By most accounts, modern science fiction had its start with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but didn’t really take hold in the public consciousness until it filtered down from hard cover books into more popular media affordable to a mass audience. At that point, stories by Verne and Wells, but especially Wells, began to be reprinted in cheaply produced pulp magazines until new stories by other authors inspired by their example began to explore the genre as well and eventually pushed out the reprints in favor of their own material.
The original catalyst for the rise of what was first known as “scientifiction” and then science fiction, was Amazing Stories, first published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Interested in invention and electronics, Gernsback conceived of the magazine as a place where inventors and what a later age would call engineers could publish fictional tales centered around a technological gadget or machine… as if today’s Popular Mechanics were to publish its articles as fiction.
Gernsback’s idea proved so successful that it inspired a host of imitators in the following decades until science fiction magazines became a staple of newsstands in years of rapid invention leading into the atomic age and the rise of transistors and integrated circuits.
But alongside the pulp magazines, beginning in the late 1930s, was the comic book which in many ways might have been considered illustrated pulp stories, as indeed many were. Magazines such as Planet Comics and Exciting Comics either took their names and subjects directly from pulp antecedents or simply transferred characters lock, stock, and barrel from the pulps.
But there began the rub.
In the pulps, science fiction didn’t stand still. It began to evolve almost from the start with space opera by the likes of Doc Smith, Jack Williamson, and Edmond Hamilton soon supplanting Verne and Wells and later, more serious hard SF replacing space opera with the Astounding Science Fiction generation of writers. Later, the Astounding writers themselves would fade to be replaced by soft SF concentrating on the social sciences, psychology, and the drug culture.
Meanwhile, many SF elements were adopted as a natural fit by the rising super-heroes of the 1940s with characters like Superman given a spacefaring background and rocket ships and death rays figuring mightily in many stories. Later, in the ’50s, such elements would prove even more integral to super-heroes as former SF fans, writers, and agents working for DC Comics used them as the basis for revamping a number of the company’s characters including Green Lantern and the Flash. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics would adapt SF elements with a vengeance in such titles as Thor and Fantastic Four.
But stories of purely a science fictional bent were often told in short 6-8 page formats usually with an unexpected or ironic twist ending. A format that fell out of favor in SF magazines but sharpened to a point by EC Comics; a format that climaxed in the justifiably famous “Judgment Day” which appeared in Weird Fantasy #18 (1956). And as fun and entertaining though the format could be, it also froze in place, with few exceptions, the presentation of science fiction in comics until the genre vanished along with westerns, romance, and funny animals in a rising tide of super-heroes.
That said, even with its failure to evolve, there was still a lot to be said about science fiction in comics as the following list will prove!
The twist in Gold Key’s Magnus Robot Fighter (1963) is that the people living in the year 4,000 AD think that they’re living in a paradise when they’re actually trapped in a dystopia where many of their individual freedoms have been traded away for easy living and few personal responsibilities. Ironically, the world’s only free man has been trained by a robot to swim against the tide and attack the problem at the point where reality met hardware: the millions of robots who actually run the day-to-day affairs of Earth, some of whom have begun to acquire self-awareness and a sense of superiority over their hapless human masters. Created by artist Russ Manning, the Magnus strip, like many of the publisher’s titles, moved forward in fits and starts (read: original material alternating with reprints) over many years until eventually canceled. It was licensed to Valiant Comics in the 1990s and given new life by writer Jim Shooter who pursued the themes inherent in the original comic but ended up reversing the premise with Magnus fighting instead for robot rights!
A basic element of science fiction has been exploring the future. But what fun is that unless the future being explored is either a wonderful evocation of all of man’s hopes and dreams or his worst nightmare? In the category of nightmare, the dystopian future society often worked as a cautionary tale warning of the effects resulting either from an invention whose intended purpose went horribly wrong or simply bad decisions made by people in the past. Marvel’s Deathlok, a cyborg built by the military as a weapon, first appeared in Astonishing Tales #25 (1974). Created by artist Rich Buckler and scripted by Doug Moench and later Bill Mantlo, the Deathlok strip explored Luther Manning’s struggle to hold on to his humanity while inhabiting a body that was mostly machine and in the control of his military masters. As he seeks out his creators for vengeance, he must travel through a ruined American landscape of some indeterminate future age that promised him little even if he managed to free himself from government control.
8) War of the Worlds
In an ingenious take off from Wells’ pace-setting novel of the same name, Marvel’s “War of the Worlds” feature that began in Amazing Adventures #18 (1973), posits the idea that the invading Martians return to Earth for a second try at conquest and succeed. The resulting stories told in often poetic style by Don McGregor and drawn in an equally elegiac manner by Craig Russell, follow ex-gladiator Killraven and his freemen as they battle their former Martian masters in an effort to some day free the world of alien domination.
A direct spinoff from the pulp magazine of similar name, Planet Comics (1940-1953) was a product of Fiction House and featured numerous stories each issue with many starring regular characters. Like the wild and wooly early days of pulp SF, Planet Comics concentrated mostly on space opera with its attendant spaceship battles, bug-eyed monsters, and damsels in distress, elements that would cling like barnacles to the comics industry for decades to come even as literary science fiction moved on to more sophisticated fare. Never in danger of being recognized for its artistic or literary craft, Planet Comics was nevertheless key in setting the tone for four color SF for years to come.
