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Comics

'New Life and New Civilizations': The 'Star Trek' Saga in Comics

This is a deep and intelligent look at the various incarnations of Star Trek on the gridded page -- and not just from super fans and convention-goers.


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

Publisher: Sequart Research & Literacy Organization
Author: Joseph F. Berenato
Price: $16.99
Format: Paperback
US Publication: 2014-07-18
Length: 304 pages
Amazon

Star Trek comics have been around almost as long as the franchise has existed. The comics have branched across many publishers in the years since inception and have crossed over with such unlikely other franchises as Doctor Who and The X-Men. Often these comics have been absolutely excellent. Often they have been terrible. And a lot of the time, to be both fair and honest, these comics have been completely bizarre.

Some of these comics have been direct adaptations of episodes or films (though strangely, the Wrath of Khan comic book wasn’t created until decades after the movie premiered). Other times the characters and their motivations are completely unrecognizable. One might expect a character as iconic as Commander Spock would be easy to recognize in any medium. That isn’t quite the case.

All of these differing variations are explored in the book New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics edited by Joseph F. Berenato. While this is another of the “scholarly” collections of various authors’ takes on a single subject (a trend that has proven to be one of the book world’s fastest-growing niches), it's also a deep and intelligent look at the various incarnations of Star Trek on the gridded page and not just from super fans and convention-goers.

Nor does this book lack the star power a volume of its kind might need to be taken seriously by the fans. The foreword was written by none other than David Gerrold, author of the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” (and many other Star Trek books).

The trouble with New Life and New Civilizations, however, is that it can be rather repetitive. Aside from Berenato’s introduction (and Gerrold’s foreword) the first two essays are by Scott Tipton and Julian Darius. Both are interesting and thorough articles and both happen to be all about the Gold Key era of Star Trek comics. There is nothing at all wrong with that, considering the popularity, longevity and, indeed, strangeness of this first era of the saga in comics format. However, both writers cover largely the same themes and issues, discuss the same minutia of the first weird issue, and even state many of the very same opinions in different words. Both are worthy entries and there is enough difference to make these stand apart, but for the most part the reader will be struck by an undeniable sense of déjà vu.

But then the third essay by Alan J. Porter takes over and the sameness goes out the window. Porter discusses the uniquely different Star Trek comics produced across the pond in Britain. Many of the early Gold Key comics (most particularly the first issue) were conceived and drawn while the 1966 TV show was in its V’Ger-like infancy. The characters looked so very different because the Italy-based artist was not even given stills of the actors to look at. The British Star Trek comics, on the other hand, didn’t get their start until 1969, the same year the show was cancelled (and we all know how well that went).

Porter takes a unique viewpoint, that of an insider, in his exploration of these comics. He explains the way British comics differ from their American counterparts and discusses how the TV franchise continued in a very British direction in the comics. Porter is also humorous in his commentary and criticism. While the Gold Key comics often did get many things wrong, it's interesting to note how very different the British comics presented Captain Kirk, who is almost as powerful as Superman and almost as oblivious as Gulliver. Taking the hero role, there is the then-only prominent crewmember from the British isles, Mister Scott himself.

One thing these first three essays never miss is the fact that, although for a time the comics seemed to be the one and only continuation of Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” concept, they were published at a time when the franchise itself was in its infancy. Only three years of the fabled “five year mission” had been aired before cancellation and many of the truths and staples of the now decades-long saga had not yet been established or even thought of. Therefore, while the Star Trek comics might not have quite been Star Trek, Star Trek itself was not quite Star Trek, yet.

One of the least-available Star Trek comics for a long time (until a CD ROM of all the comics to date was released in 2008) were the Peter Pan Records releases that promised “The Action ‘Comes Alive’ as You Read!” Julian Darius returns to cover these comics. Much as he did in his Gold Key exposé, Darius successfully points out the very best things about the comics. For example, the incredible and influential artist Neal Adams drew some issues and the acclaimed writer Alan Dean Foster wrote many issues, as well.

