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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


The years just before the 1930s were crucial for the mainstreaming of the science fiction genre, particularly thanks to the adaptation of Philip Nowlan's 1928 novella ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. into the 1929 comic strip BUCK ROGERS. For many years after that, the SF-genre was tarred with the brush of being "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff," but the disparaging comments didn't keep either the genre or the comic strip from growing in popularity.

Nowlan's original novella was definitely a sociological myth-narrative. Not only did it propel a modern-day American "average guy" into the far future-- originally Tony Rogers, who got a name-change in the comic strip-- Rogers encountered a nightmare future, in which American civilization had been flung back to its primitive frontier-origins by the invading airships of Mongolian warlords. Since I haven't re-read the novella for some time, I won't state that the Nowlan novella was one of the best examples of its type, even allowing for its "Yellow Peril" theme. 

Strangely, the first long storyline of the BUCK ROGERS strip was not quite a straight adaptation of the prose story, even though Philip Nowlan was the author of record on the strip. His scripts were paired with the crude but somehow winsome artwork of Dick Calkins, who excelled in creating the ships, guns, and other paraphernalia of the 25th century. Based on the criteria I set forth in my study of the mythcomic LOST IN THE MICROCOSM,  it would be possible for me to deem the first BUCK ROGERS continuity to be a "new" story if it differed sufficiently from the original template. However, the first continuity, in which Buck and his allies manage to forge a "separate peace" with the Mongols, rambles from idea to idea in such a way that it would only qualify as a "near myth." It is interesting, though, that Nowlan renounces the "Asian evil" stereotype for the most part: the Mongolian supreme emperor makes peace with America when he finds out that his subordinates have lied to him, and there's a distinct absence of the usual 'heathen Chinee" dialogue.

The next significant continuity, however, has enough internal consistency to rate as a mythcomic. It helps that the story of "The Tiger Men of Mars" has become one of the better known Buck Rogers stories: Fritz Leiber paid the strip-tale homage in his novel THE WANDERER, and the 1979 teleseries even worked in a "Tiger Man" as a minor character.

The Martians make their first appearance on Earth, abducting a nubile Earthwoman who just happens to be Wilma Deering, Buck's steady girlfriend.

The aliens are then disclosed to be descended from tigers even as humans descended from apes. The strip doesn't dwell on the ramifications of evolution, but it may well be one of the first times the concept showed up in such a pop-fiction artifact.

Buck and his fellow soldiers manage to talk the Tiger-Men into making peace for a while. However, the Martian cat-men have in their company a human Martin, a princess of the "Golden People," who is explained as "a hostage." After the Tiger-Men have had a little time to take the measure of Earthmen and their defenses, they reveal their true colors, and choose to take an Earth-hostage as well. Nothing is ever said about the hostage being used to ensure Earth's good behavior, and indeed Nowlan has the Martians choose a character of little social import: Sally, the younger sister of Wilma Deering. In no time the Tiger-Men are speeding back to Mars in their space-sphere. Buck vows to pursue them, despite the fact that the government doesn't want to invest in constructing a space-fleet. Like the later Jor-El, Buck gets the ball rolling on his own-- albeit with some help from a rich friend. Then Sally somehow gets access to a radio, and reveals to her fellow Earth-people that the Tiger-Men plan an invasion. Suddenly, the local government is very eager to help develop a new spacecraft. powered by the element "inertron" (which name comics-writer Jim Shooter would later appropriate for a very different purpose).

Once the crew (including Buck and Wilma) has been assembled, the inertron craft takes off. Nowlan's script is actually pretty consistent in exploring technological details about distance and the vicissitudes of gravity. A couple of amusing panels are devoted to Buck's attempts to drink coffee in space, since the liquid just flows out of his cup and forms a floating "globule."

There are some episodic developments that don't have much to do with the main plotline, as when Buck and friends come across a derelict spaceship and defrost a native of Jupiter who's been in cryo-sleep for centuries. Eventually the ship makes it to Mars, where Buck and his group learn that the Martian fleet is too formidable for Earth to defeat.

At this point, Nowlan conceives of a cosmological myth which has no real connection to real science, but which nevertheless works as a myth ABOUT science. In short, the Earthmen decide to push one of Mars' moons out of the sky.

The results are pleasingly apocalyptic. The moon Phobos crashes to the surface of Mars, the science-fiction equivalent of having the sky fall down on the heads of the Martians. The emperor of the Tiger-Men quickly sues for peace, and the conflict ends on this note. (Buck has some unrelated adventures on Mars, but they have less to do with the Tiger-Men and more with his romantic travails.) I suppose this technique of "moon-bombing" was the closest one could get to a "doomsday weapon" in 1930, but I'll restrain myself from following the lead of Alan Moore and seeing this story as a revelation of Americans' innate warlike character.

I wish Nowlan had developed the Tiger-Men more: they're Buck's first visually interesting opponents, but the reader learns nothing about their culture beyond their war-mongering nature. Another short episode in "Tiger Men" further validates Darwin by spotlighting a bird-like species that lives on the surface of Earth's moon because it's modified its body to cope with airlessness. 

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