Buck Rogers and the Steampunk Future of 1930s America

The hero of Buck Rogers was never Buck himself, really, so much as the future itself. And that was fortunate, because neither writer Phil Nowlan nor lead artist Dick Calkins was competent at the actual craft of the comic strip.

No one ever accused Calkins of artistic dexterity. The overall look of Buck Rogers was wooden, lacking in perspective or proportion, barren of expressiveness or even basic blocking of figures within the panel. Limbs often seemed out of scale with bodies and positioned with the naturalness of a marionette. Moreover, Calkins worked with assistants throughout the original artist’s run who reportedly popped in to do different parts of the strip, including some fetching female figures that were disorienting to a reader accustomed to the strip’s unconvincing art.

Which is to say that the limited range of Calkins’ talent pretty much matched writer Phil Nowlan’s narrow narrative reach. The adventure itself lacked character, suspense, pace or setting.

But enough Buck bashing. I’ll save my rant on Nowlan’s many storytelling and cultural sins for another time. In fact, it is the basic badness of the Buck Rogers comics strip, especially in the 1930s, that makes its chief claim on our attention stand out. While other adventure strips of the day like Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Popeye, Wash Tubbs and Capt. Easy clearly were about their eponymous protagonists and their villainous antagonists, the only compelling feature of Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D. was the future itself. To their credit, everyone concerned seemed on the same page of what the strip really was about. In the 1940s, Dill Syndicate head John Dill reflected that in the late 1920s he was looking for a strip set centuries in the future “in which theories in the test tubes and the laboratories of the scientists would be garnished up with a bit of imagination and treated as realities.”

And that is precisely where Buck Roger’s 25th Century adventure is compelling and fun, when it projects the technologies and lab experiments of 20s and 30s America into the future. And oddly, this where Nowlan and Calkins two dimensional approach to story and art excelled. The flip side of their shared weakness in depicting human depth or expression was a loving attention to detail when it came to objects without a pulse or soul. They had a catchy way of imagining gadgetry of the future. As I detail below they had a pretty good track record of anticipating technologies that would become commonplace after WWII. Many of them, like TVs, robots, and even rocket ships were either in development in some form or were part of the early science fiction ether where Nowlon got his start.

Adventure comics historian Ron Goulart suggests that Calkins’ technical drawing style was indebted to early sci-fi magazine cover artist and illustrator Frank R. Paul, who appeared often in Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories, the main pulp vehicles for early speculative fiction. The story that caught publisher Dille’s eye was Nowlan’s iteration of Buck as “Anthony Rogers” in “Armageddon – 2419 A.D.” in Amazing Stories Aug. 1928. The evolution of that story into Buck Rogers brought a niche genre into the mainstream and became most Americans’ first exposure to the science fiction genre’s ability to imagine a far future. And today it comes off as a captivating steampunk melange of retro stylings for aspirational technology.

When it came to gadgetry, Calkins showed an appreciation for rendering the details of mechanism, materials and surfaces. His horizontal and vertical hatch work across metal surfaces became a signature of most Buck Rogers technology. But his thick line work and flat perspective leant a cartoonish quality to the machine, a touch of Rube Goldberg’s contraption aesthetic that made this future tech feel more imagined than precise.

Drones

It was not too much of a stretch for 1929 Americans to envision a future where wireless communication, TV tech, flight and visual surveillance would merge. But Nowlan and Calkins were pretty spot on in expecting a drone-like device

Buck Rogers, Early Brick Phone Adopter

Buck might be rocking a pre-iPhone Nokia hand brick there. Nevertheless, the 2049 (via 1929) “Radiophone” seems to sense how the two chief inventions of the modern world – radio and the phone – were destined to merge.

“Self-Developing Ultra-Violet Prints”: Instant Photos

Buck Rogers was especially good at understanding how multiple technologies would complement one another and find new uses over time. Here the vision of high def televisual transmission blends with a self-developing photo process that anticipated the first Land camera in 1948 that introduced consumers to the concept of self-developing photos. The basic idea of instant images, had been developed in more cumbersome formats as early as 1928.

Surveillance Video and TV

Surveillance via TV technology is a major element of the Buck Rogers future. In this case Detecto Television uses hidden cameras across the Mongol empire to help a rebel faction plot insurrection.

Spyware

Nowlan seemed to understand that as all technology gained more power through wireless communication they would become subject to hacking and spying. Phone wiretapping was invented in the 1890s and became a common law enforcement tool during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. Nowlan simply projected the basic concept onto the communications mainstay of 2049 – the Televisor.

Steampunk Military Industrial Complex

Nowlan and Calkins were most captivating when the former dug into his sci-fi toolbox and the latter married cartoon illustration with futuristic blueprints. They loved to stop the action, blow apart typical panel breakdown and just ogle over the spec sheets of tomorrow. Above, they outline the rebel Americans’ rocket ship cruiser, complete with functional details like “spring landing skids“ that helped us imagine the blueprint brought to life. Nowlan and Calkins’ vision of rocketry seemed effective enough to inform the designs we meet in the movie serial versions of Buck Rogers. Fish-shaped cruisers skidding to a stop on their bellies were a mainstay of the sci-fi serials of the 1930s.

Calkins seemed to take special personal pride in these illustrations, which reflect much greater care and attention to detail than he showed elsewhere. This respect for machinery may have held over from the artist’s WWI experience. He often reverted to signing the strip “Lt. Dick Calkins” and at times adding “Air Corps Res.”

“Iron Man” Origin Story

Perhaps the finest Calkins and Nowlan geek out comes with “Iron Man,” their remote controlled robot soldier. They devote what would have been a three panel progression to a panoramic illustration of the device’s specs and functionality.

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