Darius also highlights some of the most bizarre and continuity-indifferent stories, as well. While many of the stories are odd, to be sure, (a story called “The Man Who Trained Meteors” speaks for itself), some of the strange colors and artwork actually take the cake. A lot of the time, this merely shifted into the obvious and contemporary realm of the psychedelic (which is not a bad thing), but in at least one instance the artist did not know how to draw a Romulan, one of the saga’s most popular and recognizable aliens. By this time there were a number of references for such designs, as the first Peter Pan Record sets were not released until 1975, nine years after the TV show’s debut.

Most humorously, however, is the fact that in spite of the long time that Star Trek had been on the air, and was, in fact, huge in syndication, the artists were not even sure how to draw and color the major regulars of the series. Star Trek was always groundbreaking for its diversity, but one frame that Darius focuses on gives us a white, blonde haired Uhura (played in the TV show by African American Nichelle Nichols) and a black Sulu (played in the TV show by Japanese American George Takei). That’s a whole new level of diversity.

From New Life and New Civilizations

Perhaps realizing that the very strange differences between the comics and their actual source material were less of a problem in the era when heavy-hitters DC and Marvel Comics began publishing Star Trek, Berenato next inserts an essay by Kevin Dilmore that is not about a specific era of the comics, but a specific era of readership. He focuses on what he describes as “The Golden Age of Science Fiction”. As opposed to a description of a period of time for the genre (i.e., "The Golden Age of Comics" spans the late '30s through the early '50s), Dilmore is quoting a concept invented by Peter Graham that indicates that the perfect (or golden) temporal age of a child to truly absorb, love and appreciate science fiction is age 12.

Dilmore doesn't simply cover the comics, however, and actually first describes a 1967 coloring book made for young minds to appreciate. Strangely, this book also featured Uhura with more Caucasian features. As previously indicated, all of the Star Trek comics up until 2008 were released on CD ROM that same year, but collectibles like that coloring book remain decidedly hard to find. Dilmore also goes into other media, like the comics made for Kenner Toys’ Give-a-Show Projector and the McDonalds’ Happy Meal tie in with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which also featured comic strips on the back). This focus on the rarities of the comics is welcome in a time when most everything is readily available digitally. Even some enormous Star Trek fans may be unaware of many of these.

As for another corner of Star Trek’s expanded universe that is has been finally anthologized, Rich Handley then takes over to focus on the Star Trek newspaper strips. Two large hardbound volumes have been released, which was necessary as the strips themselves ran for three decades in newspapers. According to Handley, most fans were completely unaware that they existed. Handley explores some of the other rare venues where Star Trek was presented in comic form (without becoming repetitive of Dilmore), but focuses on the impact and influence of the newspaper strips.

Jim Beard takes over to discuss the first run of Star Trek at Marvel Comics. Beard explains that Marvel was able to expand the universe of Star Wars with creative leeway to tell strange new stories, but “got screwed six ways to Sunday” on the Star Trek license, which limited their storytelling to only the era immediately following The Motion Picture (and had no rights to even do sequels to episodes or even use concepts or characters introduced in episodes that didn’t feature in the movie). But Beard doesn't simply take Marvel’s words at face value and instead dissects the possibilities surrounding the contracts to get, as best he can, at the truth behind the initial Marvel Star Trek.

Indeed, the writer goes so far as to read and analyze the letters pages of the comics in his research. In this way, Beard barely focuses on the stories (the book already has more than its fair share of synopses that readers might prefer to get from the comics themselves) and instead focuses on the behind-the-scenes work at the company. Beard’s contribution is not only a good history of Star Trek comics, but of that era of Marvel comics, as well. Comic fans and historians will recognize names like Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Marv Wolfman and Louise Simonson and will get a new angle on the politics and business of Marvel at that time.

Eventually the Star Trek license was awarded, by Paramount, to DC Comics, Marvel’s chief competition and that publisher, in fact, did receive permission to publish stories from all eras (with comics eventually running concurrently from different timelines. Colin Smith focuses next not on the entirety of the DC run, but on the highly regarded “Mirror Universe” saga. It is Ian Dawe who then explores the first three years of DC Comics’ run with a focus on feminism. Then Robert Greenberger explores the adaptation of the series that did, indeed, bring “New Life” to the franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation (also published at DC).

