T.J. McLean Writes

A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Comics Letters Pages, Part 3

In 1990, with few journalism classes under my belt, I decided to write a letter good enough to get published in a comics letters page.

I loved the letters columns in DC’s Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think editor Bob Greenberger did the most professional, fun and informative letters columns I’ve ever seen. Not only was this letter column the best place to discuss the comic, but for Trek in general.

I wrote off one letter, commenting on Star Trek #5 (Feb. 1990). And another on the following issue.

The first was printed in Star Trek #9 (June 1990).

Star Trek #9 letters page.
Letters column for Star Trek #9 (June 1990)

And the second letter showed up in the following issue.

Star Trek #10 letters page.
Letters page to Star Trek #10 (July 1990).

I wanted to write a serious letter. I had just read and had some criticisms of Wolverine #25 (June 1990), which had a spiffy Jim Lee cover. This is a fill-in issue written by Jo Duffy and drawn by John Buscema. In it, an old friend of Logan’s named Morrow calls in a debt. He needs Wolverine to protect his son, Gabriel, during the climactic battle of a gang war. Logan reluctantly accepts. He tells Gabriel a story about a boy lost in the Canadian wilderness who is raised by a pack of, uh, wolverines. That inspires Gabriel to “help out” when the gang war comes home, allowing Logan to decide the battle in Morrow’s favor.

I really disliked the story at the time. Wolverine had become quite the success as a solo character and the number of writers now contributing to his ongoing story had grown far beyond the vision of longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont.

Plenty of interviews quoted Claremont as saying he saw Logan as a man of mystery. It was better to never know his origin because no story could measure up. (See 2001’s six-issue Origin series for proof.) I agreed with Claremont, and therefore disliked this story.

And raised by wolverines? Really? I am a big fan of Jo Duffy’s work, but this was goofy.

So, I wrote up a letter, mailed it and — to my surprise —  it saw print in the pages of Wolverine #31 (Late Sept. 1990). My letter was printed without editing — and there was a response from the editors!

Wolverine #31 letters page
Letters page to Wolverine #31 (Late Sept. 1990).

And then my letter got a response two issues later.

Wolverine #33 letters page.
Check out the second letter. This is the letters page from Wolverine #33 (Nov. 1990)

Two issues after that one, there was another reference to my letter.

Wolverine #35 letters page.
This time, it’s the last letter that replies to mine. Letters page from Wolverine #35 (Jan. 1991)

I didn’t write more letters until after I had graduated and had started a career as a newspaper editor.

It was this period when I could finally afford to subscribe to the Comics Buyers Guide, and its weekly letter column was a real highlight. I was deeply into comics now that I could afford them to some degree. I even wrote a few articles about them at the newspaper, and made my first trek to San Diego Comic-Con in 1993.

Copies of those issues of CBG my letters appeared in are long gone, but I do have a couple of printouts I made before sending them.

Here’s the first, which discusses the issue of ratings systems for comics that was controversial in 1994, the era of the V-chip!

Letter to CBG, May 26, 1994, page 1
Letter to CBG, May 26, 1994, page 2

Amazingly, I don’t cringe when I read that, and I still mostly agree with what I said.

And here’s another letter, from 1997, that’s more critical of CBG and the industry as a whole.

Letter to CBG, Sept. 3, 1997, page 1
Letter to CBG, Sept. 3, 1997, page 2

I received the following reply from Peter David, though I don’t recall exactly what I wrote in the letter he was replying to.

I had a couple of comics creators or publishers send me samples of their work. In particular, I remember receiving copies of an indy black-and-white comic called Hilly Rose from B.C. Boyer. It had a Pogo/Bone vibe to it, and I ordered subsequent issues after liking what Boyer had sent.

Letter from B.C. Boyer, circa 1996.

Those also were the early days of the internet, and like everyone else, I used my Macintosh Performa 630CD to log on to America Online and check out its comic book areas.

If you weren’t around in those days, AOL charged a monthly fee of something like $12, and that got you, say, five hours of connection time. Once you went over that five hour limit, they started charging you by the minute. And it quickly became clear that five hours a month was nothing, and it only took a few big bills to switch to an ISP that charged only a flat rate.

Anyway, I was in a comics group when someone from Dark Horse Comics was asking for volunteers to read a new first issue and write a letter about it so they had some letters to put into that first issue. I immediately signed up, and soon a package from Dark Horse arrived with black and white copies of a comic called Heartbreakers, by Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan.

Letter from Jamie S. Rich, Jan. 15, 1996.

I wrote up a letter, sent it back, and it was published in that first issue.

Heartbreakers #1 letters page.
Letters page from Heartbreakers #1 (April 1996).
Cover to Heartbreakers #1 (April 1996).
Art by Paul Guinan and Tony Akins.

A number of years later, I met Anina and Paul at a dinner a mutual friend threw at Comic-Con. I told them this story and we all had a laugh. Stopping by their booth the next day, Anina had a copy of that comic on the table and I was able to show her the letter.

I forget exactly when letters columns faded away from most comic books, but I miss them. Even when they crop up these days, they lack the kind of thoughtful missives and discussion that turned up back then.

Comics Letters Pages, Part 2

Cover to Avengers #289
The cover to Avengers #289 (March 1988). Art by John Buscema and Tom Palmer.

It was 1985 when I returned to comics reading and collecting. I still dug the comics letters pages.

The letters in Marvel’s Star Wars series — the book that got me into the hobby — were solid. I remember seeing in issue #103 that the next issue was coming in 60 days, instead of the usual 30. I thought it was a typo. The two month wait revealed the book’s schedule had been demoted to bimonthly. Not long after that, the series was canceled.

I also read V, which DC published based on the TV miniseries and then regular series. The original miniseries was terrific, and the followup, V: The Final Battle, was five-sixths great — the ending left a lot to be desired. The weekly TV series was a disaster and put out of its misery after one season. But I really wanted the show to succeed and stuck with it. There was nothing else sci-fi related on TV. If you liked that stuff, V was it.

The comic book version ran 18 issues — long past the series’ cancellation. And it had its high points: The covers by Jerry Bingham were terrific. Carmine Infantino penciled the series and his art had many of the same qualities I had come to like from his Star Wars run. And the letters pages also were lively, with lots of fans writing in and good engagement from the editor, Bob Greenberger. More on him later.

Cover to X-Men Annual #10 (1986). Art by Arthur Adams.

I wrote one fannish letter to X-Men editor Ann Nocenti and writer Chris Claremont in autumn 1986, after we had moved to Arizona. I was trying to work out the continuity of the Mutant Massacre storyline, and where X-Men Annual #10 occurred in the run. I’m still not clear on that point, but I’m also glad they didn’t publish it.

A year later, I was a student at the University of Arizona. My initial major was general business, mostly because I had to pick something and had no idea what else to choose.

In Canada, I had been a strong science and math student. But my interest in those subjects was frustrated by the way they were taught at the Arizona high school where I finished my diploma, and in my freshman year at university.

I had intended to take calculus in high school in Alberta, but Arizona — to no one’s surprise — lacked that option. In university, it was taught in an auditorium with 600 freshmen. The weekly session with a teaching assistant was not helpful. Teaching my group was a thick accented man unskilled at — and apparently uninterested in — helping us make sense of the topic.

Buying a set of notes for the class from a local copy shop, I basically re-took the class at home in the last weeks before the final. I got an A, but none of it stuck, and I was already looking at other interests.

I enjoyed being a university student, and liked taking classes on topics as diverse as psychology, world literature, and military history. Few of the other students in my classes, however, seemed to have any real interest in learning about these things. They loved the social scene, but classes were merely tolerated. They were something to get through on the way to the degree and job that would afford them the flashy car they wanted. It was disheartening to see so many people just going through the motions and failing to take an interest of any kind in the amazing world we live in and the opportunity we had as students to learn so much about it.

I also had always liked current affairs, history, and politics. In school, we had studied the history and culture of Canada, obviously, but also places like Africa, India and China. We also studied the industrial revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Russian Revolution. Given the threat of global thermonuclear war, the latter fascinated me as much as it scared me. For more than a year after watching “The Day After,” I had to distract my mind with the radio to fall asleep each night.

At university, I took advantage of being a student to read lots of newspapers, magazines and books I had never had access to before. I often stayed up late to watch Nightline, with Ted Koppel. That was a great show, though I always wished he had more time to discuss things — an hour instead of a half.

All this inspired me to put more effort into my writing at college and the results were immediate — good grades and some very flattering compliments from teachers. That had never happened before. I also was really enjoying it, following topics down a rabbit hole and using the power of revision to refine ideas. It was at minimum very satisfying, and more often than not a lot of fun.

I also was reading as many comics as I could get my hands on. I was particularly fond of the X-Men titles and the writing of Chris Claremont. He had a strong style, but he also told complicated stories and defined his characters in ways other comics and books did not. I was a fan. It made me think that one day I could do something related to comics. Maybe.

I would read the Writer’s Market — a guide to publications that buy freelance work — in the university bookstore. It reported at the time that top talent at Marvel earned six-figure incomes. That seemed unreal to me.

But a career related to comics just didn’t seem like a viable goal. And certainly not a serious one you could confess in Tucson, Arizona, in 1987.

All of this came together in the pages of Avengers #289, which came out in November 1987. The book’s editor, Mark Gruenwald, had a series of columns he wrote, called Mark’s Remarks, that ran in the titles he edited. And in this one, he was talking about what it takes to be an editor at a company like Marvel. He wrote that comics require highly structured writing, like journalism. So knowing something about journalism was helpful. Read the whole thing here, especially section 3:

The Mark’s Remarks column from the letters page of Avengers #289.

That stuck with me. It definitely played a role in my decision to switch my major to journalism. It wasn’t the biggest or most important reason. I had noticed in reading so many publications of all types that the people who worked on them seemed to really enjoy what they did, and that they felt it was important and worthy work. And that seemed like the right reason to point myself in that direction.

That choice was the right one for me. And I’ll never forget that moment of clarity, of the fuse that led to that decision being lit by reading that column.

I never had a chance to meet Mark Gruenwald, who died unexpectedly at the age of 43, in 1996. But I owe him at least a thanks for some simple words of encouragement. It’s amazing what a little of that can do — most people hear so little of it.

Next: Writing letters that actually got printed!

Cover to Battlestar Galactica #22

Comics Letters Pages, Part 1

In the days before the internet, comics letters pages were important to fans. It was one of the few places you could connect with other fans and read what they thought about recent issues, the art, the quality of the writing, etc.

Letters pages also gave most fans their first insights into how comics are made and who made them.

I first read the letters columns in Marvel’s Star Wars comics starting sometime in 1978. Those comics were for a while one of the few Star Wars products available, and the only official new stories. I read and re-read those comics — and re-read them again.

I specifically remember reading the first arc with Archie Goodwin as writer and editor. It was issues #11-15 (May-Sept. 1978). The art was by Carmine Infantino and Terry Austin. I bought each issue as it came out and loved it. It was the first time I read an extended story over multiple issues of a comic book and I was hooked.

Eventually, I noticed the letters pages, and read those, too. It was then that I began asking questions like, “Who’s Archie?” “Who’s Carmine?” “What’s an inker?” Discovering the credits finally clued me in that there were actual people writing and drawing these comics. And they were different. I had read the previous issues by Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin, and I probably was even vaguely aware of having seen their names in the book. But it wasn’t until seeing the completely different outcome that Goodwin and Infantino brought to the comic that it became clear just how much impact the writer and artist had on a comic book.

Putting pen to paper

I remember only once writing a letter of my own. It was after reading Star Wars #26 (Aug. 1979), which had this really cool sequence where Luke Skywalker flies a stolen TIE Fighter into the gas giant Yavin to take out a hidden Imperial base. The story ruled, but Infantino’s art had become increasingly abstract. I’d looked at other comics with more conventional art styles and wanted the characters and ships in Star Wars to look a little more like they did in the movie.

Cover to Star Wars #26
Star Wars #26 (Aug. 1979). Cover art by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek

I have since changed my mind about Infantino’s art on Star Wars and love it unconditionally.

Being that into Star Wars at the time meant I was really down for Battlestar Galactica. In Canada, the pilot was shown in theaters months before it aired on TV. I saw it several times and was excited for it to become a TV show that would air every single week.

Of course, it also became a comic. A friend had the treasury version that came out with the movie release, but Marvel re-adapted it for the first three issues of its monthly comic series. The next two issues after that saw Walter Simonson draw an adaptation of “The Lost Planet of the Gods,” and it was better than the show. I read that comic for the next two years — long past the show’s cancelation — and in particular loved the issues Simonson drew. He later started to write the book as well, and it somehow got even better.

It was at the time a special thing for me — almost like the show hadn’t really gone away. Of course, that didn’t last.

I read on the letters page of Battlestar Galactica #22 (Dec. 1980) that the series “was not much longer for this world. Next issue will be the last.” I was bummed. And the next issue, #23, was indeed the last.

Shortly after that, I stopped reading comics — and letters pages — for a few years. When I resumed reading and collecting comics in the mid-1980s, the letters pages were still there to inspire.

More on that next time.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #14 (June 1981)

Cover to Star Trek #14
Cover to Star Trek #14. Art by Ed Hannigan and James Sherman.

“We Are Dying, Egypt, Dying!” (22 pages)
Writer: Martin Pasko
Artists: Luke McDonnell & Gene Day
Letters: John Morelli
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Louise Jones
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

Parallel civilizations became a Star Trek cliche during the run of the original show. Episodes like “Who Mourns for Adonais?” “A Piece of the Action,” “Patterns of Force,” “Bread and Circuses,” and “Spectre of the Gun” established the convention firmly within the Star Trek premise.

Of course, the reason for doing this was obvious: It saved the production lots of money. Any time they could use stock sets or costumes instead of making new ones, the show saved money. Within the limitations of 1960s TV production, the show did as much as it could with this trope to good effect — mostly.

One of the advantages of doing any sci-fi or fantasy TV or movie property as a comic has always been that those restrictions were nonexistent. It costs just as much to make a comic with new costumes as it did anything else. In fact, it was probably easier, given that there was no need for the artists to research something vaguely accurate. They could just make it up.

But here we go again, anyways. This time, it’s ancient Egypt, and this comic is lot more fun if you imagine the Star Trek crew is raiding the wardrobe and sets of the 1963 classic Cleopatra — perhaps to avenge Star Trek alumna Joan Collins’ losing out on the lead part to Elizabeth Taylor.

Kirk strikes a pose, but Spock is not impressed.

The story starts off simply. The USS Enterprise arrives for the first time at Zeta Reticuli II, and discovers a civilization similar to that of ancient Egypt on Earth. A meteoroid shower composed of siderites will bombard the planet within two days. Made mostly of iron, they will strike the planet’s surface with catastrophic effect. The crew needs to warn the inhabitants of their impending doom — and save them, if possible.

All this is established in only two pages. It seems like today’s comics would spend half an issue on that. As Bill Clinton sort of said, it’s about economy, stupid!

The rapid storytelling continues as Kirk leads a landing party and discovers a burial chamber with statues of Khnum, the Egyptian god of creation, and lots of mummies.

Star Trek #14, Page 3
Bones has been working out! Plus, some solid telling of a pretty strange story. And that odd bit of Kirk’s finger just barely breaking the panel border is distracting to people like me who notice such things.

Of course, there’s technology behind the ancient gods, in the form of a powerfield! And then a giant statue comes to life — that’s comics for you. Kirk stumbles and grabs Khnum’s scepter and it transforms him according to an ancient prophecy. Again — that’s comics for you. The statue zaps some security guards while Chekov rants in transliteration of his accent while he, Uhura and Sulu manage to destroy it. But then, the transformed Kirk shows up.

Star Trek #14, Page 6
Solid art on this page, though not really consistent with the overall Star Trek look.
I especially like the last two panels.

Back on the ship, Spock and Scotty are tracking the meteoroids, and check in with the overdue Kirk. The captain, alas, is possessed by an ancient spirit and now wears a nemes. Spock and Scott notice the change.

But not as much as they notice down on the planet. Kirk announces he’s Menteptah II, descendant of the pharoahs, and he will to save his people from the death that comes from the sky.

I can’t help but read this page and think of how great it would have been on the original series to have William Shatner play Kirk as King Tut from the Batman TV series, a la “The Enemy Within.” It would have been epic on TV. But here, it’s pretty meh.

Star Trek #14, Page 8
Luke McDonnell and Gene Day obviously like McCoy. They give him lots of visual attention.

Kirk confiscates the communicators, but misses one that Bones collected from the killed security guard. While Kirk destroys what he thinks are all the communicators, Spock is slowly reaching the conclusion he needs to beam down to find out what’s happening on the surface.

