Not quite a century ago, on January 7, 1929, newspaper readers across America were captivated by a brand-new comic strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It offered the country its first images of space-age death rays, atomic explosions, and interplanetary travel.
“I was twenty years old,” World War I veteran Anthony “Buck” Rogers told readers in the very first strip, “surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh…when suddenly…gas knocked me out. But I didn’t die. The peculiar gas…preserved me in suspended animation. Finally, another shifting of strata admitted fresh air and I revived.”
Staggering out of that mine, he finds himself in the 25th century surrounded by flying warriors shooting ray guns at each other. A Mongol spaceship overhead promptly spots him on its “television view plate” and fires its “disintegrator ray” at him. He’s saved from certain death by a flying woman warrior named Wilma who explains to him how this all came to be.
“Many years ago,” she says, “the Mongol Reds from the Gobi Desert conquered Asia from their great airships held aloft by gravity Repellor Rays. They destroyed Europe, then turned toward peace-loving America.” As their disintegrator beams boiled the oceans, annihilated the US Navy, and demolished Washington, DC, in just three hours, “government ceased to exist, and mobs, reduced to savagery, fought their way out of the cities to scatter and hide in the country. It was the death of a nation.” While the Mongols rebuilt 15 cities as centers of “super scientific magnificence” under their evil emperor, Americans led “hunted lives in the forests” until their “undying flame of freedom” led them to recapture “lost science” and “once more strike for freedom.”
After a year of such cartoons filled with the worst of early-20th-century Asian stereotypes, just as Wilma is clinging to the airship of the Mongol Viceroy as it speeds across the Pacific, a mysterious metallic orb appears high in the sky and fires death rays, sending the Mongol ship “hissing into the sea.” With her anti-gravity “inertron” belt, the intrepid Wilma dives safely into the waves only to have a giant metal arm shoot out from the mysterious orb and pull her on board to reveal—“Horrors! What strange beings!”—Martians!
With that strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century moved from Earth-bound combat against racialized Asians into space wars against monsters from other planets that, over the next 70 years, would take the strip into comic books, radio broadcasts, feature films, television serials, video games, and the country’s collective conscious. It would offer defining visions of space warfare for generations of Americans.