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That Crazy Buck Rogers Stuff

 

There used to be a kind of emnity between Science Fiction fans and comic books. I suspect a large part of this snobbery was Hard SF purists looking down on pure fantasy of the funnybooks. Perhaps it was because after years of being derided as lowbrow, escapist trash, SF needed something to feel superior to. The rivalry has lessened, I think, since both forms have filtered into the mainstream of popular culture, and these days there's a fair amount of overlap between the two fandoms. Which is appropriate, because comic books owe a great deal to the worlds of Science Fiction. In fact, you could say that we owe the Silver Age of Comics to the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Before comic books even existed in the form we know today, comics brought Science Fiction out of the Pulp Magazines and introduced it to mainstream popular culture in the persona of Buck Rogers. A newspaper syndicate president named John F. Dille read a novella titled “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by a writer named Philip Francis Nowlan, about a man who finds himself thrust five hundred years into the future. Dille saw potential in the story, and hired Nowlan to adapt it into a comic strip. BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY didn't necessarily grant respectability to the young genre – for a generation or so afterward Science Fiction was known as “That Crazy Buck Rogers Stuff” – but it did give a taste of other worlds to readers who might never have touched a lurid Pulp magazine.

A number of the writers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction also wrote for comic books. Otto Binder, best known to comics fans as a prolific writer for Fawcett Comics' CAPTAIN MARVEL, started out collaborating with his brother Earl writing for AMAZING STORIES under the name Eando Binder; (“E” and “O”). One of his most notable creations of that period, “Adam Link, Robot” was an inspiration for Isaac Asimov's robot stories and was later adapted as an episode of THE OUTER LIMITS.

DC Comics legend Gardner Fox, whose career stretched from the 1930s to the late 1960s, was also a prolific writer of short stories for magazines like AMAZING, PLANET STORIES, and WEIRD TALES and adventure novels, sometimes under a variety of pseudonymns. Fox created both the Golden Age Flash and the Silver Age version; as well as inventing the concept of Earth One and Earth Two upon which the DC Multiverse was based.

Every GREEN LANTERN fan can recite the Green Lantern Oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night; no evil shall escape my sight. Let all who worship evil's might, beware my power, Green Lantern's light!” This oath was created by SF legend Alfred Bester, perhaps most famous for his novels “The Demolished Man” and “The Stars My Destination”, who for a time wrote the GREEN LANTERN comic book. He also created the Golden Age GL Oath.

But perhaps the nexus of the SF/Comic Book universes would have to be Julius Schwartz, “The Man of Two Worlds”, as he called himself in his autobiography, a reference to the FLASH story “Flash of Two Worlds” which he edited. Julie Schwartz was a member of Science Fiction's First Fandom, publishing one of the first SF fanzines along with Forrest J. Ackerman and later fellow DC editor Mort Weisinger. He formed a literary agency specializing in SF and represented writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch. He even handled H.P. Lovecraft briefly, and sold Lovecraft's novella “At the Mountains of Madness” to ASTOUNDING STORIES. He also helped organize the first World Science Fiction Convention.

In the 1940s, Schwartz became an editor for All-American Comics, one of the companies which eventually morphed into DC Comics. It was there, during the late '50s and early '60s, that Julie became the midwife of the Silver Age, overseeing a super-hero revival with revamps of The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and others. Schwartz recruited some of his SF contacts, like Alfred Bester, to write for him, and borrowed the name of Ray Palmer, the former editor of AMAZING, for the new version of the Atom.

(Palmer himself is an interesting guy. He earned the dislike of many Hard SF fans for hyping flying saucers and weird occult conspiracy theories, but his breathless editorials, combining bombastic hype with self-deprecating humor, remind me of yet another comic book editor of that period. I strongly suspect that Stan Lee was a fan of Palmer's).

This new generation of super-heroes had a strong basis in science fiction. The original Hawkman was the reincarnation of an Egyptian pharaoh, but his replacement was a policeman from another planet. Schwartz also created Adam Strange, a space-based hero who had no super-powers but who combined elements of Flash Gordon with John Carter of Mars. He filled in the odd corners of his books with illustrated science factoids for the science geeks in his audience.

Schwartz's re-vamping of the Green Lantern represents perhaps his greatest borrowing from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, got his powers from a magic lamp. (His creator, Martin Nodell, originally wanted to name him “Alan Ladd”, to evoke “Aladdin”). To update the concept for the Space Age, Schwartz and writer John Broome changed the character into a member of an organization of galactic lawmen, the Green Lantern Corps, inspired by the Lensmen series by science fiction patriarch E.E. “Doc” Smith.

Like the members of the Green Lantern Corps, the Lensmen maintained law and order throughout the galaxy using advanced technology given them by a super-advanced alien race. In the Lensmen books, these aliens were the Arisians, an incredibly ancient race with vast mental powers who have been secretly guiding the nascent civilizations of the galaxy and aiding them against the malevolent Boskonians. They recruited the Lensmen from among the most promising civilizations of the galaxy and gave them wrist-mounted devices called Lenses, focusing their native intelligence into incredible psionic abilities, much as the Green Lantern Corps were given rings allowing them to convert their willpower into forms of glowing green energy. DC tacitly admitted the connection between the Lanterns and the Lensmen by introducing a character in the '80s named Arisia.

In these and many other ways the ideas of the Golden Age of SF have become incorporated into the DNA of comics and passed on to readers who may have never heard of Bester and Binder and “Doc Smith”

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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.