The name Philip Francis Nowlan isn't likely to raise an eyebrow today, nor is necessarily the name Anthony Rogers, or indeed the 1928 novella Armageddon—2419 A.D. in which he first appears. Nor the sequel novella, published the following year, The Airlords of Han. It wasn't until his appearance under the name of Buck Rogers in early 1929, as the world's first proper sci-fi comic strip, that he would be forever immortalized.
The story of Anthony "Buck" Rogers is somewhat different from the Martian stories that precede it, simply because he never actually goes to Mars. Nonetheless Buck Rogers follows a very similar pattern, and in the overarching story we're telling, its connection to both John Carter and Flash Gordon will soon become clear.
Now as you would have come to expect by now, we are of course dealing with an officer, this one a veteran of The Great War (WWI), who by 1927 finds himself working for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation. While investigating unusual phenomena in an abandoned coal mine near Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, he's becomes the victim of a cave in. Through some scientific hand waving, and something to do with radiation, he finds himself in suspended animation for five hundred years, sheltered from the outside world. And When he awakens, to his great astonishment, he is… not on Mars, but on Earth, in a desolate wilderness, in which tribes of Americans live in fear of the mighty Han, who as the name of the second novel indicates, are lords of the air, thought to be untouchable by the weapons of the scattered American tribes.
Not long after his arrival, Anthony Rogers meets the beautiful Wilma Deering, as he saves her from the evil Han. Echoing the earlier fascination in books like Across the Zodiac and its contemporaries, with anti-gravity, Deering introduces Rogers to the inertron anti-gravity belt, which allows him to jump great distances. And while this is a wide-spread technology amongst the Americans in this post-apocalyptic future, Buck Rogers still has a leg up, as his 20th century muscles are both better and strong than those of the 21st century.
Of course, as with any of the heroes that went to Mars, between the beautiful Wilma Deering and of course an officer's sense of duty, it didn't take long for Rogers to become involved with the rebellion against the evil Han.
John F. Dille, whose company sold syndicated comic strips to newspapers across the US, soon got in touch with Nowlan and together with cartoonist Richard Calkins introduced the renamed Buck Rogers to the world. The ensuing strip took the world by storm, and ran for a consecutive 38 years, spawning a serial, a TV show, games, further comics and much, much more.
The strip starts out following the book quite closely, but soon deviates into new territory. Unfortunately it shows its fear of the yellow peril from panel one, when as Buck emerges from the mine in which he was trapped, he sees Wilma screaming "half-breeds!" at her pursuers. It doesn't take long before she lays down the history of how the 'Mongol Reds', complete with pointy hats, slanted eyes and traditional Chinese garb, rose from the steppes of The Gobi Desert and using their flying machines and disintegrator rays lay waste to America as if it was nothing. Reading Buck Rogers today can be quite grating because of this, not to mention its view of women, who first betray Buck ("That's what you get for trusting a woman!") and then pine over him before being swept away by the Han as a gift for their emperor (the emperor in turn pines over Wilma). That said, it must also be granted that Nowlan's ideas of the inertron-powered jump belts and mighty floating airships of the Han are great ideas, well executed, as is the wondrous wasteland of America (essentially the wild west) and the Mongol City, all of which much have been a very exciting strip to wake up to every day.
The books were more concerned with the waging of a war against the occupying Han, whereas the comic strip quickly falls into a series of almost sit-com like scenes in which Buck attempts to save Wilma from the Han, only to accidentally save the wrong girl, which Wilma sees, thinking now that Buck has been unfaithful to her (despite them never being a couple as such), and so on. It lays the foundation for much of what would carry the Flash Gordon strip for quite some time, although Alex Raymond would look more to Burroughs for inspiration than he did to Nowlan. The serialized Buck Rogers in turn probably owes more to the serialized Flash Gordon than it does to its own comic strip.
And on the whole, Star Wars owes little to Buck Rogers, even if, as we shall see when we start investigating Lucas's films, THX 1138makes explicit reference to its 1939 serial