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Although many people are familiar with Buck Rogers generally, I suspect that few realize how pervasive a character he was. Even back in the 1930s, he was showing up in what might be considered a proto-transmedia manner. Let's take a look at his early publishing timeline...
  • August 1928
    "Armageddon 2419 A.D." by Philip Francis Nowlan was published in Amazing Stories starring the character Anthony Rogers.
  • January 1929
    Rogers was given the nickname "Buck" and appears for the first time in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. comic strip. The earliest strips were based off the original story, and drawn by Dick Calkins.
  • March 1929
    "The Airlords of Han" was published in Amazing Stories as a sequel to the original.
  • March 1930
    A Sunday strip was added to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. The Sundays were drawn by Russell Keaton and, oddly, did not originally feature the title character at all.
  • November 1932
    CBS Radio began airing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 15-minute installments. Matt Crowley originally provided the voice of Rogers. Early stories were lifted from the comics and credited to Calkins.
  • 1933
    A Kellogg's Corn Flakes giveaway comic book was produced. I believe this was Calkins' work, but I haven't been able to confirm that.
  • 1933
    The first Big Little Book featuring Buck Rogers was published. (There would be ten in total over the next decade.) The cover displayed the title as Buck Rogers, 25th Century A.D. while the title page used Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. Both Nowlan and Calkins were credited.
  • 1934
    A 10-minute film called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: An Interplanetary Battle with the Tiger Men of Mars debuted at the World's Fair with John Dille Jr. in the lead role. The story was "Adapted from the GREAT NEWSPAPER FEATURE" and Calkins was not only credited but appeared on screen briefly.
  • October 1934
    Buck Rogers started being run as one of the features in Famous Funnies. While Nowlan and Calkins are credited, the Grand Comics Database notes that the art was actually being ghosted by Rick Yager, who had begun drawing the Sunday comic strips the previous year.
  • 1935
    The John F. Dille Co. published a pop-up book called Buck Rogers: Strange Adventures in the Spider Ship. The book was credited to "Dick Calkins with Philip Nowlan."
  • 1936
    A live-action short was created to promote to department stores a growing line of Buck Rogers merchandise.
  • February 1939
    The famous Buck Rogers serials began with Buster Crabbe in the title role. (Crabbe had already portrayed Flash Gordon twice by this point.) This version is "based on the cartoon strip 'Buck Rogers'" but it did not credit anyone associated with the strip itself.
  • 1939
    Nowlan formally retired from writing the strip and Calkins officially took full story control.
  • February 1940
    Nowlan passed away at age 51.
  • Winter 1940
    Buck Rogers finally debuted as an ongoing, self-titled comic book from Eastern Printing; however, this was all newspaper reprint material. Artists for the series included Calkins, Keaton, and Stephen A. Douglas (who provided some new covers).
  • November 1947
    Calkins formally retired from the comic strip, and was replaced by Murphy Anderson.
  • May 1962
    Calkins passed away at age 67.
Like any collaboration, it's almost impossible to parse exactly who contributed what. We definitely know Nowlan devised the original idea for Buck Rogers, and Calkins should get the majority of the credit for defining the visual aesthetic of the character, but everything beyond that is up in the air.

That said, I get the impression that Nowlan had little to do with the direction of the strip. Perhaps some vague direction, in a manner not dissimilar to how Stan Lee used to provide Jack Kirby with an entire comic's plot in just a few sentences. That Calkins is credited so prominently in other media, despite Nowlan clearly having created the characters, suggests that he was either exceptionally humble or not nearly as involved as Calkins.

And while I don't have any real proof in this fairly short overview, I have the feeling that Calkins wound up contributing a lot more to Buck Rogers than Nowlan did, despite his originating the idea.
Flip was one of the primary recurring characters in Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. His initial role was to surprise Nemo awake by bringing his uncle, the Dawn. He and Nemo eventually became friends, however, and Flip acted as a sort-of guide/sidekick/Greek chorus, both getting Nemo into trouble with his recklessness and mischieviousness, as well as commenting on some of Slumberland's oddities.

I don't recall when/where I first saw Little Nemo and/or Flip. I didn't really start studying the strip until the late 1990s, and I don't think I read it through its entirety until 2001 or 2002. But I'm certain I'd seen some examples of the strip before then, probably in some general history of comics pieces I'd read. I recall being surprised, though, when I came across a sequence where Flip is stripped down to his boxers showcasing his very pale skin. My surprise was in that he wasn't Black.

The strip was created in 1905, and while it's gorgeously rendered, it does contain more than a few... let's say less-than-generous depictions of Black people. Notably the Imp and the other denizens of Candy Island. I know that when I first saw those drawings, I was old enough to be aware that McCay was using some ugly stereotypes of his day. But he at least seemed to use a couple different stereotypes.

Or so I thought.