And then it starts to get both weird and predictable. Kirk prays to a statue of Khnum, which responds in a voice I personally hear as the same as that of the Guardian of Forever from “City on the Edge of Forever” when I read it. He explains, in pure Erich von Daniken mode, that the people of Zeta Reticuli II originated on Earth and traveled across the galaxy on a spaceship and would one day return to their homeworld. Of course, it also evokes Jack Kirby’s work on The Eternals, etc.

Star Trek #14, Page 10
Very strange for Star Trek, but I rather like the inking on this page. It’s very 1970s, Terry Austin stuff.

So it turns out Khnum has chosen Kirk to lead the people of Zeta Reticuli II back to Earth. And if it hadn’t started to unravel by now, the story is definitely unraveling now. Spock gets through to the communicator McCoy took from the security and receives a call for help. So of course, McCoy gets caught and Spock beams down to the planet to help — all by himself.

Meanwhile, Kirk takes Uhura as his “queen.” This is not explained. But they take the now-captured McCoy to join the other landing party members, who are laying on stone slabs with intravenous contraptions that infuse them all with the “Elixir of Obedience.”

Right.

Star Trek #14, Page 14
Comics are sometimes produced in a rush that doesn’t bring out the best work from creators. This page might qualify, based on that terrible version of the Enterprise in panel two and what seems like off anatomy in panel four.

Spock arrives and hears from Scotty that a beam from the pyramid is shrinking the Enterprise, but not its crew. That means everything’s becoming more intimate by the second — and Kirk’s not there to enjoy it! Also, wouldn’t the air pressure increase to the point that people would be crushed?

Spock and Kirk fight it out, while McCoy slips free and makes the ensorcelled Uhura take him to his medical kit — so he can giver her a shot of cordrazine that returns her to normal. Of course, there’s only one drug anyone remembers from Star Trek, and that’s cordrazine. Thank you, Harlan Ellison.

Cramming this much story on one page is a sure sign of an overstuffed plot.

Spock breaks free of Kirk’s death grip long enough to grab a phaser and take out the statue of Khnum. Kirk’s now free, but the ship is still shrinking, and McCoy has freed the rest of the landing party.

At this point, not much sense remains of the plot. Whatever decent ideas it once may have contained are now just tossed out for any reason that will wrap this up by page 22.

Star Trek #14, Page 19
Bring out your dead!

It’s mummy time. The mummies were actual aliens in suspended animation and they come to life to attack the infidel invaders. This scene reminds me of a much better comic, X-Men #56 (May 1969), the first issue of that series with art by the great Neal Adams.

Giants on one side, a shrinking ship on the other! Who doesn’t love this?

Of course, Spock looks at the alien technology and figures out how to reverse the ray affecting the Enterprise, while Kirk “reprises” his role as Menteptah II to get the mummies to stand down.

At long last, page 22 arrives. The landing party beams up, the Enterprise destroys the approaching asteroids and a lame joke from McCoy at Spock’s expense wraps up yet another weak issue of Star Trek.

Star Trek #14, Page 22
At least the Enterprise isn’t massively deformed on this page.

This issue sports a letters column, with several missives complimenting the improved artwork on issue #11, and more than a few complaining about the high prevalence of Star Trek cliches in each issue. (They’re not going to find much improvement by this issue.) There’s no reply from editor Louise Jones, who bows out with this issue to focus on more successful Marvel titles, like The Uncanny X-Men and Star Wars.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #13 (April 1981)

Star Trek #13 Cover
Cover to Star Trek #13 (April 1981). Cover art by James Sherman and Larry Hama.

“All the Infinite Ways” (22 pages)
Writer: Martin Pasko
Artists: Joe Brozowski & Tom Palmer, and “D. Hands”
Letters: Joe Rosen
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Louise Jones
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

The final monthly issue of the series focuses on one of the better-known bits of apocrypha from the original series: Dr. McCoy’s daughter, Joanna.

The idea originated way back in the days of the original series. According to writer D.C. Fontana, she proposed to DeForest Kelley the idea of McCoy having a son. Kelley suggested a daughter, instead, and Fontana added it to the series bible. She named her Joanna and established that she is a nurse.

In 1968’s The Making of Star Trek, series creator Gene Roddenberry stated plans for an episode featuring Joanna in the third season. You can read a synopsis of Fontana’s story here. Joanna was originally one of the “space hippies” in what became “The Way to Eden,” but that was lost in revisions.

She almost got a reference in an episode of the animated series, and was frequently mentioned in Star Trek fan publications for decades to come despite never appearing in an episode or movie.

Writer Marty Pasko, as a serious Star Trek fan, obviously read about Joanna and somehow got permission to incorporate her into this issue of the Marvel series.

Marvel’s familiar touch

The story starts in the typical way: The Enterprise has arrived at Hephaestus, a neutral resort planet blessed with plenty of dilithium and pergium. Kirk’s job is to negotiate a mining treaty with the inhabitants, who are intelligent and peaceful simians. But Klingon Commander Kagg is here to counter the Federation’s offer.

Star Trek #13, Page 1
It’s difficult to start a Star Trek comic without doing a “ship orbiting the planet with Captain’s Log summary,” but this at least looks good. The art team does a good job of solid storytelling with that nice polished Tom Palmer finish.

A resort planet means there’s a chance for shore leave and lots of wealthy species from all over the galaxy hanging out to enjoy the spa. Among them is a Vulcan ambassador named Suvak, and his companion, Joanna.

StarTrek13-Page2
At last, we see Joanna.

Of course, this means there’ll be conflict. And Sulu and Chekov immediately find themselves in a melee between a Klingon and one of the Hephaestans.

Star Trek #13, Page 4
That spa looks awful. Chekov’s accent is always strange in print.

Joanna approaches her father, who is surprised and thrilled to see her. She’s less excited, and tries to pull away. She’s engaged to Ambassador Suvak, and Bones is not exactly happy to learn his daughter plans to marry a blasted Vulcans.

A Star Trek family affair

For most of page 7, McCoy and Joanna have it out. Of course, he was an absent father who spent most of his time on starships exploring distant planets instead of being with her. Right at the key moment, of course, Suvak falls over ill.

Star Trek #13, Page 7
A good example of an emotional scene told with concise and dynamic art. Also, I love the way older comics artists drew women. Yeah, they cried too much, but they were pretty and their faces always expressive.

Meanwhile, Kirk and Kagg argue over who killed the Hephaestan. They head to the clinic to determine the cause of death and find McCoy and his daughter tending to Suvak. Bones tells Kirk that Nurse McCoy is no relation because according to her she has no father.

Chimps with chips?

McCoy finds a chip implanted in the neck of the dead Hephaestan that he deduces means the intelligent simians are symbionts. Caught in their lie, the Hephaestans explain an alien race visited them thousands of years ago and gave them intelligence through such implanted chips. They make the chips in a secret location and implant them in their children just after birth. Spock thinks the Klingons are looking for the manufacturing center as their primary objective.

Star Trek #13, Page 10
This must be an homage of sorts to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The body of another murdered Hephaestan body is brought in, this time with the chip removed from his neck. Kirk accuses Kagg and the Klingons of the crime, prompting Kagg to order his ship to use a “stasis-field” weapon to immobilize the Enterprise in orbit.

McCoy suspects the real cause to Suvak’s ongoing oxygen deprivation is not good and awaits test results from the Enterprise.

Plots on a collision course

The story jumps around here more than in current comics.

In one page, we have a Klingon vaporizing one of the simians. Hephaestan Dr. Sikaar then stabs that Klingon, and we transition to Joanna thinking Suvak won’t make it. Bones asks her if that’s so bad. What kind of life would it be to marry an emotionless Vulcan who mates only once every seven years? She snipes back and McCoy — in the time-honored tradition of 1960s TV series — slaps her.

Star Trek #13, page 15
To quote Kirk: “Don’t mince words, Bones. What do you really think?”

From this point on, it’s all about wrapping up the plot. The Klingons have planted an explosive device at the manufacturing center, prompting the Hephaestans to fight them. It’s futile, of course, but Joanna rushes in to see what’s going on and Kagg takes her hostage. (You did see the cover, right?)

Star Trek #13, Page 17
Joanna gets captured by Kagg. Panel 5 is a tough one to read — I keep thinking someone’s clubbing Dr. Simaya instead of freeing him from rubble.

Kirk and Spock go after the Klingons, while McCoy diagnoses Suvak’s illness as choriocytosis, which means he’ll be dead in 24 hours. Kirk and Spock decide to dump the data from the manufacturing center into the Enterprise computers to preserve it. And then Suvak decides he wants to save Joanna as his final act.

Star Trek #13, Page 20
Suvak to the rescue!

