Guest Post: GW Thomas on Buck Rogers: The First Space Hero

I’ve never had a guest post before, but GW Thomas runs the very excellent Adventure! blog and not only are our blog’s names similar, but our interests are so close that I was thrilled when he agreed to write a series of articles about classic Space Pulp heroes for me. And even more thrilled when he decided to cover them in chronological order, because my particular brand of OCD is all about chronological order. Thanks again, GW, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

People often forget where things begin. Take Buck Rogers for instance. If you asked anyone about Buck you’d probably hear about the new comic book or the old TV show with Gil Gerard or if you were lucky the old newspaper comic strip. But these and other incarnations of Buck were not the first. Buck Rogers began in the Pulps and is really the first true Space Hero. He was the first and because of that, for many years Science Fiction was known as “That Buck Rogers stuff.” (Said with a sneer usually.)

Buck started out in the world as Anthony Rogers. He was featured in two connected stories, “Armageddon 2419” (Amazing Stories, August 1928) and its sequel “Airlords of Han” (Amazing Stories, March 1929) by Philip Francis Nowlan. The magazine these stories ran in was the first all-Science Fiction Pulp, created by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. It shouldn’t really be surprising that the first Space Hero appeared in the first Space magazine. Gernsback was a crusader for Science, believing technology would change the world into a paradise. His background was radio and electronics and his magazines appealed to these kinds of readers, with lots of gadgets and pseudo-scientific speeches about them.

The plot of “Armageddon 2419” concerns the evil Han (yes, this was the era of Yellow Peril and racism is found in these stories) who take over the World. Anthony Rogers is a man from our time who is put to sleep by a mysterious gas in a mine and wakes to find his beloved America under the Han’s cruel thumbs. He joins a group of resistance fighters, who armed with their flying belts, take on the Han and begin to win back their homeland. Wilma Deering is one of these plucky rebels and the two eventually fall in love. In the sequel the rebels win the world back from their oppressors and all is well. Sounds clunky and just a little silly, doesn’t it? But Nowlan’s style was straight forward and the action scenes with flying men fighting the nasty Han ships are exciting and colorful. We all like to cheer for the underdogs.

At this point, Anthony Rogers is not yet Buck. On January 7, 1929, the National Newspaper Syndicate began a comic based on Nowlan’s story and Anthony became Buck, named after the 1920’s cowboy actor, Buck Jones. The strip was written by Nowlan and drawn by Dick Calkins. Beginning as an adaptation of the stories, the comic changed into tales of space and other fantastic adventures. It was in the comics that characters such as Black Barney, Killer Kane and Dr. Huer were added. The sign that Buck was influential far beyond those two original stories was that he was imitated. Flash Gordon began as a comic strip on January 7, 1934. Ironically, the man who played Flash in 1936, Buster Crabbe, would don the silver underwear to play Buck in 1939.

“That Buck Rogers Stuff” was here to stay. Radio, television, comic books, movie serials. All popular signs that Buck Rogers had gone from fighting the Han to becoming an SF icon, a fate some SF writers lamented. Adventure Science Fiction had begun and the pages of the Pulps, from Amazing Stories to Astounding Science Fiction to Thrilling Wonder Stories, would feature brash heroes who fight against fantastic enemies and win. Space adventurers would appeal to fans for generations to come. George Lucas, when he created his Star Wars franchise in the 1970s was thinking back to those Buster Crabbe serials and longing for the color and excitement they had. And all thanks to “That Buck Rogers stuff” and the first hero of space.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker Files #2

Earlier this week I reviewed The Spider #1 for Robot 6, but it’s not the only recent Moonstone book I’ve read. Nor is it the only one that offered an encouraging introduction to a character I’ve heard a lot about, but don’t have much personal experience with.

I do know a bit more about Kolchak than I did about The Spider. I have vague memories of watching a TV movie or two as a kid and I’ve checked out a couple of stories in one anthology or another, but none of those have actually helped the character for me. On the contrary, they gave me the impression that Kolchak’s misfortune and demoralization are such integral parts of the concept that there’s no hope that he’ll ever achieve any kind of success. I at least need the illusion that a hero may succeed, so when failure becomes a built-in part of the concept, I lose interest.

