Susanin’s Aug. 28 auction to launch Buck Rogers into 21st century
The original Buck Rogers was put into suspended animation and revived 500 years later, giving 1930s newspaper readers a startling glimpse of the future. Since then, he has become a pop culture icon, showing up every few decades in TV and movie incarnations to inspire new generations of science fiction fans. This auction, said Lorraine Dille, granddaughter of one of the Buck Rogers creators, will launch some of the earliest Buck Rogers material into the 21st century.
The collection that will be up for auction includes some 400 pieces of Buck Rogers memorabilia, most from the 1930s through 1950s, representing what Dille calls, “Classic Buck.” It was Dille’s grandfather, Chicago-based newspaper syndicate owner John F. Dille, who had the idea of bringing to life the nation’s first science fiction comic strip. In 1929, he hired writer and Philadelphia newspaper columnist Philip Francis Nowlan and Michigan illustrator Richard “Dick” Calkins to create a strip based on a piece Nolan had written for Amazing Stories Magazine. In it, a pilot named Anthony Rogers falls into a state of suspended animation and awakens in a colorful, space-raveling future. It was Dille who suggested a snappier first name for the character. The resulting comic strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, was an instant hit, appearing globally in more than 400 newspapers and inspiring space-age imitators like Flash Gordon.
Dozens of Calkins’ original black and white daily and Sunday strips, and hand-colored Sunday strips, will be represented in the auction, along with the original artwork work of one of his successors, New York comic artist George Tuska. Tuska is best known for his 1940s work on Captain Marvel and other Marvel Comics characters. Calkins drew Buck Rogers in the 1930s and ’40s; Tuska took over in the 1950s.
Buck Rogers may have been the first to introduce audiences to the concept of time travel, ray guns and space ships, but he was also the first example of promotional licensing. An array of toys, books, puzzles, board games, masks, jewelry and giveaways starring Buck, and his beautiful female sidekick Wilma Deering, appeared almost immediately after the strip debuted.
“When Star Wars was developed,” Dille says, “for the merchandising and licensing, they used Buck Rogers as a model.”
As a child, she remembers spending hours in her grandfather’s Evanston, Ill. attic, assembling and painting Buck Rogers balsa wood play sets, little realizing how big a part of her life these toys she loved would later become. After college, she would go to work at her family’s syndicate, and one of her first jobs would be taking care of its growing archive of comic strips and merchandising product designs. Starting in the 1930s, her grandfather cut deals with companies like Marx in New York, which made windup Buck Rogers tin toys and the then Plymouth, Michigan-based Daisy Manufacturing – best known for its BB guns – to make the now highly collectable toy ray-guns. Among the most exciting and rare items in the auction are never-before-seen, one-of-a-kind “prototype” drawings of toys that either were never produced or changed drastically by the time they were released.
“These drawings show the evolution from the initial concept,” Dille says. “Most of these designs developed organically, and this shows the progression.” Among the prototypes are an original watercolor entitled “Suggestion for Buck Rogers Kite;” concept drawings for a Buck Rogers drawing set; a proposed Post Toasties Cereal box starring Buck Rogers, and the original plans for a Buck Rogers exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Also included in the auction are rare toys and promotional giveaways that were produced as a result of Dille’s licensing agreements. In the 1930s, TootsieToy began manufacturing toy rocket ships in Chicago and Rockford, Ill., while a New Jersey company called Einson-Freeman made elaborate cutout paper giveaway items that assembled into ray guns, helmets and figurines to be given away by very kind of company from cereal manufacturers to shoe stores. Because they were made of delicate cardboard, few survived, making those that did worth $500 or more.
In the 1940s, Aero-kite company of Chicago produced colorful Buck-Rogers based kites, including the “jet propelled strato kite.” In the 1950s, Sylvania jumped on the Buck bandwagon and began giving out paper dolls and cardboard toys with the purchase of any television set.
The Buck Rogers archive fell to Lorraine Dille after the death of her grandfather in 1957. When the syndicate was sold, it was Dille and her father who were left to sort out the Buck Rogers items, to which the family retained the licensing. She remembers that her father disappeared during the massive packing process, showing up only on the last day when he handed her a package, saying, “This is your reward for all your work.” Inside were several rare Buck Rogers collectables, including a charm bracelet made from the toy Wilma Deering jewelry, which Dille had loved since she was a girl. Dille has been preserving the Buck Rogers archive ever since. With the help of her daughter, a University of Chicago student like Dille’s grandfather, she is now in the process of painstakingly scanning all the paperwork associated with more than 70 years of Buck Rogers licensing and production.
“Much of this material is very fragile – a lot of it is oncarbon paper or onion skin and it’s a formidable and overwhelming amount of stuff,” she says. “We’re putting it all onto disks where it will be readily available for research.” Among her favorites is the often-testy correspondence between her strong-willed grandfather and Nolan, the temperamental author, who frequently butted heads over the direction of Buck Rogers. “My grandfather always prevailed,” she says with a laugh.
And reality may be imitating fiction once again. After a few years in limbo, plans for another Buck Rogers revival – and movie – are said to be in the works.
For additional information on any lot in the sale, call Susanin’s at 312-832-9800.
View the fully illustrated catalog and register to bid absentee or live via the Internet as the sale is taking place by logging on to www.LiveAuctioneers.com.
ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE