“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — opening line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Back in March, we began this series of “notable genre anniversaries” for this year, and the second part came out a couple weeks later. After a detour into giant monsters and Star Trek and stuff, we’re back for Part 3 this week. Ready? Here we go…
Nineteen Eighty-Four (aka 1984) (1949): 70 years
First published in June 1949, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel set in — you guessed it — 1984, when much of the world was characterized by endless war, propaganda, and government surveillance. According to Orwell, “[The book] was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office.”
A combination of science fiction and political fiction, the novel has been surprisingly popular and influential. How?
“Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and memory hole, have entered into common usage since its publication in 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four also popularised the adjective Orwellian, which connotes things such as official deception, secret surveillance, brazenly misleading terminology, and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state, as described by the author. [By 1989, it had been translated into 65 languages, more than any other novel in English until then.] In 2005, the novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. It was awarded a place on both lists of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, reaching #13 on the editors’ list and #6 on the readers’ list. In 2003, the novel was listed at #8 on The Big Read survey done by the BBC.” [Wikipedia]
Most of the world was far different than Orwell’s fictional world when 1984 actually rolled around. But, the novel is still recognized as quite insightful — even prophetic — as English-speaking nations do indeed seem to be inching (or, running, in certain cases) ever closer to this end. Current communist regimes (e.g., Russia, China) serve as models for our Orwellian future, and it ain’t pretty.
OK, enough politics…
Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949): 70 years
As the first science-fiction show on American television, “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” was the precursor to a heckuva lot of genre fare that fans have enjoyed over the past 7 decades — from “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” to a couple comic-strip adaptations I’ll get to below, as well as the various Star Treks and Battlestar Galacticas, et al. Sure, it was black-n-white and even hokier looking and sounding than the original “Star Trek” or “Lost in Space”. But, kids & adults alike ate it up back then. Plus, there were special “Video Ranger messages” during commercial breaks, and cool premiums were sold like rocket ship keychains, plastic spacemen, ray guns, decoders, etc.
Broadcast live 5 or 6 days per week, the program was set in the far future and followed the adventures of the eponymous Captain Video (initially played by Richard Coogan, but primarily by Al Hodge) and his fellow fighters for truth and justice against villains like Doctor Pauli and Hing Foo Sung. Over 1500 episodes aired between June 1949 and April 1955, including 20 episodes of the Saturday-morning spinoff “The Secret Files of Captain Video”. But, only 24 episodes are believed to have survived, with only 5 available to the public.
Critics originally mocked the very low-budget series for its bargain-basement effects, sudden plot-shifts, and incoherent scripts. Things improved a lot in 1952, though. The writing became smarter and more imaginative when (now-)big names like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Damon Knight, James Blish, and Jack Vance began producing scripts. Also, the team of Russell and Haberstroh took over special-effects.
In 1951, a Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere movie serial was produced and starred Judd Holdren. Fawcett Comics put out a 6-issue run of the “Captain Video” comic that same year.
Flash Gordon (1934): 85 years
The “Flash Gordon” comic strip was first published on Jan. 7, 1934, in hopes of competing with the already popular “Buck Rogers” strip. (I’ll get to Buck in a minute.) It was the creation of a King Features staff artist named Alex Raymond, who wrote (with assistance) and drew the strip until he joined the U.S. Marines in 1944. Other than the obvious “Buck Rogers” parallels, the character/story appears to have been heavily influenced by the recently published novel When Worlds Collide (1933) by Philip Wylie. Following Raymond’s departure, several writers and artists contributed to the character’s adventures, either on a regular or temporary basis, including such notables as Harry Harrison and Gray Morrow, culminating with Jim Keefe’s run (1996-2003).
“King Features sold the Flash Gordon strip to newspapers across the world, and by the late 1930s, the strip was published in 130 newspapers, translated into eight foreign languages, and was read by 50 million people…. [It] is regarded as one of the best illustrated and most influential of American adventure comic strips.” [Wikipedia]
The Flash Gordon comic strip has been adapted into film serials (starring Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe), an American movie (1980) and a low-budget Turkish version (1967), both live-action and animated TV series, comic books, novels, radio serials, and even a musical play. The latest was a live-action TV show on the SyFy channel (2007–2008). As with earlier adaptations, its success led to numerous licensed products — e.g., pop-up books, coloring books, toy spaceships and rayguns.
Raymond’s artwork and designs on the comic strip have been lauded by genre professionals and led genre historians to consider him “one of the most famous science fiction artists of all time, although he never contributed an illustration to any science fiction magazine or book”. The strip has influenced superhero comic artists, including elements of the costume designs for Superman and Hawkman.