The Next Generation also had a spinoff called Deep Space Nine, which would seemingly fit perfectly with the DC sagas, but that license was not given to DC but to the much smaller publisher, Malibu Comics. This, of course, was not included in the DC deal, because the series had not been created when DC got all of the eras of Star Trek to date. So how did this happen? Tom Mason tells that story from a unique perspective, that of an insider, as he was one of the Malibu employees who created the pitch that won the license for a competing Star Trek series. This largely unknown chapter in the history, coupled with Mason’s interesting writing, makes for the one essay in the collection that is extremely hard to put down.

Of course, Malibu Comics is no more because they were later bought by Marvel Comics. But that isn’t how Marvel Comics regained the publishing rights, this time to all of Star Trek. Sure, Marvel inherited Malibu’s contract with Paramount, but once DC’s license expired that was expanded completely into an imprint called Marvel Presents Paramount Comics. Dayton Ward’s essay explains, in depth, how Marvel not only published Star Trek, but other Paramount-licensed comics, as well.

History repeated itself later when WildStorm comics was bought by none other than DC Comics. One might think that DC would be glad to get Star Trek back under its “DC Bullet”, when Paramount Comics collapsed (and Marvel lost the license), once it snapped them back up, DC farmed those rights out to WildStorm. Famed comics creator Keith R.A. DeCandido tells that story. While DeCandido traces WildStorm back to its inception as an imprint of Image Comics, he fails to point out the irony that Image Comics was originally given a helping hand and, in fact, published by Malibu Comics. Still, DeCandido (who should know) gives another deep and enriching insider’s look at the industry, the license and the plan to create the best possible comics they could with that license and the changing market.

Comics are not just an American artform as we already saw with the British comics. Mark Martinez brings us a chapter in Star Trek comics that began in 2007 as Japanese Manga, not only presenting them and giving us glorious colorful pictures, but giving us a history of the art form and the differences between it and its American cousins.

Martin A. Perez brings things back to the US with an essay on author Peter David’s excellent New Frontier series (seen in both comics and novels). This is the first series not to be an adaptation of an existing Star Trek continuity. So how did it come to be?

The film series itself rebooted in 2009 with the new film Star Trek but its continuity was bridged with the existing saga by the comic book series Star Trek: Countdown from IDW Publishing. Cody Walker discusses this and the importance of movie tie-ins. However, Walker comes to explain the comics, not to praise them, and is critical of the mistakes and missteps that took place along the way. Such balance is admirable for such a book.

Berenato returns with an essay about reimagining classic Star Trek for new readers and David A. Mcintee gives us a detailed essay on the aforementioned crossovers Star Trek comics have had not only with X-Men and Doctor who, but with characters from the mainstream DC Universe and more.

The book (aside from the “About the Contributors” credits) ends with Handley’s Appendix about the Unpublished and rejected Star Trek Comics. Virtually all of the “Insider” essays discuss rejected proposals and there have been mentions of comics that never made it to press before the license was lost. Handley’s appendix is, dare I say it, “fascinating, Captain”, showing how far back these rejected and cancelled stories go and even giving us rough pages of the stories that were never to be.

The book is at its best when avoiding simple recaps and criticism and actually talking about the saga behind the scenes. Often not enough time is put in to discussing just how and why licenses have been gained, lost and regained. This makes contributions like Mason’s and DeCandido’s all the more welcome and informative. However, this is not simply a linear history of Star Trek in comics, but a series of essays from different voices about those comics and that history. It is commendable that such depth is achieved and the varying viewpoints only serve to enhance the enjoyment of the story for fans (yes, even when those voices repeat each other). The result is much more in-depth than any encyclopedia entry on the Star Trek comics, and with a subject so specialized, fans are highly unlikely to find a more detailed history than this one.

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