Friday, September 04, 2009

Lucky Buck is Back!

There seems to be a serious effort to revive the future man of the past, Buck Rogers, judging by this Web site. Just the name "Buck Rogers" remains a catchphrase for all things new and futuristic. Even those who never read the comic strips, watched the old movie serial, or saw the 80's TV show know that there is something bright and positive and forward-thinking in the concept. He lives, after all, in the 25th century and, even though its closer to us now than it was when he was originally conceived in 1928, his time is just far enough away to give us hope that by then we will get it right. Or maybe that's not even a concern anymore, and we just like to speculate about all the cool toys they will have in the far-flung future.

For the uninitiated, Buck Rogers started out as Anthony Rogers in a novel called Armageddon 2419 AD. 20th century man Anthony Rogers becomes trapped in a cave, but a mysterious gas in the cave preserves him until he is reawakened in the year 2419. By this time, the Earth has been divided into general regions and the Mongols (i.e., Asian people) are trying to gain absolute rule over the other regions. Since Rogers is discovered by American resistance fighter Wilma Deering, he becomes a part of their cause and eventually the Mongol forces are defeated.

The novel was quickly turned into a comic strip and it spun off in its own direction, replacing the world war scenario with an outer space battle between Earth and the interplanetary gangster Killer Kane. With a real world war looming in Europe, a futuristic Al Capone, using ray guns instead of machine guns, was probably more palatable to the American readers at the time. Once Rogers, now nicknamed "Buck," was plunged into outer space, the gadgetry of the series really took off. The art style of the strip evolved as well, becoming more cartoonish and providing a real "gee-whiz" quality to this view of the future. In the Depression-era world, no wondered the gleaming rockets and gizmos of Buck Rogers seemed so appealing.

Buck Rogers continued to find an audience even as the world moved into the jet age. The storylines and overall look of the comic strip changed, reflecting the more realistic (but no less optimistic) mood of the 50s where atomic power and rockets pointed to a space age that was right around the corner.

When I was a pre-teen, Buck Rogers held a special place in my heart, although I'm not sure why. There were no comic strips, comic books, TV shows, or movies at the time that would thrust him into my consciousness. The only reference material I had was a coverless book which contained the early run of the comic strip from the 1930s, and a scratchy recording of the first radio show episode. This was enough, however, to trigger my interest in the man with the rocket pack on his back.

In the winter of '79, I dragged my dad into the cold night air to see a new movie version of Buck Rogers. Just like he had done a year earlier with Battlestar Galactica, producer Glen A. Larson made a feature-length TV pilot so he could release the pilot as a theatrical film before people could see it for free on television. I knew it was a rip off, but I so wanted to see what he had done with Buck Rogers. It actually seemed pretty good from my 14-year-old perspective. Gil Gerard's Buck was a flippant, cocky astronaut who reminded me of a macho version of Hawkeye Pierce. There was humor and action and pretty women in revealing outfits: all the stuff a young boy wants in a movie. I was so stoked to see the show when it premiered in the fall. Unfortunately, the series didn't live up to the promise of the movie. The episodes became increasingly more campy and relied too much on the jiggling T&A so prevalent in late 70s/early 80s TV. I didn't even bother with the second season where they traveled in space like a poor man's Star Trek. They even had a poor man's Spock in the form of Hawk, a half-man/half-bird hybrid. That cured me of any Buck Rogers interest after that.

In fact, ol' Buck didn't enter my consciousness again until I started collected Captain Action stuff about 10 years ago. In the mid-60s, when Ideal Toys was licensing every pop culture hero for its Captain Action line, a Buck Rogers suit was created for the good Captain to sport. I assume the suit was based on the way Buck Rogers appeared in the comic strip at the time because he only bears a passing resemblance to the Buck Rogers of the 1930s. The main difference is the silver lame suit. I guess once the NASA Mercury astronauts trotted out their shiny duds, everyone assumed that all space men would wear silver lame. The ubiquitous jet pack is part of the outfit, but it too has an updated, jet-age flair. Buck's helmet in the 1930s looked like a football helmet, but the Captain Action outfit provided a more toned-down head cover. The most interesting part of the suit for me was the gloves and boots. They both sported angled ends that are quite different from anything I have seen before. The boots, especially, have points going up the outer calf rather than in the front. Very forward thinking.

I remember seeing the Buck Rogers costume advertised when Captain Action was in the stores, but I never saw the actual costume in the flesh until my lovely wife bought me a lot of CA odds and ends on eBay, one piece being the Buck Rogers suit and face mask. Thankfully, the chest logo was in good shape, but the silver lame had become dirty and tarnished looking. Some helpful soul on the Yahoo! Captain Action list recommended that I paint the suit with DecoArt metallic silver paint. I was skeptical, but it worked out quite well. Later on, I acquired a pair of boots, but the gloves eluded me, so I ordered a pair of repros from the great Wes McCue at Classic Plastick. The jet pack was gained years later through a heated eBay auction.

I never did find a helmet at a price I wanted to pay, so I made my own version starting with a dark blue helmet from a G.I. Joe set. I removed the visor and covered the ear holes with wheels from a jet airplane model kit. Since the original helmet had little silver balls running up the center, I looked for something that would create the same effect. I never liked how the balls on the original helmet stopped midway up the back for no particular reason, so I had mine run all the way from back to front. They're actually a set of fake pearls from a Disney's Aladdin action figure set which I glued on. After painting over them with a silver stripe, Buck looked ready for action.

The accessories, such as the ray gun and the canteen (?) seldom surface on eBay, but I don't really care. They always seemed like throwaway pieces anyway. The jet pack really made the suit.

I'm hoping that, with all this new interest in Buck Rogers, someone will put together a decent movie or TV series based on the character. Just as Superman is the prototype super hero, Buck Rogers is the prototype science fiction hero. We would never have had Captain Kirk without Buck Rogers, whether Mr. Roddenberry consciously realized it or not. Buck represents what Americans most want to be with a positive eye to the future and no challenge too great to overcome. We could use a revamped Buck Rogers right about now.