The Original Science-Fiction Hero, Part 2:

Buck Rogers and the Art of the Reboot

In last week’s column, I wrote about the original novella from Amazing Stories that first introduced Buck Rogers.  This week I want to look at two recent attempts to reboot the character.

Whenever I talk to non-comics readers, one of the most persistent questions they ask is why comic books (and superheroes in particular) have become so popular.  It’s a good question—one with a dozen or more answers, almost all of which carry a sliver of truth.  The sliver I want to talk about this week involves reboots.

We seem to be living in a dearth of original ideas these days—especially where pop culture is concerned.  It’s one of the many downsides to the rise of corporate power.  Take the book industry.  Despite the appearance of hundreds of imprints, the vast majority of them are controlled by only five mega-companies.  The result is a tight-fisted, conservative, risk-averse industry that only “gambles” on books that come with guaranteed sales.

The same is true of other forms of mass entertainment.  Our movie theaters are filled with sequels and remakes, our television networks are all trying to recreate the hit show from two years ago, and commercial theater has become so dependent on adaptations that even the most mediocre of movies gets the full Broadway musical treatment.

Which brings us back to comics.  While this corporate-driven desire for “products” with built-in audiences is stifling to originality, it means there is a much greater interest in finding ways to revamp or reboot older ideas.  And pouring new wine into old bottles is something comics have been specializing in for decades.

Part of what made the comics of the ‘80s particularly exciting was that when creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were able to apply their revisionist sensibility to the always-in-need-of-a-revamp comic book characters, the comics industry suddenly found itself in a cultural leadership position.  At that point, comic books were doing a much better job of rebooting old characters and concepts than film, television, or theater.

In fact, it took almost an entire generation before the film and television industry began delivering similarly impressive reboots of tired (and in some instances dead) franchises like Battlestar Galactica, Batman Begins, Doctor Who, Casino Royale, Star Trek, and Sherlock.

But what makes a good reboot?  Recently, we’ve seen two efforts to reboot Buck Rogers.  While neither is completely satisfying, the differences in their approach are still instructive for looking at what is necessary for a reboot to stick.

As I wrote last week, Buck Rogers has been a pop culture icon in the United States for more than 80 years now. [1] However, the character has never been particularly successful in the comic book market.  The newspaper strips were frequently reprinted in Famous Funnies—a small handful with some marvelous Frank Frazetta covers—but the attempts at producing original Buck Rogers stories for comic books have been rare.

There was a single issue in the early ‘60s, a short-lived TV tie-in series in the early ‘80s, and a companion series for a role-playing game in the early ‘90s.  As comic book resumes go, that’s pretty thin.

Thus, when Dynamite Entertainment introduced a new Buck Rogers series in 2009, it was pretty significant.  Dynamite had already come to specialize in updating pulp heroes like the Green Hornet, Zorro, and the Lone Ranger.  A new Dynamite version of Buck Rogers seemed like a perfect fit.

Much about the book works.  The concept designs by Alex Ross and John Cassaday are sleek, clean, and futuristic.  They manage to capture the feel of the old Buck Rogers strip without relying on retro designs, and Carlos Rafael largely maintains that crisp look throughout the series.  The story, written by Scott Beatty, updates the setting so that Buck Rogers is a contemporary, 21st Century astronaut whose experimental flight inadvertently launches him into the 25th Century.

The early issues alternate between the story in the 25th Century and the backstory from the 21st.  In fact, the contemporary story continues even after Buck is sent forward in time.  Over the first five issues, Beatty keeps returning to the contemporary storyline, though with increasingly diminished returns.

The storytelling is uneven at times.  Some of the subplots, including one involving genetically modified, sentient animals, seem underdeveloped, and there are jumps in the narrative—particularly between the issues #5 and #6—that almost feel like we missed an issue.   Equally troubling are those flashbacks.  For a while I feared they were going to suffer from “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.”  Like Richie’s older brother from the first few episodes of Happy Days, the flashbacks seemed like an idea that the creators gradually lost interest in until finally, like Chuck, they were dropped altogether with the hopes that no one would notice.  Then, after several issues and with little warning, they return once again.

