Tuesday, May 14

Armageddon – 2419 A.D. (1928) and The Airlords of Han (1929)

Oddly enough, this cover to Amazing Stories
for August 1928 depicts not “Buck Rogers” but
rather E. E. “Doc” Smith's 
The Skylark of Space.
By Philip Francis Nowlan (originally published in Amazing Stories, August 1928 and March 1929, reprinted many times since, usually together)

I was a huge fan of the “original” Buck Rogers as a child, my parents having given me a huge coffee-table sized collection of almost random comic strips, both dailies and Sundays, The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1969) 'round about 1970 or so. It was without a doubt the very first collected comic material that I ever owned. And I loved it, spent many glorious hours reading and rereading it, until the big, heavy door-stop of a book (which I still have) nearly fell to pieces. (The first few years of the dailies are available here.)

1969 Comic Strip Collection
It was only a few years later, 'round about 1975 or so, that Ace Books reprinted its 1969 edition of Armageddon – 2419 A.D. whereby I discovered that “The [real] Original 'Buck Rogers' Novel” was a very different story from the generally light-hearted tales of the “funny pages.” The name of the viewpoint character, Anthony Rogers, was only the most apparent difference. After the first few pages, the very narrative diverges into a much more down-to-earth tale of the savage “Second American War of Independence,” in which a long suppressed and hunted populace of Americans rises up to wipe out – not just drive out – wipe out an Asiatic-alien hybrid race, the Han (we find the alien connection only at the very end, as an afterthought) who had overwhelmed the continent and ruled it for the centuries Tony slept in a kind of suspended animation, overcome by radioactive gas in a Pennsylvania mine. Sure there are various ca. 1930s-imagined futuristic elements such as the Hans' disintegrator rays and the Americans' antigravitic inertron material and ultronic technology. But entirely absent are any rocket ships and adventures in space, on other planets, or even under the sea (my own personal favorite of the comic strip adventures, in the sunken city of Atlantis). Except for the theory (stated as such) that the Han are a hybrid race of man and alien, introduced very late and almost as if in half-hearted apology for the unabashed genocide perpetrated by the Americans upon an early-20th-c. “Yellow Peril” writ large. As an example of the veritable orgy of violence with which the tale climaxes:

1969 Ace Books Edition
(Reprinted ca. 1975)
Thrust! Cut! Crunch! Slice! Thrust! Up and down with vicious, tireless, flashing speed, swung the bayonets and ax-bladed butts of the American gunners as they leeped and dodged, ever forward, toward new opponents.

Weakly and ineffectually the red-coated Han soldiery thrust at them with spears, flailing with their short-swords and knives, or whipping about their ray pistols. The forest men [Americans] were too powerful, too fast in their remorselessly efficient movement.

 Wow!  Powerful stuff!

Always one to consider the original vision – which this was, the comic strip which first appeared within a year being inspired by the pulp novel although taken in a very different direction by Nowlan himself as writer (at least in the beginning) – superior in essence to later reinterpretations, I ate this story up in its turn, along with several “authorized” sequel novels that appeared in the early 1980s, written by various authors based on plots and outlines by science-fiction greats Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven (I may try to reacquire those and reread them as well).

And only much later did I discover (I'm pretty sure through Wikipedia, but I don't remember specifically when, although relatively recently as in “within the last ten or fifteen years”) that what appeared in the Ace version of “The Original 'Buck Rogers' Novel” was actually two novellas, as I have them listed here. These two novellas are what I have just a couple of nights ago finished rereading, as they appear on-line at Project Gutenberg here and here.  They are in the public domain.

The basic plot has already been lain out above – Tony Rogers, a mine engineer, succumbs to radioactive gas in the 1920s and awakens five hundred years later to find a post-apocalyptic world in which he finds love with a young warrior woman, Wilma (told very matter-of-factly – this is not a romance), and ultimately leads his American countrymen's descendents to freedom, overcoming their cruel Asiatic oppressors and laying the foundation for a new American renaissance. It's very much a typical science-fiction pulp adventure, but something about its vision and style, and apparently the ease with which the basic concept could be adapted into the comic strip format, made it one of the most historically significant even if its major influence would ultimately be through that derivative comic strip … as well as movie serials, radio shows, television series, comic books, role-playing games, novels, and doubtless genres I haven't even considered! Although arguably Edgar Rice Burroughs created 20th-c. science fiction a decade and a half earlier with A Princess of Mars (1912), it was “Buck Rogers” that entered popular culture – before Flash Gordon, which strip was created in 1934 – as the proverbial science fiction spaceman blasting his way across the space lanes and inspiring a host of followers (including the German pulp Perry Rhodan).

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!
* * *
Coincidentally, look what I found on my blog roll from just earlier today!  a new comic book by Howard Chaykin, returning the character "back to basics."

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