There’s a standoff between the Klingons and Kirk’s crew, with Joanna caught in the middle. Suvak jumps in and attacks Kagg, holding him down while Kirk and his team — including Joanna — beam up to the Enterprise just before the explosive device detonates.

Star Trek #13, Page 22
Another overcrowded, extremely average issue comes to an end.

Wrapping it up, McCoy has a heart to heart with Kirk, confessing his own shortcomings in his relationship with Joanna. There’s a weird moment where McCoy admits that Joanna is his daughter to Kirk, which shouldn’t come as a surprise because McCoy told him that on page 17. The issue ends with McCoy beaming down to talk to her.

The human adventure is just beginning … to end

One year after the series debuted, the future of Star Trek as a comic book was on fumes. As with previous issues, this one tries too hard to be a TV episode and not play to the strengths of a comic book.

This is a strange period for Star Trek. On the surface, it looked like Star Trek: The Motion Picture had failed to fully resuscitate the franchise. Toy lines and other merchandise had failed to match the success of Star Wars.

But underneath, more was going on: Novels were doing well. The movie drew solid ratings on TV. There was some kind of audience there. But the vision of Star Trek presented in The Motion Picture had done little to inspire a clear vision of what Trek could become. That would change with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which was still 18 months away at this point.

A comic on course for cancelation

There’s no letters column this issue. And no notice that the next issue won’t arrive for 60 days instead of 30. Bimonthly comics were still a thing in the 1980s, but fans knew that it was a good sign when a series goes from bimonthly to monthly — as X-Men did in 1977 — and a sign of trouble when it’s demoted from monthly to bimonthly. The same thing happened to Marvel’s Star Wars and Further Adventures of Indiana Jones series just before cancelation.

The same fate awaited this series, which limps along for five more issues before calling it quits.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fantasy Comics, 1989-90, Tucson, Ariz., Part 1

I don’t remember why I stopped shopping at AAA Best when I started my junior year at the University of Arizona. Instead, I starting shopping weekly in Tucson at Fantasy Comics, which is located at 2745 N. Campbell Ave.

Fantasy was in an unremarkable one-story building, with a glass case at the front full of its more expensive comics. New releases were racked to the immediate right. The rest of the current comics were stocked in alphabetical order in racks that stretched to the back of the shop. The main floor featured lots of back issues. Charlie Harris, a frequent DC “letter hack,” either owned the store or worked there.

One of the most memorable things for me about shopping at Fantasy was that back issues were in heat-sealed bags. To get them open, you needed scissors, so there were lots of discarded comic bags in my trash.

Into the Trek comics wormhole

I fell deep into Star Trek at the time. DC published in August new Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series that I really enjoyed. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had done poorly at the box office and with critics, but Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third series debuted in September and was by far its best to date.

But it was the classic Star Trek comic that really caught my eye. It had clever scripts by Peter David and slick art printed on good paper from the team of James Fry and Arne Starr. And nothing beat those covers by Jerome K. Moore. They are spectacular and I never tire of looking at them or admiring the skill Moore brought to those illustrations.

My Star Trek obsession led me to a Star Trek convention experience that cemented my fandom for that franchise. It was a weekend Creation Convention at the Tucson Convention Center, with special guest Patrick Stewart.

Prior to Stewart’s entrance, Gene Roddenberry’s assistant, Richard Arnold, previewed upcoming episodes of The Next Generation. These were sneak peeks at some of the best in the series’ run: “Deja Q,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father” and “Captain’s Holiday.”

Stewart appeared for a charming Q&A session at the end of the day. Among the secrets he revealed: He had accepted a teaching job at the University of Arizona. But the offer slipped through through the cracks and after landing the role of Captain Picard, he never looked back. What might have been!

Marvel’s X-Men on the rise

The other hot franchise was X-Men. It had been a best-seller for years at this point, but new artists raised the excitement to a new level. Jim Lee’s arrival on X-Men seemed inevitable after lengthy runs on Alpha Flight and Punisher War Journal. He did a few issues here and there at first, before taking the full reins in the summer of 1990. At the same time, Rob Liefeld also was pitching in on X-Men titles and getting some heat. He took over the penciling chores on The New Mutants in 1990 and introduced Cable, another high point. Erik Larsen took over penciling The Amazing Spider-Man from Todd McFarlane, who was set to launch a new Marvel title. With Marc Silvestri jumping from X-Men to Wolverine, the seeds of the Image revolution were taking root.