Still, enough people whose tastes are otherwise similar to mine enjoy Kolchak, so I keep trying to find a hook to grab onto. One of those people is Christopher Mills, so it’s appropriate that he’s writing Moonstone’s new comic series, which looks to be just the handhold I’ve needed.

I don’t know what happened in Kolchak #1, but I don’t need to because the second issue starts a new story arc. In it, Kolchak has been fired from yet another newspaper, but is on his way to Miami where he’s been offered a new job with a tabloid. One of the problems I’ve had with Kolchak in the past is that in the stories I’ve read he insists on being taken seriously as an investigative journalist, when he’s in fact Jack McGee from The Incredible Hulk. It might be overstating things to say that he’s embraced his McGee-ness in Kolchak #2, but he’s at least come to terms with it and is apparently being rewarded for it. Being rewarded – in my admittedly, very limited perspective – is something that’s long overdue for this character and it’s allowing me to move past Kolchak’s haplessness and enjoy the rest of the concept: a rumpled, unlikely monster-hunter.

And for his first case, he’s looking for a Florida skunk ape (in spite of the cover, which – while cool – has nothing to do with anything in the book), so I’m totally into that too.

Amazon of the Week: Marion Ravenwood

There are several reasons why Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best of the Indiana Jones films and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is at the top of the list. Although she plays the damsel in distress for a significant part of the movie, she never feels like she’s filling that role. She’s strong, she’s capable, and if you’re a guy in her way, she’ll either seduce you, punch you, or drink you under the table depending on what the situation calls for.

Of the many problems Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has, the biggest is that it didn’t continue the story of Indy and Marion. Kate Capshaw’s whiny, spoiled Willie Scott is no substitute. And though Alison Doody’s Elsa Schneider was pretty tough in The Last Crusade, she lost points by being a villain (though I should probably watch that again with fresh eyes; I just remember being disappointed at the time).

It was smart of them to bring Marion back for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but a shame that they didn’t give her a lot to do. She wasn’t nearly as tough and cool as she’d been in Raiders. But then again, neither was Indy.

Land of the Lost: Season Three (Episode Twelve: Scarab)

Sorry I couldn’t get this done yesterday. Spent the day rescuing people trapped by snow. I may have watched a Shirley Temple movie too, but it had a surly lighthouse keeper and Buddy Ebsen as a dancing sailor, so it was also a very manly activity.

Season One: Part One, Two, and Three.
Season Two: Part One and Two.
Season Three: Part One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, and Eleven.

Episode 12: “Scarab”

While collecting firewood with Holly, Cha-Ka discovers a huge, golden beetle. Rather than continue to help with chores, he ditches Holly to catch the insect.

Back at the temple, the Marshalls are patient about Cha-Ka’s laziness. As Jack points out, Cha-Ka doesn’t understand what it means to be part of a family that helps each other. They don’t point it out, but this makes sense considering his background with the abusive Ta and Sa. Cha-Ka’s defense for wanting to take the day off is that he worked yesterday, but the Marshalls explain that they did too. There’s still work to be done and they all need to pitch in and do it. That’s a great lesson for the young kids presumably watching the show, but also an indication of where the series was headed: less continuity and world-building; more adventure stories with moral lessons.

Cha-Ka gets what Jack and the others are telling him and promises to help, but before he has a chance, he and Holly argue over whether or not he should be able to keep the beetle. Holly contends that it’s wrong and that the bug should be let go. Cha-Ka ignores her, but as he’s putting the beetle into a cage, the insect bites him and flies away. It’s a painful bite and Cha-Ka decides he can’t go hunting for firewood after all. The Marshalls let him stay, but as soon as they’re gone he grins malevolently and trashes the temple.

His mischief doesn’t end there. Next he goes out to find Grumpy, taunts the T-Rex into following him, and leads the theropod to where the Marshalls are gathering their firewood. They escape – barely – and as they rest from the chase, Will notices Cha-Ka running through the jungle in the direction of the Lost City. They decide that Cha-Ka must be looking for them, so Will goes to get him while Jack takes Holly (injured while running from Grumpy) and the firewood back to the temple.
Cha-Ka enters the Lost City, sneaks past the Sleestak guards, and goes to the Cave of the Pit where the Sleestaks’ pit god lives. There’s a new obelisk at the edge of the pit just begging to be toppled into it, so Cha-Ka obliges. It disappears into the foggy hole where we can’t see anything, but I like to imagine that it hits the pit god on the head, because the creature immediately begins to bellow. That brings the Sleestaks running, letting Cha-Ka put his real plan into action. He sneaks into the Library of Skulls and steals the Skull of Wisdom.

