Where Do They Come From? What Do They Want?

In the long pop culture heyday of UFOs that stretched from the late '40s to the mid-'70s, it seemed that flying saucers were everywhere. UFOs swept the nation.

I love flying saucers, especially the ones that appeared in the skies for the first three decades following Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of nine objects over Mount Rainier in Washington state. The saucers spotted in the skies in those days were not always saucers; they were just as likely to be cigars, triangles, glowing orbs, bat-winged monstrosities, spinning tops. But when they were saucers they were spectacular saucers: smooth, shiny, aluminum things that twinkled with lights, their pilots peeking from portholes that ringed their sides. The entities spied through the portholes or seen disembarking the craft were equally diverse; there were tall Nordics with peaceful philosophies, stinking lobster-clawed horrors, miniature men wearing antennaed space helmets; they were goblin-like, ape-like, angel-like. It was as if the Earth was being visited by craft from hundreds of planets, as if we were a key stop on some intergalactic highway, a tourist attraction for the stars.

In time, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extraterrestrial, thanks to Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story, thanks to The X-Files, the craft and their occupants became standardized. The Roswell crash rose to prominence alongside the abduction narrative, each in its own way serving to stifle creativity, shaping the UFO storyline into a monolithic narrative that was foreign to it in the early days. Bug-eyed, big-headed, long-fingered Grays drove out the little green-men, the little barking women with silver hair, the robots with death-ray eyes. I start to lose interest when the encounters only happen in dark bedrooms or on military bases, when repressed memories call up terrors from the past, when government conspiracies become more important than the wonder of the unknown, when abductions replace chance encounters in the dark woods. But, even then, if a tale is wild enough, bizarre enough, weird enough, unbelievable enough I am still entranced, still captured by the power of the alien.

Of course, flying saucers aren’t what they used to be. Things have been pretty quiet for a long time now, the skies remarkably free of saucers and cigars. In the ’90s Roswell was front and center; in the ’80s it was abduction reports. Before that, in the long heyday of saucers that stretched from the late ’40s to the mid-’70s, it seemed that flying saucers were everywhere. UFO flaps swept the nation, from Washington state to Washington, D.C. Flying saucers and their alien pilots became a vibrant part of popular culture. They shimmered on drive-in movie screens and on living room television sets. They were on children’s lunchboxes and Saturday morning cartoon shows. They were in comicbooks.

When flying saucers first came on the scene in the late ’40s, the Golden Age of comic books was waning and the superheroes who had defined that era were on the way out. Flying saucers flew their way into the new comic books that struggled into prominence in the ’50s, especially those devoted to horror and science fiction. It wasn’t long, however, before costumed do-gooders returned with a vengeance. First came the rejuvenation of DC heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash in the late ’50s, then the birth of the Lee/Kirby revolution at Marvel in the early ’60s. Flying saucers flew in the skies along with these new heroes. The new Green Lantern was even granted his powers following an encounter with a crashed spaceship and its alien pilot. By the end of the ’60s a new age of superheroes had dawned and the comicbook world would never look back.

Alongside the powerhouses that were DC and Marvel, a few smaller companies managed to stay alive by publishing non-superhero books. None was better at this than Gold Key Comics, an imprint of Western Publishing. Gold Key licensed Disney characters. They published comicbook versions of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. They published original science fiction like Space Family Robinson, which preceded the Lost in Space television program, and Russ Manning’s amazing Magnus, Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. And, when flying saucers made one of many comebacks in the late ’60s, they published UFO Flying Saucers.

Despite what one may think, UFO Flying Saucers comics are, for the most part, not science fiction. They are instead graphic representations of supposedly true stories of UFO sightings and contacts with extraterrestrials. UFO Flying Saucers was not the first book in this unusual genre of “true” UFO stories. That distinction probably belongs to Al Feldstein’s Weird Science-Fantasy #26, from December 1954, which illustrated the UFO mystery with the help of best-selling saucer researcher Donald Keyhoe. Dell published four issues of Flying Saucer Comics in 1967. Neither of these earlier entries can match Gold Key’s version, however.