But despite a few rough spots, the concept design and the lightness of the tone make for a slick, readable, mildly pleasant comic that goes down like Jell-O.  It’s unobjectionable, though not vey filling.  It might’ve been interesting to see where Beatty and company were planning to take the series long-term, but apparently the Dille estate, which controls Buck Rogers, decided to license the character to Hermes Press, instead.

Hermes began reprinting the newspaper strips a year before the Dynamite series began, and for their reboot they hired the legendary Howard Chaykin.  Like the Dynamite series, the Chaykin version is a mixed bag—though for very different reasons.

With characters like Dominic Fortune and the Shadow, Chaykin has shown an affinity for mixing irony with pulp heroes, and his own series, American Flagg! is one of the signature books of the ‘80s.  Personally, I’ve long been an admirer of his artwork, but not so much his writing.  Yet, strangely enough, with Buck Rogers, it’s his writing that outshines his pencils.

Anyone attempting to reboot Buck Rogers ultimately has to deal with some difficult issues.  As I wrote last week, the original novella was predicated on anti-Asian paranoia and sexism, and both those elements factored in the newspaper strip as well.  In the Dynamite series, Beatty largely sidestepped these issues, but Chaykin decides to tackle them head on.  His Buck Rogers is a World War I veteran and a product of the ‘20s.

But instead of making him the representative of outdated and offensive notions, Chaykin gives him a very different backstory.  His Buck Rogers left World War I bitter and disillusioned, feeling like the entire war was little more than another example of the wealthy and powerful exploiting the common people.  In his opening narration, Buck lays out his socio-political perspective pretty clearly:  “When I got stateside, I found myself on the red side of a lot of pitched battles … fighting it out with sticks and bricks, wading into a hired army of simps, saps and suckers—working stiffs conned into working for the plutocrats.”

As the story progresses, Chaykin fills in even more details of Buck’s battles from the ‘20s as a young socialist union organizer who is far more likely to quote Eugene V. Debs than he is any of the proponents of the so-called “Yellow Scare.”  He even adds that after the war it was obvious that he and his fellow pilots had “been sold a bill of goods … dying to keep our masters rich.”

So Chaykin uses this socialist “man of the people” to critique the racism of those around him in the 25th Century, and the plot eventually involves him reaching out to some Chinese-Americans for help with their struggle against the Hans.

All of this makes for a plausible backstory for Buck Rogers, but his complaints about plutocracy and his calls for uniting against the common enemy resonate equally well for contemporary readers—especially in our current environment of unchecked corporate power and income inequality.  That’s why, even though Chaykin’s art is erratic in this book, the story itself has stayed with me and even prompted re-reading.  It’s the fiber to counter-balance too much Jell-O.  Now if only someone could find a way to combine the two.

[1] As one of our readers commented last week, the popularity of the character remained largely isolated to the United States—a fact I hadn’t really considered or been aware of until then.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed your article, thanks! I don’t agree with your points about the film industry and such. One might believe that it’s a new phenomenon that Hollywood relies on ‘unoriginal’ material and is risk averse. But blockbusters are the most risky proposition of all, really. One failure and the studio is sunk. Historically, there are loads of sequels in early Hollywood, loads of blockbusters (then called Super Films and other terms), and an inherent will to serialisation. Indeed, there were more recycled scripts during Hollywood’s first decades than ever today. It is a myth that contemporary culture is somehow more ‘unoriginal’. That being said, I think we should look at what is being remade, rebooted, and sequelised etc. Branded entertainment. Nobody is looking to reboot Buck Rogers today (it’s probably on the slate somewhere though) as that fan base consist of you and I (and a few others) so it’s possibly not economically viable. I would love it if a Buck Rogers film smashed the box office!

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