All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
The virtues of Buck Rogers always eluded me. The toys were few, and often visually uninteresting. The artwork in the comic strip was wildly inconsistent, sometimes dreadful, sometimes great! As a collectible, some of my sometimes friends and competitors were really into him. I was glad to see their attention diverted elsewhere, and not focused on the rich visual legacy of Mickey. And yet, in spite of my lack of enthusiasm for Buck, the character, I noticed that a few of the products the Buck Rogers license generated were visually Amazing! And thus, without becoming an impassioned Buck Rogers fan, I, nonetheless, acquired some carefully selected Buck Rogers items, when they, conveniently, came my way.
Looking Buck up on Google, just now, I think I solved some of the mystery of why Buck Rogers artwork seemed so inconsistant to me at the time. I always associated Buck Rogers with the name Dick Calkins; most people did. Some of "his" art was really bad. I just discovered that Calkins was a hired hand, not the originator of the strip, as most comic strip artists are. The premise was actually adapted from a story, “Armageddon 2419” that appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine in 1929. Philip Nowlan and the John F. Dille Company hired Dick Calkins to draw a daily strip. Nolan adapted the first story. The following year, a Sunday strip was added, and another artist, Russell Keaton, was hired to draw that. He was replaced by Rick Yager in 1932. The name Dick Calkins continued to appear, long after he was no longer involved. So that explains why the guy who drew Buck Rogers, who I assumed to be Dick Calkins appeared to have good days and bad!
I always suspected that Dick Calkins might have had nothing to do with the wild colorful graphics that graced the occasional Buck Rogers product that, in its visual awesomeness, overcame my lack of enthusiasm for Buck, in general. The thought often occurred to me that the few Buck Rogers products that excited me might have been the work of none of the above, but rather someone in a position, like mine, working for the company that produced the merchandise.
By far, the most delicious manifestation of Buck’s hit and miss greatness can be seen in this visual extravaganza, "The Buck Rogers Cut Out Adventure Book." This vibrant splash of color, the ultimate premium, was actually given away free, to any kid who could testify, and get their parents to verify that he or she had consumed a glass of “Cocomalt”, each day for a month! There was a complex document that had to be filled out and signed. Then, after several weeks of waiting, and eager anticipation, this is what arrived:
Is this Fabulous! or What! And, by the way, the kid who cut this out (it wasn't me) did an amazing job!
I’ve seen this item come up, several times, in auctions, and referred to as “Mint and Uncut”. Some even go so far as to add the word “Complete”. By complete they mean the book, itself. Some of these Cut Out Adventure Books have gone for stunning prices. But that is only half the story. To be complete one needs, not just the “book”, but the entire Cardboard Theatre. This not so little missing item is always left out of the description. To make what may, or may not, be an appropriate analogy, the book is just the “film”. The theatre is the “projector”! One can’t properly display the one, without the other. Both, together, is what you see above.
When Buck was good, he was Terrific, and in the area of comic character timepieces, the Buck Rogers pocket watch was simply the best! With its colorful dial, lightning bolt hands, and dramatic box, it deserves to take its rightful place, on center stage.
In the background of the Adventure Book showcase, are two of the game boards from the Buck Rogers Game. The complete game contained three. I believe that made it unique, and like Buck Rogers, himself, ahead of its time, perhaps, previewing the levels in a video game, today. These game boards are a mind boggling graphic experience. The wild, yet harmonious, colors, the clouds, vapor trails, planets, and explosions, all dotted with “X”s, taken together are visually stunning. Yet, if one examines the artwork around the borders, or on the cards, it resembles the doodles of a child. The art lesson that Buck is teaching, may be that the total really can be greater than the sum of all the parts, and if the forest is fantastic, don’t look too closely at the trees.
The two Buck Rogers Pop-Up books were certainly quite pleasant. Again the artwork here is not that of a master draftsman. It’s really rather crude, yet the impact, especially as the pages open and we see the images move, is effective.
And when that big dragon jumps out, the effect is momentarily stunning..
The smaller book is especially pretty. The artwork here is superior to the large one. The center fold with its naive two passenger open air convertible rocket ship, blazing through a firmament of fantasy, is like a precious jewel.
In the category of extraordinary this Buck Rogers “Combat Game “ is first rate. I remember when my friend Kenny Kneitel found the first one of these, in 1968. It was missing the box lid and several pieces. He lived on the proceeds for weeks. I have heard of only two more of these, turning up, since then. This is one of them. The toy was made by Warren Paper Products as part of their “Built-Rite” series. In the era of cardboard toys, Built-Rite was king. Forts, gas stations, doll houses, garages and other boring things were all die cut out of heavy card stock and notched together. This Buck Rogers Combat Game was the most exciting product they ever made, and one of the few sets, perhaps the only one, that was a based on a licensed property. It includes the Rocket Ship Control Base, several cardboard rocket ships and all the main characters as stand-up figures, There are two rubber band ray guns, with which to shoot them down.
The previous owner of this set, carefully punched it out, and saved all the scraps. He even preserved the original packet of rubber bands. I got this item rather late, and was running out of space, so it ended up in this small showcase, which protects it, but doesn’t do it justice.
For the sake of this webpage, and for the fun of it, I took it out, and set it up, to shoot a better photograph, the way it’s pictured on the box.
Marx made two Buck Rogers windup rocket ships. Both had a unique mechanism that generated an exhaust trail of flashing sparks. Graphically, the first rocket ship was especially colorful and visually exciting. They’re both shown here, blasting off, in this showcase, which they share with my modest collection of Superman. Modest indeed! It consists of just 4 things, one of which, the wind up airplane, is in a different showcase. The wood jointed Superman doll is here, of course. Anything made by Joseph Kallus is something I must have. The Superman doll that he created is very much in the spirit of the fabulous Fleischer Superman cartoons. The third item is the Sirocco figure at the front of the case.
And last of all, is a spectacular target game. This is the only Superman object that I found so exciting that I couldn’t resist acquiring a second copy of this delightfully designed exercise in Art Deco, when it came along. The action is dramatic, as one after another highly designed Deco vehicles appear on the tipping see-saw roadway. When a vehicle is shot off the bridge, by a rubber tipped dart, the roadway tilts, and another cardboard vehicle, cradled on a block of wood, slides down to take its place. The images of Superman, and the sweeping Superman logo, on the enormous box, are early and dynamic.
Superman was a content oriented license. It all took place, between the covers of a comic book. The toys and images that it generated were neither plentiful, nor visual. Play sets, action figures, and stuff like that hadn’t been invented yet. With the onset of the Second World War, the Golden Age of Comic Characters was coming to an end.