Not that UFO Flying Saucers was a runaway commercial success. Gold Key only published 25 issues over the course of the series, from 1968 to 1978. Half-way through the series, the title was changed to UFO Outer Space. Many of the later issues were reprints. It is also true that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, these comics were not very good, especially by today’s standards. The stories are short, hurried, and undeveloped. It is clear that they were meant to catch the eye of a kid caught up in the UFO craze and provide just enough entertainment to warrant the 15 cents expense (25 cents for the oversized first issue!). The lack of commercial and artistic success is not the end of the story, however, because even with that in mind there is still something special about these books, especially for fans of both comic books and flying saucers. (I refuse to believe that I’m the only one!)

First of all there are the painted covers. Gold Key produced some of the best covers in the history of comic books, presumably in an attempt to make their product stand-out from all of the other products on the newsstand, many of which featured more popular characters and titles. Their strategy certainly worked on me when I was a kid. I have been known to pass up Action for an issue of Magnus: Robot Fighter or The Phantom on the strength of the cover alone. Sometimes those painted covers just couldn’t be resisted. They were works of art. I don’t remember ever seeing UFO Flying Saucers at the newsstand and I think my memory serves me well on this; clearly, if I had seen one, I would have bought it.

The covers represent some of the very best examples of UFO-related art produced during the flying saucer age, making it an exceptional shame that most of the creators of these comics are not credited for their work. Most commonly, as in the fabulous cover for the first issue, the UFOs are bright red saucers with glowing yellow lights, domed tops, and portholes. They fire beams at fleeing humans; they rise menacingly from the depths of the ocean; they raid high-voltage power lines to recharge their energy supplies. But the alien craft are not always saucers. They are rocket ships; they are bat-things; they are living jelly-fish from outer space! And, on nearly every cover, humans are in jeopardy, often shown running from the saucers or from the strange creatures that have descended from them.

And what creatures they are! Tiny green ogres force their human captives aboard their ship; a robot with glowing eyes terrorizes a boy and his dog; skull-headed creatures in red uniforms fire ray guns at their victims; big-browed technicians have a human victim in the cross-hairs of their evil rays; a scarecrow-like creature with webbed fingers rises from the cornfield to terrorize its victim. The aliens depicted here are a diverse lot. There are no black-eyed Grays in this crowd. Every depiction is of a different species.

The stories themselves are primarily based on classic stories that have been told and re-told in countless books and television programs through the years. They include the story of the 1897 Kansas cow-napping, the story of Kenneth Arnold’s flight that gave birth to the flying saucer craze, the story of the lights seen over Lubbock, Texas. Thomas Mantell’s crash is depicted in the story “The Pilot who Chased a UFO”. The 1948 Montgomery, Alabama sighting is here as well in “Incident over Alabama”. Likewise the 1952 Washington, DC sighting: “The Day they Buzzed Washington” and Lonnie Zamora’s Socorro, New Mexico sighting: “The Scare at Socorro”. The stories that I grew up reading, the ones that used to scare me to death, that still scare me if I think about them deeply, they are all here: the Incident at Exeter, the Maury Island Mystery, the Flatwoods Monster, the Men in Black, the Contact at Pascagoula. There is even a cautionary and prescient story devoted to the cult of Him and Her, later renamed Bo and Peep, who would lead their followers to suicide in the Heaven’s Gate tragedy of 1997. These stories are a match for the covers in terms of their depictions of the aliens and their craft. There are small aliens and giants among this crowd; robots and hairy beasts; purple-skinned, gold-skinned, green-skinned things. There are benign explorers here as well as terrible threats; friends of humanity stand alongside monstrous evils.

These books, these UFO Flying Saucers comics, are among the best re-tellings of the classic stories, stories that followers of flying saucers have read and re-read. There is something about the comic book format, limited though the art form is in most of the cases represented here, that gives life to the sightings in a way that words or the cheap television and movie special effects of the day never could. They are stories meant for comic books, four-colored in their essence.

I’m glad that I found these books. They make be believe in flying saucers again, even if I only discovered them many years after my childhood credulity and wonder had given way to boring old academic curiosity. They leave me amazed at the creativity of the human brain, at our ability to create new fantasies, to dream up both new threats and new opportunities. It is a thrill to see these stories that I know so well depicted here, a thrill to see the diversity of the saucers and the saucerians that was a hallmark of those early days, those days when space travel was new and exciting, when the cold war kept us watching the skies for dangers from above, when the threats seemed insurmountable but the possibilities seemed as limitless as the stars.

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