Cha-Ka’s gone beyond mischief-making now. In place of the skull he sticks Will’s knife. The Sleestak Leader jumps to exactly the conclusion Cha-Ka wants him to, ignoring the attempts of Enik – who saw Cha-Ka leave the Lost City with the skull – to relate what he observed. The Sleestaks capture Will when he comes looking for Cha-Ka, and take him to the pit.

Back at the temple, Jack and Holly are confused about why the place is a mess, but don’t suspect anything’s wrong until Jack notices Cha-Ka lurking outside. When Jack tries to find out what’s going on, Cha-Ka makes a run for it, kicking and biting Jack in the process. He’s no match for Jack though, who overpowers him and carries him back inside. Even then though, Jack and Holly only think Cha-Ka’s being uncharacteristically naughty, not actively evil.

In the Lost City, Enik’s still trying to explain about Cha-Ka and is still being shouted down by the Sleestak Leader. The Leader starts a primitive hour glass and tells Will that he’s going into the pit if he doesn’t reveal the skull’s location before time runs out. Enik tries one last time to intervene, but the Leader shuts him up again, saying that Enik should be spending his time praying that Will’s sacrifice appeases the pit god. If it doesn’t, Enik’s next. It’s surprising to see the Leader turn on Enik so quickly, but it’s not out of character. The Sleestaks have never appreciated Enik’s cooperation, which makes his dedication to helping them learn and improve as a race that much more noble.

Making no headway with the Sleestaks, Enik visits the Marshalls at the temple and confronts Cha-Ka about what he saw. Cha-Ka freaks out and confesses that he took the skull, but isn’t telling where it is even though it means Will’s life. “Cha-Ka not like Will! Cha-Ka not like Sister! Cha-Ka not like anybody!”

Holly realizes that something’s seriously wrong and wonders if the beetle that bit Cha-Ka was poisonous. That’s the piece of the puzzle that Enik needs. He questions them about the beetle and declares that it’s Tula, not Aquagirl, but the ancient scarab once worshipped by the Egyptians. When offended – as Cha-Ka did by trying to take it captive – it stings and releases the evil nature of its victims, sending them down a path of self-destruction.

How Enik knows about the Egyptians is a mystery, but we can speculate that all the testing and exploration he’s done with various time-portals may have allowed him some peeks at Earth’s history. At any rate, he says that the only way for Cha-Ka to be free of the curse is to atone for his misbehavior by finding the scarab and treating it with kindness.

The problem of course is that Cha-Ka refuses to cooperate. Holly knows that the scarab lives in the swamp and they find it quickly, but rather than feed it a delicious flower that Holly finds, Cha-Ka runs away…right towards Lulu, the two-headed monster that lives in the swamp.

Jack saves Cha-Ka and tries to explain that he’s going to kill himself if he doesn’t straighten out. That seems to sink in and Cha-Ka reluctantly offers the scarab a flower, but before the beetle can eat it, as if the pressure of doing good is too much for him, Cha-Ka runs off into the jungle. Jack and Holly leave the scarab to its meal and go after him.

Meanwhile, Will’s time has run out and the Sleestaks are about to push him into the pit. Cha-Ka narrowly saves the day by running in with the skull and threatening to toss it into the hole if the Sleestaks don’t release Will. The tactic works, but as soon as the Sleestaks get the skull they chase Will and Cha-Ka out of the Lost City and keep on chasing them. Fortunately, a thunderstorm is just getting started and the lightning sends the Sleestaks back into their caves.

Will and Cha-Ka meet up with Jack and Holly and the four return to the temple to hunker down for the storm. Cha-Ka’s learned his lesson about laziness and offers to keep the fire stoked since the others did all the collecting of the wood.

Though I miss the complexity of the first season, this episode shows that the new direction of the series could’ve been worthwhile. Having a main character temporarily turn evil was a staple of ’70s adventure television, but even considering that lack of originality, this was a tense episode with a great lesson for kids that wasn’t forced, but felt organic to the story.