When I looked at Flip, I saw him as another caricature of a Black person. His hair was largely hidden by his hat, and the only skin normally displayed was his face. And while it was colored green, his mouth and chin were exaggeratedly pale in the same manner as someone in Blackface. Coupled with the his clown-ish/minstrel attire, I assumed Flip was simply a bad caricature of a Black person. When the Imp showed up in brown skin, my thought was that was just another bad stereotype -- the Imp as a "traditional" African and Flip as an Americanized one.

What I didn't realize was that, in the 1800s and early 1900s, the stereotype of the Irish was phenomenally bad. I knew they'd be saddled with an image of drunkards, but I had never seen/heard that they were actually considered a "lesser" race by some people. In fact, it doesn't all that much searching to find cartoons of the day belittling the Irish as decidedly inferior, only marginally better than Blacks. There were even articles discussing how the Irish might be a kind of "missing link" between Blacks and Caucasians.
This article is provides an excellent summary of how Irish people were depicted throughout the 19th century.

So the visual cues I was seeing in Flip were indeed reminiscent of cartooning tropes used for depicting Black people, but only because society at the time conflated the two "races" pretty closely with one another. This also explains why Flip is treated badly by many other characters, most notably the Princess, but still better than the Imp. There's a very clear racial hierarchy on display in the strip.

I bring this up because, here in the 21st century, I don't think we hear much about that brand of Irish stereotype. We fortunately don't see much Blackface either, but it is still around, so I think modern audiences can recognize that in the depiction of the Imp. But I suspect that, unless you're specifically studying McCay and/or cultural tropes of a century ago, the particular ugly stereotype embodied by Flip is likely lost on most people.

It certainly not a good look for McCay. He was a wonderfully talented cartoonist, and it's a shame he resorted to such visuals. But at the same time, that the Irish stereotype he tapped into is mostly forgotten can be taken as a point of hope. That maybe, just maybe, we can get past the racial problems we continue to see every day.
The recent flap over that New York Times piece about Deadpool, Rob Liefeld, and Fabian Nicieza (CBR has a nice summary of the whole thing) brings to mind the old adage: "History is written by the victors." The NYT article takes a very singular -- and very distorted -- perspective on everything and, were it not for the fact that all of the participants and their friends are pretty active online, it may have stood unchallenged. As far as I know, nothing is technically inaccurate in the piece, but it's definitely written in a way to skew readers' perceptions.

That's not the first time this has happened in comics either, of course. There was that infamous New York Herald-Tribune article about Jack Kirby and Stan Lee back in 1966 that was incredibly dismissive of Kirby. Steve Ditko left Marvel shortly afterwards, and while Kirby stayed on a few more years, he moved to California -- working across the country was virtually unprecedented in comics at that time. Again, it wasn't technically inaccurate (Roy Thomas was a silent witness to the interview that was conducted and has since noted he recalled nothing factually incorrect) but it was decidedly skewed towards putting Lee on a pedestal. But without Kirby having a real outlet to critique the article publicly, it essentially stood as gospel for decades.

What about the histories of Superman and Batman? Siegel and Shuster were given credit for creating Superman, but for generations DC basically stopped mentioning them after a simple "created by" notice. While Bob Kane fared better with Batman, co-creator Bill Finger was relegated to the gutters remaining almost completely anonymous until the late 1960s and, even today, is only starting to get recognized for his work.

That's one of the reasons I study comic book history. Because every writer is promoting their own agenda (or, more frequently, the agenda of whoever's paying them) any given history is going to be skewed somehow. A history of DC Comics written by a DC staffer is going to paint a different picture than one written by a freelance journalist. Written histories reflect the biases of the writer and YOUR job, as a reader, is to figure out where the author is coming from and how that might be impacting the way they're relaying events. Have you noticed how many "history of comic books" pieces are completely focused on American comics exclusively? As if there were none anywhere else in the world? Or how about those same histories glossing over the number of women and minorities that worked in the industry?

When you read ANY piece -- including those written by me -- keep in mind that the author is coming to the table with her or his own ideas that may or may not do justice to what actually happened or to anyone involved. In the past, those who had the biggest platform generally won the discussion by the mere absence of the little guy's voice. With the internet, everyone has access to the same platform, but not everyone is as adept at using it, so the little guy's voice can still get lost. Keep your ears open to those little guys!
Last week, TinyCo launched a new game for iOS and Android devices called Avengers Academy. It's not, in fact, a fighting game of any sort (which has evidently annoyed some users) but what I call a resource management type of game. As a player, you direct the characters to use their (and your!) time to improve their skills and/or advance the plot. As is typical with these types of games, there can be a fair amount of tedium while you wait for tasks to be finished, but they can be sped up with tokens that can be won in the game... or by purchasing them in larger quantities. This is, of course, how these games generate money -- they're designed in a way that can be completed for free, but only at a snail's pace, so that user's drop real-world money in order to get to the next part of the game.

