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"Rocketmen" enthrall faculty member Miller

Cynthia Miller has a taste for the fantastic. The Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies faculty member can now count herself a published author on the 1950s pop-cultural phenomenon known as “rocketmen.”

In the unique science–fiction television genre that preceded actual space travel, rocketmen such as Flash Gordon, Captain Video, and Captain Z-Ro fought battles, explored the universe, and time-traveled, all on what we might now consider prehistoric television sets. The history, culture, and impact of the fantastical genre appear in 14 essays in Miller’s most recent book, 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men (Palgrave Macmillan).

“The rocketmen captured my imagination because they were larger-than-life national heroes at a fascinating time in American media history,” said Miller. Rocketmen appeared at the dawn of the American love affair with television, when the new technology was just emerging as a component of daily household routines. “For kids, the rocketmen brought outer space heroics right into their living rooms,” Miller explained, “and at the same time, delivered messages about what it meant to grow up to be Cold War Americans.”

Miller first came up with the idea for her book while writing an essay on early science-fiction television for a colleague’s book several years ago. It was then that she “fell in love with” Captain Z-Ro, a staple in the rocketman category. The primarily educational TV program depicted the travels of the titular character and his cadet companion Jet through space and time as they witness significant moments in history.

Her enthusiasm for Captain Z-Ro prompted Miller to create more than just an essay. After discussing the idea with her book’s co-editor, Bow Van Riper, Miller reached out to various authorities on myriad rocketman-related topics: they ranged from Amy Foster, a specialist on women in the space program, to Roy Kinnard, the definitive author on Flash Gordon.

“Within just a year, we had the book finished,” said Miller. “Everyone had so much fun with it, I joke that the book wrote itself.”

Released on September 18 and deemed a “labor of love” by Miller, the 294-page volume contains pictures as well as essays by academics and science-fiction fans.

“The rocketman book is important now, in the 21st century, as a chronicle of cultural history,” said Miller. “It’s a look back at a time in history when the U.S. space program was just starting to ramp up. Rocketmen replaced cowboys as kids’ favorite heroes, and ‘space fever’ took over the country.”

The end of the rocketman genre coincided with the emergence of real–life space heroes about a decade later. As Neil Armstrong blasted off to the moon, Captain Z-Ro and company faded from the airwaves.

“Fans still exist,” Miller noted, and her book is an homage of sorts to their passion. “They’re adults now, and many of them are retired. Some get together more regularly, and have ongoing rocketman projects,” she said. “So as a cultural phenomenon, rocketmen still have a presence.”

Miller’s foray into the world of rocketmen came full circle just last month with the death of Roy Steffens, the writer and actor behind Captain Z-Ro, the last of the TV rocketmen. The space hero that started it all for Miller was 98 and missed the publication of her book by a few weeks. “His daughter sent me an email to let me know, saying, ‘Captain Z-Ro has blasted off,’” said Miller. “The book inadvertently marks the end of an era.”

The release of Miller’s 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men comes within weeks of two of her other books: Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies, and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier and Too Bold for the Box Office: The Mockumentary from Big Screen to Small, the former of which was also co-edited by Van Riper. Miller’s next book, Steaming into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology is set to come out this week and features illustrations by Jody Steel ’15. 

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