Here’s a question I’ll bet you never thought to ask: why are the rocket ships in Golden Age comic book stories and movie serials bullet-shaped? Think about it for a moment and you’ll realize that most spaceships from the late 1930′s into the late 1940′s really are shaped like bullets (the proper word for which, by the way, is cylindroconoidal. I love that word. It’s the biggest word I know, plus when you say it aloud it sounds sort of dirty — try it). So what gives here? Today I provide the twofold answer (along with plenty of cool pictures).

When we think of the predominant art and architecture style of the 1930′s we usually think (correctly) of art deco. But as the decade drew to a close, the familiar art deco style was being replaced by something new: streamlining. This style became so popular so quickly that the word “streamlined” became a buzzword in advertising – for an item to be truly modern, it had to be streamlined (even if said item didn’t need to be).

During the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, both Westinghouse and General Electric introduced new, streamlined refrigerators to the public:

streamlined refrigerator

In a passage from his excellent book Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, author James Mauro asks why anyone would need a streamlined refrigerator, being as the danged things don’t move. But consumers don’t always make the most well-informed choices (if they did “reality TV” would cease to exist. “Celebrity Diving”? Really??!!??), and in the late 1930′s one needed to own a streamlined refrigerator in order to have a truly modern kitchen.

Streamlining became the hallmark look of the 1940′s. Sharp angles were passé and rounded corners were in. As just one example the boxy old refrigerators of the 1920′s were replaced by the sleek new ones with a rounder look as shown in the illustration above.

Even radios were streamlined:

streamlined radio

The model pictured above was especially aerodynamic, which could be quite useful: if you didn’t like the new Benny Goodman record, a streamlined radio would fly farther when you threw it out the living room window. (That would be me, by the way – I don’t much like Benny Goodman. I’m more of a Glenn Miller/Dorsey Brothers man.)

The new diesel locomotives were especially well streamlined. Gone forever were the old “iron horse” days of steam engines with bumps, angles, and protrusions; the new diesels looked lightning fast even when they were standing still:

streamlined diesel

Automobiles were especially streamlined by the late 1930′s, a trend which continued throughout the next decade and culminated in the classic “bulgemobile” look of the postwar automotive scene. The earliest efforts, though. to replace the trademark angular hoods and shiny chrome radiators of the Twenties and Thirties produced some truly dazzling cars. The 1938 Phantom Corsair was an especially exciting example; I believe it to be the coolest looking automobile I’ve ever seen:

38-Phantom-Corsair

It’s easy to forget that the comic book artists of the Golden Age were first and foremost artists (who just happened to be drawing “funny books” instead of drawing advertising art) and, as such, they were heavily influenced by stylistic trends. Some artists were even “ahead of the curve” (if you’ll pardon the expression given the present context). As early as January 1934, artist Alex Raymond had already moved away from the prevailing art deco style when he designed the rocket ships for his Flash Gordon Sunday comic feature. Here, in the second installment of the classic strip, we see Dr. Zarkov’s rocket flying over a city on the planet Mongo:

alex raymond streamlined rocket

Compare the picture of Raymond’s rocket with the illustrations of the diesel locomotive and the ’38 Corsair earlier in this blog post; the similarities are truly striking and they show that Alex Raymond’s drawings were years ahead of the times. It’s no wonder that the artists who drew early Golden Age science fiction comics swiped some of their visual cues not just from the new, modern “streamlining” craze, but also from Raymond’s hugely successful Sunday feature.

You’ll recall, though, that I said there was a twofold answer to the question of why Golden Age rockets are bullet-shaped. For the second part, we have to turn the clock back to 1865 – that was the year that a pioneering science-fiction writer named Jules Verne published a novel about a trip to the moon. From the Earth to the Moon tells the tale of a group of gun enthusiasts who decide to build the biggest firearm ever made: a huge cannon capable of launching a manned(!) projectile to Earth’s moon. The projectile, an early space capsule, is shaped like a giant bullet.

That manned bullet is a powerful, memorable image, one which later burned itself indelibly upon pop culture when French filmmaker Georges Méliès filmed A Trip to the Moon in 1902, creating the very first science fiction movie. Méliès’ work is a loose adaptation of the Verne story and the members of his lunar expedition also travel in a bullet-shaped capsule fired from a huge gun. Here is a still from that movie; it shows a group of Rabelaisian honeys loading the capsule into the space cannon:

space cannon

Never mind that the G forces imposed on a projectile by such a space cannon would splatter the capsule’s occupants all over the inside walls of the ship – the image of a bullet-shaped spaceship was engraved upon the public’s collective consciousness. Even though Robert Goddard was using chemical propellants instead of gunpowder for his rocket launches well before the first sci-fi comics started hitting the stands around 1940 or so, the whole “cannon/bullet thing” was well-entrenched. When you combine the original Verne/ Méliès imagery with the “streamline” craze of the period, it’s hard to imagine how some comic books rockets ended up being anything but cylindroconoidal. (Although it is fascinating to note here that Alex Raymond introduced rockets shaped like tops or saucers in a February 1934 Flash Gordon installment, putting Raymond literally more than a decade ahead of his time: the famous Kenneth Arnold U.F.O. sighting which made the term “flying saucer” a permanent part of English vernacular didn’t occur until 1947, thirteen years later).

Here’s a great example of 1940′s “bullet rocket” style, from the pages of Fiction House Magazines’ Planet Comics #2, cover dated February 1940:

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Planet Comics #2, February 1940

Pages scans courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.