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Publisher: Bluejack

February, 2005 : Essay:

Raygun Carnage

A noted science-fiction author of my acquaintance, gone all furrow-browed over the latest issues of Science and Astronomy, complained to me about neutrinos, as though I could do anything about those small, chargeless particles that are emitted in every atomic reaction—as though, frankly, I had ever given the little buggers much thought at all. In theory, he explained, neutrinos have mass and, indeed, comprise nine-tenths of all matter; this somehow dictates a closed universe. He found this prospect highly unnerving.

Not I; I didn't know enough about it to be unnerved, and still don't. Physicists lost me ages ago, at least as far back as when they decided that there was more to atoms than just electrons, neutrons, and protons. Not that I’m willfully ignorant about scientific matters, but it's been some time since I last tried to make heads or tails of Up, Down, Bottom, Charm, Strange, Sneezy, Bashful, Dopey, and other quark-particle properties, or—for that matter, jumping from the submicroscopic level to the macro—handily recalled how many moons Jupiter or Saturn has, or even how big our own moon is. Whenever I hear the word "positronium," I reach for my reprints of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips.

Buck and Flash almost certainly never heard of Charm and Strange, and if they did they no doubt shrugged impatiently and fired off another atom-ray blast at the Tiger Men of Mars or the _____ (fill in blank with animal, vegetable, or mineral) Men of Mongo; they had all they could do to keep Wilma Deering and Dale Arden, their respective lady loves, out of the clutches of their respective arch-foes, "Killer" Kane and Ming the Merciless; even their respective scientist-mentors, Doctors Huer and Zarkov, usually seemed too busy with eleventh-hour lash-ups of The One Super-Weapon That Can Save The Universe to stay abreast of the scientific journals.

It was no different in other science-fiction comic strips and comic books: as long as one had a rocketship and the nerve to charge screaming, if perhaps not in so many words, "Eat hypertropic death, alien scum!" into the midst of the Uranium Gun-Runners of Mars, one could be a space hero; the chief scientific fact that had to be borne in mind at all times being that there is no air in outer space. Space heroes understood as a matter of course that there are scarier, or at least more immediate, threats than neutrinos loose in the universe: the cactus men of Venus, for instance.

Phil Nowlan and Dick Caulkins' Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon were the archetypal space-action comics. Buck had made his début in the first science-fiction pulp magazine, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, in 1928 and became the star of a daily newspaper strip the following year. The gorgeously drawn Flash, whose lineage can be traced back to Edgar Rice Burroughs' archetypal John Carter of Mars, zoomed onto the Sunday funnies page in 1934. Each begat scores of imitators.

Reprints of Buck's strip started in Famous Funnies, one of the first modern comic books, in 1934, and of Flash's, in King Comics two years later. Then, in 1938, came Action Comics, starring Superman, a runaway seller. The funny books, which till then had rather limped along, suddenly became serious business: established pulp-magazine publishers branched out into the new medium; anyone else who could get up the capital and hire some kids fresh from high school to write and draw the things did so; comics with such titles as Speed, Whiz, Flash, Smash, Crash, Hit, Fight, and More Fun began to jostle one another for room on the magazine rack.

There being a lot of comic books, fat 64-pagers at that, and a consequent demand for a lot of material to go into them, every imaginable kind of feature got produced and published. The costumed crimefighters held the lead spots, of course; Superman, after all, was the selling point of Action Comics, its star, its raison d'être, and other publishers duly adopted not only the Man of Steel's formula for success but his magazine's as well—guy with cape and longjohns on the cover and in the front slot, filler in the rest. Thus, as the caped and masked headliners competed with one another to see who could beat up the most racketeers and spies, the back pages swarmed with jungle kings and queens, magicians, masked mystery riders of the Old, G-men, detectives, newspaper reporters, aviators, soldiers of fortune, Oriental masterminds, and, unsurprisingly, interplanetary adventurers. These last were no less the illegitimate issue of Buck and/or Flash than was any character in any other category cited above the offspring of Tarzan of the Apes or Mandrake the Magician, Brenda Starr or the Lone Ranger, Doctor Fu Manchu or Scorchy Smith.

