Reanimating the Dailies: Star Trek: The Newspaper Comics

[10 July 2014]

By Daniel Rasmus

On Pearl Harbor Day, 1979, Paramount, to much fanfare, released Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What most in the U.S. never new, and what those who did know have mostly forgotten, was that Paramount also funded a daily comic strip for distribution, primarily in the United Kingdom, with very limited runs in the US. They ran in genre related publications like Joe 90, TV21 & and Valiant.

Over the last couple of years IDW has collected the entirety of these Star Trek strips that ran from 1979 to 1983 into two large, coffee table style volumes in their Library of American Comics series. This compilation, though seen as non-canonical by Trekdom, complements the first two movies, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn providing years of additional service for those not-so-loved pajama-style Star Fleet uniforms.

The volume one introduction shares several backstories about the production of the comics, from a failure to elicit reprint interest to the high turnover rate of its artists and writers. It also shares that the $139M US box office for the film that reunited the cast, and watched two new crew members merge humanoid and machine, induced the studio to launch the new comic series. Fans required connective tissue between the first movie and the second, yet to be conceived feature (much as IDW does now with books coming out just before the two latest movies to offer “insight” into what will be seen on the big screen).

It’s hard to imagine with today’s Internet-driven instant communications and the multi-channel onslaught that is social media that anything related to Star Trek could be kept nearly a secret from perhaps the most tenacious fans in history. Well, back in 1979 paper created a completely different kind of information overload. Back then, the Star Trek strip was outstripped, so to speak, by a movie called Star Wars and the new Buck Rogers television series. Most newspapers perceived SciFi as a risky move, despite the history of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon that stretched back to the 1930s.

The bottom-line was they didn’t want more than one new strip, and in primitive information distribution world that was 1979, Star Wars looked like a better bet.

The strip landed on December 2, a few days before the movie. Today it would have been part of the marketing campaign, complete with toys and Happy Meals. Well, to a degree it was, but the lack of pick-up meant most fans outside of the UK never knew there was a strip, outside a few photocopied prints that landed in fanzines.

As with the television show, which attracted Hugo winners like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Robert Bloch and Theodore Sturgeon, the strip brought Larry Niven in as a writer, creating a rather involved story arc titled “The Wristwatch Plantation,” based on his December 1973 plot about the Kzinti for Star Trek: The Animated Series.

But Niven wasn’t the only good writer on the ST strip. It’s original overseer, Thomas Warkentin, went on to write for Steven Spielberg on Tiny Toons Adventures and Animaniacs. Warkentin helmed the strip until April 1981, authoring eight arcs, including one featuring Harcourt “Harry” Fenton Mudd and Dr. McCoy’s ex-wife.

As with much of Star Trek’s television and movie production history, the strip faced a number of issues as it moved along, with artists and writers leaving and going, quality fading due to pressing deadlines and poor choices. In the end, as with much of the near-utopian vision of Star Trek in Gene Roddenberry’s incarnations (so far we have not seen anything near utopian from J.J. Abrams and crew) the strip recovered with Marty Pasko, known from Swamp Thing and Superman, finally transitioning to The Amazing Spider-Man’s Gerry Conway and Dick Kulpa with panel in hand, former editor of Cracked, guiding the strip toward the second star to the right and straight on till morning. One of their final arcs teleported Star Trek into the 20th Century, making it a television show, a move that presaged the spoof that was Galaxy Quest, and the more mind twisting version found in John Scalazi’s Redshirts.

As books, these are collector’s items. The strips appear either to be run off the original art or from very cleaned-up images. They are printed on good paper, leave no ink on one’s palms (but unfortunately, you can’t copy them with Silly Puddy). They are presented in good quality hardcover with slipcovers. IDW created two volumes, one that includes the strips from 1979 to 1981 and a second volume that finishes off 1981, and covers 1982 through the strip’s conclusion in 1983.

IDW has done a fine job of transforming images that were nearly lost into colorful, well-produced volumes that will provide their owners years of new adventures if they just dip in, one day at time, as was intended (but of course, with the advent of binge viewing, stalwart fans will likely binge read rather than pace themselves).

Now what about that dramatic shift from the pajama-suit uniforms of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, to the very formal military look for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn? I’d love to tell you that the strips answered that question with some logic, but it doesn’t. On page 120 of volume 2, the black-and-white strips from August 30, 1982 to September 2, 1982 appear. On page 121, black-and-white panels appear on the top of the page, covering September 3-4. It seems that on September 5, in a color strip, (which of course, would really have been months earlier given submission schedules), that the studio just called and said make the uniforms look like the ones in the new movie—so in one day, the uniforms morphed to match those in Wrath of Kahn, which had been released back in early June.

True Star Trek fans will find in these excellent, but sometimes uneven, graphical stories, massive amounts of new data about the explorations the their beloved starship Enterprise and its crew. Everything is there: the universe, the characters, the ships, the planets and the aliens they know and love so well. And for those that thought the original motion picture received short-shrift from the studio, these comics push Robert Wise’s version of Star Trek well beyond its 132 minutes, and I found that a journey worth taking.

Daniel W. Rasmus is a writer, poet and strategist who lives outside of Seattle, WA.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/183532-reanimating-the-dailies-star-trek-the-newspaper-comics/