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Space Heroes

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Space may be the final frontier, but some superheroes traverse the intergalactic skyways and explore perilous planets, boldly going where the Terran hero has never gone before.


Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the headstrong Earthmen who rocketed into futuristic and/or otherworldly adventures, are the prototypical space heroes. Both originated in newspaper comic strips—Rogers in 1929, and Gordon in 1934—and were immortalized beyond the funnies in movie serials, Big Little Books, motion pictures, television series and cartoons, View-Master reels, action figures, and comic books. (Brick Bradford, their contemporary, starred in a comic strip from 1933 to 1987, as well as in other media, but never quite reached the cultural zenith of Buck or Flash. Also largely forgotten today is the earth-bound Flash-and-Buck variant named Blue Bolt, who fought outlandish menaces and secret societies underground and, in 1940, became the first character collaborated on by the soon-to-be-legendary Joe Simon and Jack Kirby team.)


The colorful costumes, exotic locales, and larger-than-life menaces in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips were a major influence upon the first superhero, Superman—actually a strange visitor from another planet himself—and upon the burgeoning comic-book industry. During comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), Fiction House published Planet Comics (1940–1954), an anthology spotlighting weird adventures on other worlds—the universe of the future. Each issue of Planet teemed with electrifying epics starring handsome heroes and fetching females cut from the Rogers/Gordon cloth—Reef Ryan and Princess Vara, Mars (God of War), Auro (Lord of Jupiter), Flint Baker, the Red Comet, Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron, Mysta of the Moon, the Star Pirate, and the Space Rangers—discharging their ray guns against freakish extraterrestrial monstrosities and interplanetary warlords.


Other publishers zoomed into the fray. Rex Dexter of Mars, a laser-blasting space hero who soared on steel wings, was one of the features premiering in Mystery Men Comics #1 (1939), the same comic that launched the career of the superhero Blue Beetle. A pulp-magazine character named Captain Future—a crossbreed of Flash Gordon and Doc Savage—blazed into action in 1940 with his proton pistol and superior intellect. An entirely different character called Captain Future appeared in Startling Comics #1 (1940), but had no futuristic gimmicks, only an appropriation of the name. Spacehawk, the star-faring marshal first seen in Target Comics #5 (1940), was a surprisingly grim strip from a cartoonist best known for madcap, Basil Wolverton. Starring in the short-lived Miracle Comics (1940–1941) was Sky Wizard, the Master of Space, whose garish red-and-green uniform went unappreciated by colorblind readers. Superworld Comics—the product of publisher Hugo Gernsback, originator of Amazing Stories, the first sci-fi pulp—starred Mitey Powers, an adventurer who battled Martians on the Moon. Captain Dash, a blue-cowled aero cop who patrolled the thirty-first century, appeared—only once—in Comedy Comics #9 (1942).


In its four-year run, Wonder Comics (1944–1948) included the forgettable Dick Devins (King of Futuria) and the leggy, redheaded space pirate named Tara, who brandished a sci-fi saber instead of a ray gun. Lance Lewis, Space Detective flew into Startling #44 (1947). Clad in red togs (bearing a blazing blue comet chest insignia) with orange-and-blue striped epaulets, Lewis fired his ray blaster at renegade robots with a penchant for kidnapping scantily clad ladies. And DC Comics' Tommy Tomorrow of the Planeteers' bumpy but lengthy ride in print began in the real science series Real Fact Comics #6 (1947). Tomorrow was used to depict the man of the future in educational strips, then matured into a full-fledged space-adventure series beginning in Action Comics #127 (1948). In his purple outfit with short pants, Tomorrow navigated the stars in his ship the Ace of Space.


American paranoia fueled by the spread of Communism and the threat of atomic warfare metaphorically played out in popular culture through invaders from outer space in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and soon the new medium of television featured a galaxy of futuristic heroes. TV viewers were enthralled by Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949–1955), featuring the Guardian of the Safety of the World, a self-proclaimed planetary protector who stunned his adversaries (including Mook the Moon Man, Kul of Eos, and Tobor the Robot [read that name backwards]) with his Cosmic Ray Vibrator; and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950–1952), who patrolled the cosmos in the starship Polaris with the fellow members of the Space Academy. Space heroes stormed into other media: Commando Cody a.k.a. Rocketman, the Sky Marshal of the Universe, was one of the last characters to headline a movie serial as that art form was dying out due to the emergence of television; and comics publisher Ziff-Davis' Crusader from Mars (1952) featured the alien Tarka, deported from the red planet for a crime and determined to redeem himself by performing good deeds on Earth, over which he hovered in his soundless Whirling Disc-craft.


