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Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

on Thu, 06/13/2013 - 00:00

“I was twenty years old when they stopped the World War and mustered me out of the air service. I got a job surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh, in which the atmosphere had a peculiar, pungent tang, and the crumbling rock glowed strangely. I was examining it when suddenly the roof behind me caved in and…”

Thus begins the first panel of the first comic strip of Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D.—more commonly referred to as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century—originally published in newspapers across the country on January 7, 1929. Despite being the best-known incarnation of the science fiction icon, Buck Rogers actually began life a year earlier as a short novella appearing in the popular pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Written by Philadelphia native Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon - 2419 A.D. told the story of Anthony Rogers, a veteran of World War I who was investigating coal mines in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania when a cave-in rendered him unconscious. Radioactive fumes kept him in a state of suspended animation for 492 years, until a small opening within the structure cleared the air and revived him.

John Flint Dille, meanwhile, was a Chicago-based publisher of comic strips who was looking for “a strip which would present imaginary adventures several centuries in the future, a strip in which theories in the test tubes and laboratories of the scientists would be garnished up with a bit of imagination and treated as realities.” He saw promise for just such a comic strip within the narrative of Armageddon - 2419 A.D., and encouraged Philip Nowlan to transform his novella into a longer, serialized storyline. Believing that the main character needed a catchier name, Dille suggested “Buck,” after cowboy movie actor Buck Jones.

The change in moniker was not the only tweak incorporated into the comic strip. As already noted, this new Buck Rogers did not meet his fate on the eastern side of Pennsylvania, but in the western region instead. Like the original Anthony Rogers, meanwhile, Buck discovers a world with “floating men” and a “girl soldier” named Wilma Deering upon his awakening. It is soon explained that Mongols from China had taken over the world, forcing Americans to live in the woods like hunted animals. The technology of the time has resulted in “disintegrator beams” that the Mongols use on its enemies, while the remaining residents of North America rely on “jumping belts” that defy gravity as a means to move around the landscape.

In the original Armageddon - 2419 A.D. the rebel forces of the once United States were divided into “gangs” but the term was redefined as “orgs” within Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D. While Anthony Rogers was quickly made a member of the Wyoming Gang within the pages of Amazing Stories, it was the Allegheny Org that served as Buck Rogers’ base of operation within the comic strip. As for the city that was once the center of the region, Wilma Deering tells Rogers upon first hearing his awakening story, “If that cave ever was a mine it was before the destruction of Ancient Pittsburgh in 2029 A.D.”

The early adventures of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century primarily take place within the vicinity of Ancient Pittsburgh, with mentions of Cleveland and Buffalo and journeys to Youngstown and the Ohio River featured prominently as well. Although the Mongols would remain central to the overall storyline, however, Philip Francis Nowlan soon incorporated diversions to the main narrative in the form of Martian invaders who kidnap Wilma, forcing Buck to pilot a rocket ship to Mars in order to rescue her. Hovercrafts, ray guns and robots likewise began populating the world of Buck Rogers, while illustrator Dick Calkins added touches of reality to these inventions by including diagrams of the futuristic devices, giving the impression that readers of the comic strip could easily build such items themselves.

As Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D. continued over the course of four decades—finally ending on July 8, 1967—the Ancient City of Pittsburgh was quickly forgotten in favor of the more popular science fiction elements of the series. Hermes Press, located in New Castle, Pennsylvania, began publishing the comic strips as a collection of hardback books in 2008, however, preserving the ongoing narratives as well as the role that Western Pennsylvania played in the early days of Buck Rogers. In terms of the Twentieth Century, the character itself is one of the true icons of the era and his influence can be felt on later comic strips like Flash Gordon and the comic book superheroes that would begin to appear in the 1940s, as well as real life scientists and other science fiction writers of the time.

“Buck helped introduce the country to the possibilities of the future and had quite a few wild and woolly adventures while doing so,” Ron Goulart writes in the introduction to The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume One 1929-1930—and it all began in an abandoned coal mine just outside Pittsburgh. In fact somewhere in the region at this very moment, Buck Rogers is fast asleep, waiting to be awakened in what will eventually be known as the 25th Century.

Anthony Letizia

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