Brainiac On Banjo #104: The Great Buck Rogers War!

For more than three decades now, “people” have been trying to figure out what to do with Buck Rogers, America’s first major science-fiction hero. Buck, then named Anthony, first appeared in Philip Francis Nowlan’s novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D., as published in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. The story was noticed by National Newspaper Service syndicate president John F. Dille, who hired Nowlan to turn it into the first major science-fiction newspaper comic strip. The strip debuted on January 7th of the following year, some six months after the initial pulp magazine appearance.

Buck Rogers was a hit. An enormous number of merchandising and licensing deals ensued and Buck was seen in toy stores, a movie serial (starring Buster Crabbe), a radio serial, several television shows, and comic books. The other newspaper syndicates jumped on the Buckwagon, offering us Brick Bradford, Don Dixon, Drift Marlo, Space Cadet, and the spaceman whose fortunes eclipsed them all, Flash Gordon. Buster Crabbe starred in the three Flash Gordon serials as well.

As the realities of the real space program captured the world’s attention, spaceman stories began to look naïve; their sense of wonder was co-opted by reality. Buck’s adventures were drawn by some truly top-notch artists, including Frank Frazetta, Howard Chaykin, George Tuska, Gray Morrow, and Murphy Anderson, following in the footsteps of the originating artists, Dick Calkins, Russell Keaton and Rick Yager, but by the time we tossed beer cans on the moon Buck was but a cultural memory. A vaguely successful television series started up in 1979 and lasted two years.

This has not kept people from trying to bring Buck back. Not at all. But such efforts were hampered by recent lawsuits claiming Buck Rogers had lapsed into the public domain. The Dille Family Trust had gone blooie, and a judge ruled they were not eligible for bankruptcy relief.

After three years of listening to the crickets chirp, Legendary Entertainment said they were doing a movie, and Flint Dille, an accomplished television writer and grandson of John Dille, got on board. Brian K. Vaughan is writing the script. And, lo and behold, George Clooney is an executive producer — prompting rumors that George would play the lead. As much as I like Clooney, this is nearly laughable. Dr. Huer, the not-mad scientist of the series, would be more acceptable but I doubt George is likely to shave his head for the part. Bill Murray might, but he rarely returns phone calls.

This happened a couple of months ago. This week, things got complicated. Remember that public domain suit I mentioned two paragraphs north of here.

On Tuesday, The Hollywood Reporter announced the folks at Skydance have teamed up with the estate of Philip Francis Nowlan to do their own Rogers movie. According to THR, “the Nowlans sent a cease-and-desist letter to Legendary that noted their new Skydance deal. The estate’s attorney warned Legendary that moving forward with a Buck Rogers project would constitute ‘slander of title of the rights.’ Asked for clarification, the Nowlans’ attorney Neville Johnson insisted that Buck Rogers wasn’t in the public domain as ‘Buck is not in Armageddon, Anthony is a different character.’”

To which Legendary responded “fuck you.” Well, that’s not fair; they said “We have secured the rights we need to proceed with our project and the company will not comment any further on these baseless claims. This same party has been claiming for years that they have rights which they do not have and have been trying to inhibit projects based on rights they do not legally control.” I gather Legendary employs lawyers who are paid by the word.

In the interests of transparency and story-shilling, I was a hanger-on at National Newspaper Syndicate in 1966 and I got to know Flint’s father, a.k.a. John’s son, quite well and liked him a lot. On the other hand, when I was at DC Comics back in the early 1990s we tried to get the rights to do a Buck series and Flint, along with his sister, came out for an elegant lunch during Toy Fair.

Flint regaled us with his staggering knowledge of euphemisms for the word “penis.” Dick Giordano and I later compared notes, and between us there were over two dozen such euphemisms we had never heard previously, which, given the circles we circumlocuted in our pasts, was quite an accomplishment. That was my only takeaway from Buck Rogers meeting.

Shortly thereafter, Flint decided the writer we wanted to put on the project wasn’t to his liking, and he torpedoed the project. Okay; DC wasn’t running out of titles to publish, and there’s always room for another Batman title. The writer, who I will not name, sounded relieved. He used to write for the Catholic Church, and I gather he didn’t need to expose himself in the great penis genteelism discourse.

I don’t know if we’ll see Buck or Anthony or 1930s ray guns on the silver screen, or even in LED lighting. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. I’m going to have a lot more fun kicking back and re-reading Murphy Anderson’s wonderful work on Buck Rogers.