With Julius Julie Schwartz—the founder of science-fiction fandom and a former sci-fi literary agent—in the editorial pool of DC Comics, space heroes dotted DC's publishing starscape of the 1950s. Strange Adventures #9 (1951) premiered Captain Comet, actually Adam Blake, an evolutionary fluke—comics' first mutant—centuries ahead of his time. Captain Comet fought crooks and aliens with ESP, flight, and psychokinesis; for example, in Strange Adventures #28's (1953) Devil's Island in Space, Comet's super-normal senses detect danger, but his eyes cannot see the invisible invaders encircling him. The Knights of the Galaxy, DC's ultramodern interpretation of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, bowed in Mystery in Space #1 (1951), fighting mundane menaces like the conqueror Korvo. The Atomic Knights, a group of far-flung (set way off in 1986) champions, debuted in Strange Adventures #117 (1960). Gardner Grayle led his defiant militia—each dressed in an ancient suit of armor—in opposition to the despotic Black Baron and other menaces threatening the nuclear-ravaged future Earth. Schwartz's titles included additional space characters (Star Hawkins, Space Cabbie, and the Star Rovers, among others), but the editor's best-remembered—and most enduring—sci-fi superhero is the jetpacked Adam Strange, premiering in Showcase #17 (1958) and sporadically appearing in myriad comics, including Justice League of America.


DC editor Jack Schiff unveiled the Space Ranger in Showcase #15 (1958). The Ranger had a secret identity—business heir Rick Starr—and donned a red-and-yellow spacesuit with a bubble helmet and a rocketpack to fight futuristic bad guys (the Jungle Beasts of Jupiter and the Alien Brat from Planet Byra, among others) with a cutesy alien pal, Cryll, by his side. Ultra the Multi-Alien—commencing in Mystery in Space #103 (1965)—was a bizarre DC hero whose ragtag body was composed of four ethereal life forms.


The space race between the United States and Russia encouraged a trend of star-spanning superheroes during the 1960s. Marvel Comics' Silver Surfer flew into the pages of Fantastic Four #48 (1966) first as the herald to the world-eating Galactus, then as a superhero in his own right. Mar-Vell, a military officer from the Kree empire, trekked to Earth in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (1967), where he became known as Captain Marvel, fighting aliens and supervillains for years before dying of cancer and being succeeded by his son, Genis. The Guardians of the Galaxy—Vance Astro, Charlie-27, Yondu, Starhawk, Martinex, and Nikki—was a superteam that premiered in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (1969), waging war against serpentine soldiers that enslaved future Earth. In 1967, Hanna-Barbera introduced the animated hero Space Ghost, who used his power bands to battle Brak, Moltar, and other galactic antagonists. Wham-O, the makers of the popular Frisbee toy, produced a one-shot comic—Wham-O Giant Comics #1 (1967)—starring Galaxo, a space policeman for the United World Interstellar Agencies, who communicated with various races via his Computo-Translator. Also during the 1960s, Gold Key Comics published two series starring sci-fi heroes: Magnus, Robot Fighter and M.A.R.S. Patrol.


From the 1970s to the present, science-fiction heroes have frequently launched their careers, some blazing eternally, others going supernova within a few appearances. Among their number: the ABC Warriors, robotic combatants from the British comic 2000 AD; Alan Moore's social-commentary star-trooper saga The Ballad of Halo Jones (one of the relatively few series of this type with a female protagonist); Deathlok, Marvel's cyborg soldier—and a precursor to Robocop—with 75 percent of his body boasting cybernetic enhancements, first seen in Astonishing Tales #25 (1974); First Comics' Grimjack, a freelance assassin who chose a sword over technological weapons; Britain's popular Judge Dredd, Mega City's Lawman of the Future, from a host of comics, Batman crossovers, and a poorly received 1995 live-action movie starring Sylvester Stallone; Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, written and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby, a post-apocalyptic DC Comics series heavily inspired by the film Planet of the Apes; and creator Jim Starlin's Dreadstar, an opposition leader embroiled in a conflict between the Church of Instrumentality and the Monarchy. (Starlin is perhaps the foremost practitioner of the cosmic hero as well, a protagonist who mixes interstellar adventure with mind-expanding mysticism, as in the case of another character most associated with Starlin, the space-faring swashbuckler Adam Warlock.)


Other futuristic favorites: Killraven, seen in Marvel's War of the Worlds series (appearing in the title Amazing Adventures), a continuation of H. G. Wells' classic, featuring a former gladiator turned leader of a rebellion against Martian tyranny; Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons' Martha Washington, an African-American freedom fighter warring against a fascist-controlled near-future where the poor are incarcerated; Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, the fusion-generating hero who dreamt of mass murderers, then sought them out to execute them; another Kirby concoction for DC Comics, OMAC: One Man Army Corps, actually Global Peace Agent Buddy Blank, answering to the all-seeing satellite Brother Eye; the X-Men spinoff Star Jammers, Marvel's crew of interplanetary pirates; writer/artist Walter Simonson's Star Slammers, a space militia for hire; America's Best Comics' bawdy time-travel series Jonni Future; and the Wanderers, a superteam 1,000 years in the future first seen as supporting-cast members in DC's Legion of Super-Heroes series before spinning off into their own comic in the 1980s. Most of these characters' realities are bleak and oppressive, with the space heroes acting as resistance soldiers to liberate themselves and/or others. —ME

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