While reprints of Buck's and Flash's adventures ran on in Famous Funnies and King Comics, Science Comics trotted out Cosmic Carson and Perisphere Payne, Tommy Tomorrow rode around on Superman’s coattails (or cape) in Action Comics, and Adventure Comics offered the more mundanely named Mark Lansing of Mickishawn and Cotton Carver. While Lance Lewis, Space Detective, did his stuff in Startling Comics and Gary Concord, the Ultra Man, unraveled futuristic intrigues in All-American Comics, Rex Dexter of Mars struggled against mad scientists, rampaging monsters, and lunatic story lines in Mystery Men Comics; while Spacehawk, by the great Basil Wolverton, battled crime all over the Solar System in Target Comics, John Carter, the original interplanetary swashbuckler, crossed swords with the giant green men of Mars in The Funnies. Fiction House, publishers of generically tagged pulp magazines and comics, Fight, Wings, Jungle, and so forth, did all the other companies several better with a long-lived (1940-53) book entirely devoted to space heroes: Planet Comics, home to The Star Pirate, The Red Comet, Reef Ryan, Flint Baker, Auro (sort of a Jovian Tarzan), and Mars, God of War. Even the indefatigable Hugo Gernsback hopped (briefly) onto the bandwagon with Superworld Comics, but evidently not even cover art by his favorite, Frank R. Paul, could sell a package of characters named Mitey Powers, the Invisible Avenger, and Hip Knox the Super Hypnotist.

And there was Rocket Kelly, one of the first of the four-color spacefarers to jump from the back pages of comic-book anthologies into an eponymous magazine. The Fox Features Syndicate, which also published Blue Beetle, Crimes by Women, and Dorothy Lamour, Jungle Princess, cranked out half a dozen issues of Rocket Kelly between 1944 and '47, and they are among the most hilariously bad comics ever to come between a kid and a dime.

Rocket Kelly, unvaryingly garbed in leather jacket and helmet, with goggles cocked jauntily upon his crudely delineated forehead, looked as if he had just traded in a Spad for a spaceship. Accompanying him on his voyages were a blonde or brunette girl friend named Diana or Sue (depending upon which panel you consult in which story of which issue) and a dungaree-clad chum, Punchy, whose job it was to do something stupid, e.g., press the wrong button or make the wrong turn at the asteroids, thereby precipitating sundry and all into yet another thrilling adventure. Kelly's super-scientific equipment included Aero-Rings (useful for flying) and Camouflage-Penetro-Goggles (useful for seeing through stuff); for purposes of scooting about the upper reaches of the atmosphere and regions beyond, he used, first, a Grumman torpedo bomber fitted with rocket-propulsion tubes, then, a succession of bona fide spacecraft. Kelly seemed to a prefer a massive ship the shape and color of a fire hydrant, with stubby scimitar-like fins and scores of portholes, but he also made good use of a glass-nosed dart rugged enough, for all its apparent delicacy of construction, to survive being plunged bowfirst and at tremendous speed into a glacier, which it then raised high enough to be melted by "the greatest heating plant in the Universe—the Sun!"

"The world is saved!" Kelly would exult after accomplishing such a feat. "We've beaten Mr. Weather with hot weather!" Or: "That's the end of Dr. Malus and his attempt to use the atom-defense formula against the world!" Or: "That's the end of the Minstrel of Death's plan to dominate the Universe!"

You can bet Rocket Kelly never fretted about neutrinos—never mind particle theory; he was barely able to cope with the fact that the Earth goes around the greatest heating plant in the Universe.

Rocket Kelly wasn't around to see it, but with most of the costumed crimefighters gone by 1950, comic-book science fiction (along with crime and horror, love, cowboys, funny animals, and Archie) truly came into its own. Save for E.C.'s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy—the genre's class acts, with their loving adaptations of Ray Bradbury's stories—science-fiction comics of the new decade adhered to formulae perfected, if that is the word, in the more juvenile-oriented science-fiction pulp magazines of the preceding decade; they were, in fact, often published by the same companies and edited, written, and illustrated by the same individuals.

