Past Tomorrows: Back to the Buck Rogers Future

The 1969 moonwalk sparked both a wider interest and new respect for the science-fiction genre and tons of reflection on the ways speculative fiction anticipated contemporary tech. References to our realizing a “Buck Rogers” future flooded the media zone, and Chelsea House published in late ’69 one of the earliest oversized reprints of classic comics, The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, introduced by Ray Bradbury writing about “Buck Rogers in Apollo Year 1.”

I was age 11 at the time, and had my own fleeting dalliance with sci-fi that drew me to this Chelsea volume at the local library and helped start a much deeper, longer love affair with newspaper comic strips. But an unusual source of comics fandom came into my house at the same time – a trade advertisement for high quality paper stock from the Warren Paper company. Some background. My father was a commercial artist with his own small ad agency in Northern New Jersey. We received at the home office a ton of trade magazines and ads. The S.D. Warren Paper Company promotions were far and away the smartest, most alluring trade marketing I have seen, then or since. To demo the print effect of their premium paper stocks, they created these lush, deeply researched pieces of content marketing that dug into topics like magic or the history of the circus, etc. I recently came upon the one Warren promote that remains etched in my memory – the 1970 celebration of how the Buck Rogers strip imagined accurately the gadgetry and transformative technology of the future.

The one-piece fold-out opened first onto that gorgeous splash above, with the classic Dick Calkins portrait of Buck in mid battle. These are the kinds of magnified newspaper comics images that helped the 12-year-old me into a love of the form. The line art of Calkns, Chester Gould, Will Eisner are among the first classic artists to captivate me. The art style of Buck Rogers felt at once primitive and technical. Calkins did not have a strong of perspective or even anatomy. Most of his figure positions look stiff rather than dynamic. And yet he brought to ray guns and flying ships a dreamy precision that made them live, perhaps even more than his humans.

The Warren promo folds out above to a panorama of comparing old Rogers panels to modern innovations like instant cameras, jet packs, surveillance satellites, monorails and more.

This wonderful look back to how the past imagined its future was all in the service of showing off S.D. Warren’s “Lustro Offset Enamel” paper stock, a product name that itself sounded a bit like a cartoon invention. Still, you can’t argue with a content marketing campaign so well done that an 11-year-old remembers it fondly 50 years later.

Dick Tracy 1932: The Glorious Weirdness of Chester Gould

Chester Gould’s imagination was as relentless as it was strange and even strangely mundane. His four decade run of Dick Tracy was distinguished by his signature villain grotesques, striking graphic violence and often arch-conservative politics. Reviewing Tracy’s first year of strips lately, I was struck by a few scenes that both veered from the strip’s eventual form but also practiced many of its regular notes. In the image above, for instance, Tracy pumps himself up for the coming challenge of bringing down his first major nemesis, Big Boy, and rescuing a kidnapped boy. The later Tracy would of course become a rock of resolve that wouldn’t have admitted even this kind of self-encouragement. At this point, even for Gould, Tracy is still human and not yet iconic.

And yet the two-fisted and eccentric manliness of Tracy and many of his pulp fiction counterparts was central to the character from the beginning. And Gould’s politics clearly were already set as early as 1932. Tracy was conceived as a lawman who necessarily had one foot outside police institutions. In fact, before the murder of fiancee Tess Trueheart’s father Emil, Dick was a civilian who had not yet found his calling. He swears upon Emil’s dead body that he will avenge the murder, which sets him on a quick path to becoming a leader among the “plainclothes” unit of the city police department. But his impatience with the bureaucracy is apparent in his unconventional methods and capacity for personal revenge and violence upon his villains. When he finally corners Big Boy, we get a crescendo of police brutality that stretches across several days. It ends with Tracy sending Big Boy crashing through a ships’ cabin door.

The twisted genius of Gould was in having it both ways with Tracy. He professed a deep respect for the law, and Tracy’s straight-backed uprightness was a feature of the strip’s characterization as well as it’s blocky noir style. And yet vigilante justice was meted out both by Tracy and Gould alike. Indeed, his colleagues in the force like Pat Patton and subsequent colleagues are seen as relatively timid and even feminized by their institution in a way that the indomitable masculinity of Dick is not. And the overall violence of the strip is clearly an extension of Tracy’s own vengefulness. The protracted chase of villains on the lam became a part of the Dick Tracy formula, and it was punctuated by the villain’s gruesome torture by nature along the way, often ending in grisly death. Violence for Gould always seemed to be the ultimate social purifier.

By Gould’s own admission, he often made it up as he went along, rarely knowing where his plots were headed and how he would get Tracy out of a jam. And so from its early days the plotting and devices often feel ham-handed, implausible or genuinely weird. His pursuit of Big Boy onto an ocean liner leads Tracy to knock out an innocent staffer to don his uniform and to dress in drag just to get onto the boat and get close to the kidnappers. Less tortured paths clearly are available to his characters, but Gould’s love of novel, unlikely story paths usually wins out.