A clever variation on the classic Swiss Family Robinson (1812), a novel written by Johann David Wyss about a family that finds itself marooned on a deserted island, Gold Key’s Space Family Robinson has its cast of characters lost in space aboard their massive H shaped space ship. Created in 1962 by writer Del Connell and artist Dan Spiegle, the stories of interplanetary adventure follow scientists Craig and June Robinson and their teenaged son and daughter, twins Tim and Tam as they seek a way back to Earth after a cosmic storm transports them into an unfamiliar part of the galaxy. Ultimately, the comic was hugely influential far beyond its four color pages due to its being the inspiration for Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space television show which in turn exposed millions of youngsters to science fiction.
5) Mystery in Space
For sheer breadth of ideas and characters, few comics could beat DC’s Mystery in Space for stories calculated to grab the attention of young readers thirsting for out of this world action and thrills! The birthplace of a dozen regular features that have since entered the annals of well loved creations, the title at different times played host to Knights of the Galaxy;Interplanetary Insurance, Inc; Space Cabbie; The Star Rovers; Space Ranger; Jan Vern, Interplanetary Agent; Ultra the Multi-Alien; and the book’s most famous resident, Adam Strange. Strange was an Earthman who was a hero on the world of Rann where he fought every manner of SF threat while wearing one of the spiffiest looking costumes in comics and in company with the beautiful Alanna, a native of Rann. Created by Julius Schwartz in 1958, the strip was drawn by Carmine Infantino whose angular yet fluid style seemed to capture the feel of what every kid believed the future ought to have been. Published from 1951 to 1966, the long running title undoubtedly set the tone for comics SF for decades until Marvel’s more realistic approach to the subject superseded it in the late 60s and 70s.
4) Alien Worlds
Alien Worlds was a tour de force for writer/artist Bruce Jones who wrote nearly all of the stories featured in the title (and its companion Twisted Tales) for publisher Pacific Comics. Jones began his career in comics writing and drawing his own stories that were clearly influenced by EC Comics’ line of SF titles with twist endings and art that echoed the style of Al Williamson. But though EC relied too heavily on the twist ending, Jones’ stories more often featured endings that either grew naturally out of the plot or finished on an ambiguous note giving the science fiction in them a more grown up feel. Jones was also fortunate to recruit some of the best comic artists of the 1980s to illustrate his tales including Mike Ploog, Val Mayerik, Dave Stevens, John Bolton, and Frank Brunner. And in a connection to the title’s roots in EC Comics, even Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel. Also like EC, Jones reached out to real SF writer William F. Nolan and adapted some of his stories to comics form.
3) Weird Science
One of a pair of SF tiles published by EC Comics in the 1950s, Weird Science was launched with rather pedestrian stories with twist endings and even more pedestrian art. But as the months passed, the quality improved with top flight artists like Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, George Evans, and Harvey Kurtzman contributing. Also on hand was Wally Wood whose detailed layouts and lush inks almost made the stories he illustrated a tactile experience. With dense scripts by Al Feldstein, William Gaines, Kurtzman, and later paperback SF writer Harry Harrison, stories were aimed at older readers not likely to be put off by text heavy graphics. Although most stories were of the ironic ending/just deserts variety, some did manage to convey a little life lesson from time to time.
2) Weird Fantasy
EC Comics’ companion mag to Weird Science, Weird Fantasy wasn’t much different in content both in story and art but with its sister publication, was instrumental in defining what comics SF was all about. Its 8 page tales that concluded with twist endings was a formula quickly copied by other publishers but due to EC’s horror comics running into trouble with the public, its SF titles were soon canceled. Their format however, lived on in pale imitations by other companies somewhat tamed by a new Comics Code Authority. Easily the most famous of the stories to appear in Weird Fantasy (or Weird Science for that matter) was “Judgment Day” about an Earthman who arrives on a planet of robots to decide whether it is fit for inclusion in galactic society. But due to a class system with some robots deemed inferior simply due to their color, the Earthman rejects them. In the final panel, it’s revealed that the Earthman is black. Other stories such as “He Walked Among Us,” involved an Earthman arriving on a planet that takes him as a god and in a parallel to Jesus’ life on Earth, ends up being killed by the powers that be. Adding to the title’s importance was the fact that it featured many faithful adaptations of stories by Ray Bradbury as well as uncredited “adaptations” of stories by other established science fiction writers, thus helping to introduce literary SF to young readers.
1) Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction
Spearheaded by Roy Thomas, Marvel Comics’ black and white magazine Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction followed in the footsteps of the company’s previous exploration and publication of work by literary writers of horror and sword & sorcery. It began when Thomas managed to talk publisher Martin Goodman into buying the rights to Conan the Barbarian, a creation of writer Robert E. Howard. The successful comic book of the same name was soon followed by adaptations of other Howard characters and then fellow writers of weird tales such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Edgar Allen Poe, and others.
With those tales under its belt, Marvel moved on to science fiction writers, adapting such classic stories as “Killdozer” by Theodore Sturgeon and “Arena” by Frederic Brown for such color comics as Unknown Worlds. When the latter was canceled in 1974, the theme of adapting classic SF stories was picked up again in 1975 with the black and white magazine Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction wherein Marvel brought to a mass audience stories by such SF kingpins as Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, A.E. Van Vogt, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Otis Adelbert Kline, Michael Moorcock, and John Wyndham.
In addition, each issue also featured interviews with SF writers and non-fiction articles on the genre. A purer form of delivering literary science fiction to comics readers can hardly be imagined, especially in the extra length format allowed in Marvel’s line of black and white magazines. The only hitch was that the series ended prematurely with issue #6 (and a subsequent one shot special).