Julius Schwartz was a member of "scientifiction" ur-fandom, the inter-war generation that teethed on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, and A. Merritt; prior to becoming a comic-book editor in 1944, he had been a literary agent (in partnership with Mort Weisinger, later Superman's boss) specializing in science-fiction and fantasy authors, among them, H. P. Lovecraft, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Robert Bloch, Alfred Bester, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Bradbury. For National’s Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures, two particularly durable science-fiction comic books of the period, Schwartz drew heavily upon the talents of Murphy Anderson, who had illustrated pulp magazines before going on to do the Buck Rogers newspaper comic strip, and Gardner Fox and John Broome, both of whom had experience as pulp-fictioneers. Indeed, Broome signed some of his comic-book scripts "Edgar Ray Merritt," and probably not by accident, either. For raw material, Schwartz and his writers availed themselves of virtually everything published in the way of science fiction and fantasy since 1895 (the year H. G. Wells published The Time Machine), stopping somewhere short of Ray Bradbury and Philip José Farmer.

The Schwartz team's signal achievement was Adam Strange, introduced in 1958 and quickly installed as the star of Mystery in Space. Strange descended directly from John Carter by way of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Myles Cabot, Ralph Milne Farley's "Radio Man," who had accidentally transmitted himself to the planet Venus in a 1924 pulp-magazine serial. The first Adam Strange story unmistakably echoes Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (1917): Strange, an archeologist by profession, seeks treasure in a remote corner of the world (South America rather than the American Southwest, where Carter prospected for gold), attracts the attention of unsympathetic Indians, attempts to flee but finds himself trapped, then suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself transported to another planet, the desert world Rann, circling Alpha Centauri; here he gets down to the real work of his life, rescuing the daughter of a leading citizen from some unearthly menace or another—only to be separated from her, whisked back to Earth, at story's end. Schwartz got excellent mileage with that formula for years, without once, to the best of my knowledge, mentioning neutrino theory.

Other comic-book space heroes came and went like mayflies during the 1950s. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and John Carter vied for market share with Captain Video, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (parvenus brought in from that upstart medium, television), with Major Inapak, Space Ace (the only space hero who owed his existence to a breakfast food), and with the likes of Captain Science, Lars of Mars, and the Crusader from Mars. In a class by himself was Spurs Jackson, star of Space Western Comics (1952-53), in which the trappings and traditions of horse opera were supplemented rather than merely supplanted by those of space opera.

I do not claim to have read every science-fiction comic book ever published, but I am willing to bet that none of them ever had any truck with neutrinos. Oh, Spurs Jackson just might conceivably have drawled, "New Treeno? Isn't that down around El Paso?" as he rounded up his boys (called The Space Vigilantes) for a raid on uppity Saturnian sheep ranchers, but, frankly, even more readily observable cosmic phenomena were minor concerns in Flying Saucers, Strange Worlds, Fantastic Worlds, Space Action, Space Adventures, Space Busters, Space Comics, Space Detective, Spaceman, Space Patrol, Space Squadron, Space Thrillers—books abounding with pseudo-Bucks and quasi-Flashes no less dedicated than their models to the science-fiction genre's xenophobic tenet that any Earth guy who had steely gray eyes and a good right hook is more than a match for a whole planetful of Things with tentacles, feelers, mandibles, pseudopods, clusters of multifaceted light-sensitive organs, and a depraved interest in Earth girls. Raygun carnage just naturally ensued from that premise, readers never complained, and particle theory be damned.

Copyright © 2005, Steven Utley. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Utley

Steven Utley is the author of the story collections Ghost Seas (1997), The Beasts of Love (2005), and Where or When (2006), and co-editor (with Michael Bishop) of the anthology Passing for Human, forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2008.


Jan 31, 20:50 by Bluejack
What a title, eh? Discussion about Steven Utley's article would is invited.

(The article is here.)

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