By 1942, a decade after its launch, Gould’s visual signature for Tracy is fully established. His hawklike nose, perpendicular chin and straight lips are as much a statue as a figure, more chiseled from stone than drawn in ink. And in this self-portrait Gould himself sweats under Tracy’s command. He has created a caricature of law and order, authority and masculinity that would become a lodestone. Al Capp soon would mock his violence and surreal story and villainy. His love of authority and violence, impatience with countercultural trends would make him seem a relic by the end of the run. Yet, as much as Gould himself seemed a straight arrow defender of formal institutions, Dick Tracy itself was grounded in a surreal imagination that eschewed simple realism, broke violently with the propriety of the comics page and took us into very strange places.

Bobo Baxter: Rube Goldberg’s Bleak Screwball

Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) is best remembered for his cartoon inventions, ridiculously intricate mechanical solutions for common activities. These send-ups of modern technology and the romance of engineering appeared under multiple titles and formats across his career, but took most regular form in Collier’s Weekly between 1929 and 1931 as The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, A.K. His Foolish Question panels ran from the teens in various forms for decades. And his best-known continuous character strip of hapless failure Boob McNutt ran for more than a decade in the 1920a.

But it is in his forgotten small masterpiece Bobo Baxter (1927-1928() that I think we see Goldberg’s array of talents for satirizing the modern world come together into a persistent and satisfying whole. And at the same time Bobo shows how a sad note of alienation often lurks beneath the surface of many slapstick characters.

As godfather of comics historians Bill Blackbeard points pout in the intro to a 1970s reprint of the complete (Hyperion Press, 1977) run of strips, Bobo Baxter represented Goldberg moving (or being forced by trends) away from the gag-a-day format to the continuous characters and situations of other 20s strips like Little Orphan Annie, Bringing Up Father, The Gumps, Polly and Her Pals, etc. He had already made his Boob McNutt Sunday strip into a major hit by introducing recurring characters and continuing storylines. In 1927 he sent the form into a daily new creation, Bobo Baxter. 

We meet Bobo as an unsuccessful dreamer, envious of the fame and fortune of well-publicized explorers like Admiral Byrd and aviator Charles Lindbergh. So he builds a flying machine out of a two-seater bicycle, prop,  wing and some balloons. He seems as surprised as anyone that it flies, and he dubs the contraption “The Demi’Tasse”, bound for glory by flying across the Canadian border.

Bobo’s fixation on fame, celebrity and the press course through the strip. He is forever courting journalists and dreaming for the headlines he thinks his oddball journey will merit.

The discipline of storyline and continuity seemed to inspire Goldberg’s satiric sensibilities. In many ways the story becomes a picaresque journey through modern American social types and institutions – all of from which Bobo himself seems woefully alienated. 

Bobo himself is pathetically friendless, and a bit of a comic nebbish. At one point early in the strip he mistakenly reserves a table for his entourage at  the pricey Cafe Du high Hat. When Bobo can’t recruit anyone to come with him, he ends up animating a group of mannequins. 

Likewise, Bobo spends the first months of the strip simply in search of a passenger to bring with him. But it is the haplessness of Bobo’s plan that brings him into contact with a pastiche of American types. There is the desperate henpecked husband who would do anything to escape his onerous wife. There is the jewelry thief who is looking to escape with a pilfered pearl necklace. And there is Bobo’s own assistant Nosedive Kelly who is both too obese and anxious to make the flight but proves to be a self-promoting braggart.

Bobo’s encounters with a cast of American characters produces some wonderful moments where Goldberg’s native visual silliness, satiric eye, and critique of mechanisms both technical and social merge beautifully. Among my favorite moments comes when a Nosedive goes for an insurance checkup. “Your blood pressure is 5 pounds over the legal limit,” “Your ears a very badly designed” and “the hinges of your backbone squeak” he is told.

This is prime Rube. “Goldberg is a satirist not of fads and fanciest of rationality,” wrote Gerald W. Johnson in his 1958 review of political cartooning between the World Wars. 

The hapless comic outsider is a feature of modern comedy that deserves further thought. We see this anti-hero (and it is almost always male) in vaudeville, certainly the silent film clowns and in comic duos like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello.

But the comic strip turns the figure into a genre. Consider Happy Hooligan, Simon Simple, Moon Mullins, Jiggs, Andy Gump, A. Mutt, Baron Bean, Boob McNutt, among others.

In fact for the first two years of Goldberg’s Boob McN tut, each Sunday strip finds Boob trying to off himself 

In his recent, indispensable history of screwball comics, Paul Tumey characterizes Boob McNutt’s early years as black humor that reflected the post-WWI disillusionment of 20s America.

Maybe. I am more inclined to put Boob’s suicidal comedy and Bobo’s desperation for modern celebrity part of a longer tradition of modern comedy and especially the comic strip – the alienated clown. So many of the comic strip’s comedy fops feel themselves somehow on the curb as the great parade of American life goes by.

Indeed it is arguable that the comic strip itself carves this curbside role for us. On a daily basis, we are invited to look over the shoulder of Jiggs, Happy, Boob, Barney, Jeff, Popeye, Abner, at a main cast of characters of which we are bemused – part of but slightly apart from.

In future posts I hope to explore further this idea that the daily comic strip often created for us a light satire of modern American life and styles, types and trends that registered and leveraged a sense of middle class alienation from the very world they were creating.