronicity, the cover of the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, where that first story appeared, perfectly depicted a smiling Buck Rogers soaring through the air in a flying harness. But that wasn’t Buck Rogers at all. The cover illustrates E. E. “Doc” Smith's serial The Skylark of Space, which began in the same issue.
A precursor to Flash Gordon, Superman and Star Trek, Buck Rogers quickly crossed over into dramatic radio, movie serials and toys. It also gave us Ray Bradbury.
“I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was 9,” the famed fantasy writer recalled. “Buck Rogers arrived on the scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips.
“For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living.
“The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; those are my enemies.
“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space-travel, sideshows or gorillas. When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”