Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Newspaper Dailies: Volume One: 1929-1930 (2009)
Philip Francis Nowlan, writer
Richard “Dick” Calkins, artist
Hardcover, 320 pages
First, you MUST consider when this work was originally published: the late 1920s, early 1930s. Think about what the world was like, with all its prejudices, worries and fears. Realize also that you’ve got the literature of the time looking back on the horrors of World War I, with novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. You’ve got the beginning of the end of the silent film era. And, of course, you’ve got the Great Depression. Understand that these influences (and many more) are all significant. Once you’ve understood those things, THEN read these newspaper strips.
Yes, the stories are silly, but they're also quite amazing. If you feel like you’ve been here before, you have. Your favorite science fiction stories and comics probably borrowed (or stole) a lot from Buck Rogers. This strip was and is an important part of science fiction and comic book culture. There’s no getting around that.
The stories are simply all over the place, nowhere near as consistently good as the artwork, but the sense of wonder here is infectious and makes you want to keep reading. You’ll encounter more gadgets than logic, more improbable science than fact, and plot points that make no sense at all. You’ll wonder if Nowlan and Calkins had ADHD. (Maybe they did.) If you’re like me, you’ll wish Nowlan and Calkins had developed these stories more. I mean, c’mon, you’ve got a guy that falls asleep for 500 years and wakes up in a totally different world, one in which America has been conquered by the Red Mongols. Just the political nature of this situation alone could’ve been explored for years. (And, to be fair, it sometimes is.)
Yet I found myself fascinated by these stories. Their imagination and creativity are boundless, their energy unstoppable. The book starts with an introduction (which is rather more of a cultural history) of Buck Rogers by Ron Goulart, followed by seven “chapters” of stories, some of which follow immediately upon the heels of the previous ones, some of which start brand new stories. The final two chapters, “Land of the Golden People” and “Synthetic Gold Plot” are the weakest, stooping mostly to rescue melodrama as Buck Rogers seeks to find and reconcile with his missing girlfriend Wilma.
A word about the printing is in order. Most pages contain two daily strips (all in black and white), apparently the same size as they appeared in newspapers. This makes for some pretty large pages, but I’d rather have them in their original size than shrunk down to fit more strips onto a page.
Some of the printing is not completely uniform. At times, letters don’t print correctly or they print very dimly. This doesn’t happen all that often, but it is annoying when it does. A bigger problem, at least for me, is the tendency of the letterer to make the letter P look very much like the letter D. This drove me crazy. Also a problem, but not quite as offensive, is the letterer’s tendency to have the letter T take a slight dip at the top, making it resemble a lazy Y.
Of course, these annoyances are just part of the ways that comics and comic strips have evolved over the years. In more modern comics, we’re used to having the narration portion appear at the top of the panel before the characters speak. Here, it’s usually at the bottom. We’re also used to reading thought and speech balloons from left to right, top to bottom. Sometimes that happens here, sometimes not. So, once again, remember, you’re reading a comic strip that’s more than 80 years old.
For all its faults, Buck Rogers is filled with grand escapism and wonder, and as such, it’s not only an wonderful read, but an important one in the history of both sf and comics. While it’s not my favorite newspaper comic strip (That would be Terry and the Pirates), and not one I’ll probably read beyond this volume, I very much appreciate it and am glad to have read it.