Many years ago – something like 40, I think – my family was visiting the house of couple of my parents' friends. As I've mentioned in other contexts, I was not the most sociable kid; I'd learned to survive very nicely in isolation, but not how to deal with people as such, so "visiting friends" that weren't my friends (I had two) was, for me, very tense and unpleasant. My best defense was to hide somewhere behind a book, but often I couldn't bring a book, or I finished the one I had long before it was time to go home, which meant I had to search for something to read in our host's home.
On that particular evening, I was searching for something to read and looked into a smaller side room, a sort of den, with a small "coffee table" in the middle. And sitting on that glass-topped table was a huge book (not surprisingly, of the sort often called a "coffee table book") with bright colors and comic book figures, and in big letters the words "BUCK ROGERS". Reaching out, I picked it up – not without some difficulty, for it was indeed a massive tome – and I could see that the actual title was The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century.
I opened the book and was immediately captivated by one of the oldest space-opera sagas ever written. I actually skipped the written story in the front; it wasn't until much later that I discovered that the frontmatter included not only an introduction but also the original story, Armageddon 2419, on which Buck Rogers was based. I wanted to get straight to the comics,and I dove headlong into them.
I was in a peculiar position with respect to Buck Rogers. I had read some of the science fiction which was contemporary with it (Doc Smith, for example), but I was also reading a lot of material influenced by it, and its contemporaries. I thus came into it with a perspective that was not exactly that of the original readers, but not entirely modern.
This meant that while I could – quite easily – see the flaws of the work from a modern perspective (racism, stereotyping, etc., and not in small lots, either, plus of course quite a bit of "science" that wasn't on solid ground even when it was published), I could also read it for what it was and be carried along.
A young soldier, trapped in a strange cave, awakens hundreds of years later to find the world entirely changed… and yet still in need of a smart, tough, skilled soldier. That soldier, "Buck" Rogers, carrying with him the can-do optimism and absolute faith in his American heritage, becomes a focal point and driving force to rally the scattered remnants of America against their advanced enemies, the "Mongols", who have airships with disintegrator rays, among other impressive weaponry.
Undoubtedly one of the major "draws" of Buck Rogers was the gadgetry – the "jump belts" using an anti-gravity substance called "inertron", the terrible disintegrator rays, fantastic airships, submarines, and later spaceships, all discussed and diagrammed in often surprising detail in the successive strips of the comic. Despite the cavalier treatment of science at the detail level, the tone of the comic was always highly respectful of science and scientists and engineers, encouraging experiment, study, clever thinking, and always dependence on a quick mind at least as much as a strong body.
Buck Rogers was often mentioned by scientists, engineers, SF authors, and others in related fields as a major inspiration, and I could see why immediately. At the time the inventions of Buck Rogers were bleeding-edge concepts and their presentation – as tools to help save first America, and later the human race – was perfectly designed to excite the imagination and inspire a reader to see science, engineering, and related disciplines as something worth being a part of.
But Buck Rogers did not neglect the human element. Oh, by modern standards it was clumsy and crude, and even in its day must have been clearly melodrama, but it was fun melodrama. Buck's courtship of Wilma Deering was a rocky one at first, and he ended up with a rival for a while in the person of first-class mustache twirler "Killer" Kane. Kane maintained his status as a thorn in Buck's side for quite a while before being supplanted by more spectacular enemies, such as invading tiger-men from Mars.
The comic did not, however, make the mistake of keeping all things black-and-white (even if most of them were drawn in black and white!). Even the Mongols, depicted at first as almost unadulterated "yellow peril" generic Asians in the "Exotic Orient" mode, turn out to have multiple factions, some of whom are quite reasonable. There are other organizations on the planet which are at first neutral and must be swayed by circumstance or argument to work with Buck and his friends. Sometimes apparent treachery has a more sympathetic explanation, and sometimes enemies and friends must work together against something more dangerous than either is to the other.
And the comic also remembered the cardinal rule of story-writing: never make it easy on your hero. Oh, Buck was supernaturally lucky and skilled, but… damn it, he needed to be, because no matter where he went or what he was trying to do, something was going to go wrong – and usually go wrong on a world-threatening scale. A simple kidnapping might send him halfway around the world through six different forms of transportation, invading an enemy base by himself, then escaping after being captured, stealing a ship, and continuing his rescue mission.
The art style was at first a little difficult for me to adjust to, but once I did I was fascinated by the detail that was often hidden in the panels – ranging from multiple rivets spaced evenly around portholes to sketched-out objects that turned out to be something important many panels later. The designs used for vehicles were often elaborate and baroque, especially the spaceships which were finned, trimmed, edged in spectacular, if impractical, ways.
It was more than a year before we went back to visit those same friends, and I then found that the book had disappeared; I never learned if that was because they had borrowed it and thus had to return it, or sold it, or simply packed it away. But I never forgot that huge, beautiful book, and when I became an adult, I kept an eye out for it in used bookstores.
But it wasn't until the advent of Internet shopping that I finally succeeded in locating a copy of it… and found that it was just as awesome now as it had been years before.
My one disappointment was to discover that it was not a complete collection, as my hazy memory had insisted, but a sequence of selected adventures. This was most disappointing with respect to the central colored Sunday editions, which told a separate story which climaxed in an aerial duel between Buck and an expert assassin for hire, and ended with both ships crashed and the assassin fleeing into the hills, pursued by Buck –
And ended right there. How Buck caught up with him, what desperate last-ditch attempts to fight back the assassin, "Pounce", might have made, I never learned.
Still, this is a magnificent volume, unfortunately long out of print, which preserved a huge amount of the most important contributions of Buck Rogers to science fiction's history and our cultural mythology. If you happen to come across a copy, it is well worth the time and money to pick up!