The game has some wonderful animations and smooth play that do make it worth watching. But they've also done two things that I think are critical here: 1) they've crafted a legitimate and new story for the game, and 2) they've redesigned the Marvel universe from the ground up.

The importance of that first point should be fairly obvious. A new and well-crafted story is going to keep players engaged, and more likely to be interested in continuing on to the next level. There's enough hints and promises of things to come to keep a player intrigued, but not in such a way as to over-sell what's actually in store. It's not about just getting enough maguffins to unlock the Thor character; there's a broader story about defeating Hydra and discovering the secret of the mysterious "timefog." So as a user, there's an ongoing series of engagements that keep players interested and coming back again and again.

While it's obvious that the characters and backgrounds have been radically redesigned, the significance of that may not be as easily grasped. The primary conceit of the game is that nearly all the heroes you're familiar with are all in the late teens and going to "Avengers Academy" for training. This does a few things within the context of the game and the players. First, it establishes all the characters as more-or-less equal We don't have decades of history and context to need to figure out this Captain America." Every character here starts on a level playing field.

Second, the complete redesign gives the creators a greater license to focus on a more diverse cast. The gender make-up is about half men and half women, and among them are included Falcon, War Machine, the current Ms. Marvel, and the whole group is run by Nick Fury Jr. Long-time Avengers fans who are expecting to see more traditional versions of what has historically been a predominantly white male group aren't seeing ANY characters they recognize, so there's less concern about why their favorite isn't represented. "They didn't even use the real Iron Man or Captain America anyway, so why would I even bother bitching about not seeing Stingray?"

Further, the redesigns give Marvel essentially another set of characters to promote. People who aren't perhaps partial to the darker, fight-heavy scenes and portrayals in the movies and comics, might appreciate the still-adult-but-somewhat-softer approach in Avengers Academy. There seems to be a fairly heavy (for this type of game) marketing push to make this a successful game; it will be interesting to see if/when/how Marvel might capitalize on that in their comics. Despite having some comics at the time, they largely missed the boat there with Super Hero Squad, seemingly unable to get the books to the audience that was watching the show. Let's see if the different audience for Avengers Academy makes it any easier for them.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Customizing
http://ift.tt/1P0j9uM

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: Safety Card Art
http://ift.tt/1P2WSMU

FreakSugar: Webcomics Wednesday: Passion
http://ift.tt/1o5WAvV

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links
http://ift.tt/1S0apbV

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: Why BHM Comic Deals Are Worth Sharing
http://ift.tt/1SKsfhV


Look, you've already heard the hoopla about the Black Kickstarter, right? By the time you've read this, you've either already pledged or are trying to figure out how to save a few bucks elsewhere so that you can. That it was timed to start on February 1 -- the beginning of Black History Month -- was no accident, obviously but it's almost-assured success (as I write this, it's already only about $1500 away from its goal and it's still just a few days in) speaks to the creative team's caliber and the huge, mostly untapped desire for this type of material.

But what if you simply can't afford to help, but still want to support comic diversity?

Well, here are two books available for free on comiXology right now that might help...
  1. The first volume of Concrete Park
    I wrote about great this was last year. This is seriously a fantastic book on its own basic storytelling merits, but when you add the racial subtext, it just adds to the experience. Do yourself a favor and pick this up -- the whole first volume is FREE on comiXology throughout the month of February.
  2. Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man #1
    Also for free on comiXology -- but I don't know for how long -- is this Mile Morales story. If you've heard snippets about this Black/Latino Spider-Man but haven't actually read anything about him, this would be a great opportunity to find out.
Now, how does this help, you might ask, since you're not actually sending money to the creators here?

While getting these books for free might not send creators extra cash, it DOES notify everyone involved of the desire for more of this type of content. It tells comiXology, of course, but it also alerts Marvel and Dark Horse to the interest level. Previous sales can gauge/be attributed to the interest of customers already pre-disposed to the characters or creators. What if there are more people who would be interested in these books, but simply had not heard of them because of insufficient marketing or other books that came out around the same time or whatever. By providing digital copies for free (which doesn't cost the publishers anything, really) they can see if there's interest for more of this type of material beyond the people who've already purchased them.

There's a more immediate sales component, as well, of course. People who liked those can come back to purchase subsequent volumes, and that's probably more what the publishers are thinking about. But the interest sparked by the downloads can also point to latent interest.

Cynically speaking, it is a bit of a gimmick, playing off Black History Month. But realistically, we're living in a culture that generally suppresses or ignores Black voices, both fictional and in real life, so taking advantage of the greater attention afforded Black people during February makes sense. And the more of these stories you read during February, the more likely you'll be to pick up similar items in other months as well. The more you can start to question why you don't see more of this throughout the year. The more you can bring these questions up with others.

Let the creators and publishers know now that you're supporting more diversity in comics. And keep them in mind one, two, three, four... months from now as well. Maybe you can't afford to contribute to Black right now. But thinking about it now might allow you to contribute to the next project of one of these great creators!