Buck Rogers (1929, 1939, 1979): 90, 80, & 40 years
I’m gonna cheat a little bit with this one, because we missed last year’s 80th anniversary of the character’s debut in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D., published in the Aug. 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, which followed up shortly with a sequel, The Airlords of Han. But, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. newspaper strip that made the character popular began Jan. 7, 1929; Buster Crabbe starred in the “Buck Rogers” serial in 1939; and the “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” TV show that I loved to watch debuted back in 1979.
Buck Rogers was the brainchild of Philip Francis Nowlan, though he originally named the character ‘Anthony’. The name changed to ‘Buck’ when Nowlan and illustrator Dick Calkins adapted that first story for the new comic strip by John F. Dille Company (later changed to National Newspaper Service). As already mentioned, the strip was very popular, causing competing syndicates to develop or license similar heroes (e.g., Flash Gordon, Jack Swift, Brick Bradford, Don Dixon, Speed Spaulding, John Carter of Mars).
“Buck Rogers was initially syndicated to 47 newspapers…. At its peak in 1934, Buck Rogers appeared in 287 U.S. newspapers, was translated into 18 languages, and appeared in an additional 160 international papers.”
Calkins left the daily strip a few years later, replaced by Rick Yager. After that, what artist drew what strip gets murky (and the signatures are unreliable). There were a number of illustrators over the years, ending with George Tuska’s run (1959-1967). The New York Times Syndicate produced a “revival” of the strip with Gray Morrow in 1979, which continued until 1983.
Not surprisingly, the popular character has also been adapted for movies and movie serials, TV series (in which ‘Buck’ is established as a nickname for ‘William’), radio programs, comic books, novels, an aborted web series, RPGs, video games, and even a pinball game. Let’s not forget the toys, too, like various rayguns & pistols, spaceships, and action figures. There have been many pop-culture references to Buck Rogers, including in “Duck Dodgers” (obviously), “Futurama”, The Right Stuff, and the XZ-38 Disintegrator Pistol on the cover to the Foo Fighters’ self-titled album. More importantly, “Buck Rogers has been credited with bringing into popular media the concept of space exploration, following in the footsteps of literary pioneers such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.”
Zorro (1919): 100 years
As a kid, I loved Zorro! In fact, in recent weeks I have re-watched the 1940 classic The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power (and Basil Rathbone as the primary villain) and 1975’s Zorro starring Alain Delon (and Stanley Baker taking the main villain role). (Loved the theme song of the latter one!) I’m on the lookout for 1974’s TV movie The Mark of Zorro starring Frank Langella (with Ricardo Montalban as the main baddie), too. Great fun!
Set in 19th-century California under Spanish rule, the character is sort of a cross between Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel, with elements of an ennobled Spring-heeled Jack — i.e., a nobleman who is a bit of a dandy and a coward in public, but who secretly dons a black mask and costume to steal from corrupt noblemen & politicians (and return the funds to the poor & oppressed commoners) and fight the military attachments working for them. Like most such heroes, Zorro is quite the athlete and hand-to-hand combatant, as well as a skilled equestrian. Our hero’s favorite weapons are the smallsword (or possibly a rapier) and the bullwhip, both of which he uses expertly for offense and defense and to slice his trademark “Z” into walls, tables, and the occasional clothes/flesh of unfortunate opponents. He isn’t opposed to using other weapons (e.g., daggers and pistols), too, if need be.
Zorro was created by American pulp writer Johnston McCulley and debuted in the serialized novel The Curse of Capistrano. The 1920 film adaptation, The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks, was so successful that McCulley spent the next few decades capitalizing on it. Here’s a brief rundown from Wikipedia:
Comic cover w/ Guy Williams from the Disney TV series
“[T]he character was featured in a total of five serialized stories and 57 short stories, the last one appearing in print posthumously in 1959, the year after [McCulley’s] death. The Curse of Capistrano eventually sold more than 50 million copies, becoming one of the most sold books of all time. While the rest of McCulley’s Zorro stories didn’t enjoy the same popularity, as most of them were never reprinted until the 21st century, the character also appears in over 40 films and in ten TV series, the most famous being the Disney-produced Zorro series of 1957–59, starring Guy Williams [later of “Lost in Space” fame]. Other media featuring Zorro include stories by other authors, audio/radio dramas, comic books and strips, stage productions and video games.
Being one of the earliest examples of a fictional masked avenger with a double identity, Zorro inspired the creation of several similar characters in pulp magazines and other media, and is a precursor of the superheroes of American comic books, with Batman drawing particularly close parallels to the character.”
That’s the end of the regular series for 2019. I hope you liked reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together. You might have noticed that, unlike the 2018 series, I left out comics/superheroes this time around. In a few weeks, I’ll do a “special, all-comics edition”, so keep an eye out for that one, too!