Though he's been a piece of the pop culture consciousness for nearly 70 years, the space-faring hero Buck Rogers doesn't hold much more of an impression with most comic book fans than just another guy with a rocket pack and a ray gun.
Dynamite Entertainment is set to change all that this Free Comic Book Day (May 2) with $0.25 copies of their "Buck Rogers" #0, followed by June's issue #1 and beyond. Aside from re-launching Buck Rogers with a new-reader-friendly story, the publisher tapped painter and noted character designer Alex Ross to give the time-displaced alien-smasher a visual makeover to match the 21st Century take on the 25th Century world.
"With Buck Rogers, I wanted to try and dust it off for a new presentation while somehow adhering as much as possible to the original design points," Ross told CBR. "This is what I bring to all the stuff I've done with other superheroes -Â particularly the stuff we're reviving from the Golden Age with 'Project Superpowers.'"
"Some stuff ages better than others," Ross continued. "There are some superhero characters that wear bare-legged short pants that aren't going to fly today. With something like Buck Rogers, it had a whole bunch of colors and all sorts of different costuming elements going on that just didn't hold together as a unified thing. So my greatest element in solving that design was dropping out all of the color and finding a contour that fit the entire form -Â finding the pilot pants to the helmet pieces that they wore that came about in the '20s when the strip started."
If one theme pervades the entirety of Ross' vision for the world of Buck Rogers, it's the idea of a "neo retro" take to the hero and his world, taking the Depression-era designs that remain the visual cornerstones of space opera and marrying them with artistic techniques garnered from decades of science fiction art and movie special effects.
Ross dove deep into his reference library to pull together the new Buck's motifs. "Looking at that suit exhaustively and thinking, 'Is there anyway I could justify that original version so completely?' and wishing that I could paint a new version of the exact thing they had done 70 years ago, I realized there were only so many things people were going to swallow," the artist explained. "So I backed away from a lot of what had been and replaced it with this kind of 'Tron' effect. That was a big influential film from my childhood.
"With that same concept, part of my approach to this universe is that it uses that holographic hard light effect as part of their technology and their guns. The spaceships have a contour that gives the overwhelming effect of being the ships that were designed in the 1920s but with this projected, hard light effect that makes them look immaterial."
The most divergent piece of Alex Ross' Buck Rogers design from the origin source material - the hero's propulsive jetpack - was inspired by a piece of art from the same era, the December 1932 "Wonder Stories" pulp cover by artist Frank R. Paul. "The jetpack was me riffing a completely different source from the 1930s -Â an old pulp cover - a design that wasn't so much a jetpack as it a disc on the back of a flying man with three blades. But these weren't moving propeller blades. They were almost something that would seem to be causing the person to be weightless. The glowing effect applied by my painting gives a hint to a phenomenal level of power that we don't have which is somehow breaking the boundaries of gravity. I was bringing that one other element in because I think that the regular jetpack from Buck Rogers was pretty traditional. I don't think it was entirely original in its design."
Taking Ross' designs from concept to penciled pages is interior artist Carlos Rafael, who teams with writer Scott Beatty on the Dynamite series, and the artist brought his own history with the character to bear in how he approached drawing the series. "Well, I already knew Buck Rogers from the '70s TV show, which still runs on cable," Rafael told CBR. "But through my interest in comics, I came across his older version, the comic strips one, several times. So I didn't start to work on this story without knowing the character, but I was amazed by the new concept. It's a modernized version of the retro visual. As a challenge, I think that in terms of design, the costume is a single piece, well balanced in light and shadow. Maybe the greatest challenge is the completely black uniform in certain environments. But it's worked out studying the masses of light and shadow in the environment. I think that, overall, the aspect of the uniform is great and seeing it on paper is very exciting."
Rafael will be making use of Ross' plans for a holographic-based technology to be running through Buck's world. "I try to place the computer-oriented effects in the same way they would exist on a movie," he said. "When we create a page, we need to come up with a brand new look for the book. Anything new, and exciting will help. It's all a matter of how they work in that world. We are not placing Buck in our world in day-to-day situations, walking around with a ray gun. Instead, he is transported to a world where everything is different. And these elements have everything to do with that weirdness that we would also feel if we were in his place. ScottÂ´s script are pretty much detailed and reference oriented. I can create as much I want (within Scott guidance, of course)."
For his part, Ross remains happy with the unified feeling behind his design despite early fears that fans may find it too close to another prominent comic book space hero. "After designing the look and showing it to Dynamite and John Cassaday, who's doing many of the main covers, everybody liked what I'd come up with, I was conflicted because I thought it looked too much like Marvel's recent redesign of Havok, who I'm a big fan of and his original design by Neal Adams. But that Neal Adams design had noting to do with what I was doing on Buck Rogers. They've done a big black costume, blue light band, body suit effect with him, but the big difference here was that everyone voted me down and said, 'No, stick with it. Stick with it.' I'm fearful of those other fans out there like me who will think something is a ripoff of another."
But overall, Alex Ross hold confidence in the way in which he combines older elements and newer ones thanks to his intuitive practice of paying homage to past artists in an original way. "It's not a matter of simply looking at a piece of reference that I may own," he said. "Often it's something in the back of my brain that's an image of something, and some of these things I've had in my mind influencing me for my whole life. There's a huge oversized book of pulp covers from the late '30s that was published in the '60s that my brother had, and as I was growing up I would pour through it. This cover [with the jetpack] was blown up to an 11 X 17 image in the book, and it made a very strong impression on my young mind. So when it comes time to be looking for anything original or unique to contribute to Buck Rogers, this image is there in my mind and I'm looking to confirm it against the original source. But that's a lot of what informs my creative decisions."
Buck Rogers #0 will be available for $0.25 on Free Comic Book Day (May 2) with the ongoing series launch following in June.