But Star Trek had sort of taken over my mind. I collected the first DC series, re-watched the movies and original TV shows, and even enjoyed some of the Star Trek novels. “Writer of Stuff” Peter David was the creator whose work I most enjoyed, leading me inevitably to The Incredible Hulk.

Lost in the aisles of Bookman’s

Fantasy was but one of the shops I frequented that year. Another mainstay was Bookman’s, a used-book store that filled a former grocery store space with tons of fascinating objects. Each visit took hours, it seems. I’d start with out-of-town newspapers and move on to a newsstand section full of old and new magazines. Then there were aisles full of used books, cassettes, CDs, and bargain low-grade comics. I always flipped through Comics Scene and the Comics Buyers Guide, catching in the latter news of a Peter David signing at All About Books and Comics in Phoenix. I skipped out on school to drive up from Tucson in time to hit the Thursday evening event.

The Hulk tour hits Phoenix

The signing was part of a tour promoting David and artist Dale Keown’s work on The Incredible Hulk. Keown had only drawn two issues of Hulk at this point, and the signing was sparsely attended. That gave everyone a chance to hang out with David and Keown and chat about a lot of things. David signed several Star Trek issues for me, a Next Generation novel he’d written, and some Hulks. He joked about calling his editor back in New York to rave about the warm Arizona weather.

To my surprise, Keown hailed from Alberta, so we talked about Canada and Arizona, as well as comics. I remember he sold the splash page to The Incredible Hulk #367, his first issue, for about $150. A few years later, I saw the same page for sale in another Phoenix-area store for many multiples of that.

The signing was part of a mini-tour that continued that weekend to comic shops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All About produced a poster for the signing similar to the McFarlane one I wrote about previously. Mine is framed but in storage.

Hunting for back issues in Tucson

After that, I started seriously looking for back issues of The Incredible Hulk. David had been writer on Hulk for about three years, and I began by tracking down his back issues. I often visited a Tucson shop called Comics and Things, located in a strip mall at 3934 E. Grant Road, in search of Hulk and Star Trek back issues. It had a good selection of recent back issues but soon vanished into the ether.

The writing and art on Hulk surprised me. David started with a fairly conventional Hulk story with McFarlane on art. Their collaboration ended with a satisfying climax that completely changed the series’ premise. David next turned the Hulk gray and got him a job as a high-end Las Vegas bouncer named Joe Fixit. Jeff Purves drew this run and did a fabulous job before disappearing from the world of comics.

Hulk was so good that Sam Kieth drew the fill-ins — if you could call them that.

Keown drew Hulk for the next three years, and it became was a huge hit. David stuck with the title for years after, and still writes new Hulk stories from time to time. Great stuff.

How much is too much Batman?

This also was a time when Batman was still riding high on the popularity of the Tim Burton movie. So Batman was super-hot and DC released in the autumn of 1989 Legends of the Dark Knight #1. Promoted as the first new solo Batman book since 1940, this series set free top talent to do their ultimate Batman story.

The first issue also marked the first time I remember variant covers from a major publisher, as DC promoted the book with a second cover that came in four different colors. They said in the book that it was “just for fun,” but the result surely made DC’s accountants happy as fans decided they needed to have a copy of each color — and therefore bought four copies of that first issue.

Pointing out the differences between Tucson and Phoenix, that first Legends of the Dark Knight sold out immediately down south. The same was true of The New Titans #60 and 61, which were key parts of the current Batman storyline, “A Lonely Place of Dying.” I easily found both on my first comic shop stop on my next trip to Phoenix.

Next: My short career as a “letter hack.”

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #12 (March 1981)

Cover to Star Trek #12 (March 1981). Cover art assumed by Comics.org to be penciled by Joe Brozowski and definitely inked by Tom Palmer.

“Eclipse of Reason” (22 pages)
Plotter: Alan Brennert
Scripter: Martin Pasko
Artists: Luke McDonnell & Tom Palmer
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Carl Gafford
Editor: Louise Jones
Editor in Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover artists: Joe Brozowski & Tom Palmer

This issue is notable in that it’s one of the first comic book credits for Alan Brennert, who has written many fine novels and episodes of TV series like the 1970s Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Twilight Zone and L.A. Law, for which he won an Emmy award in 1991. He also wrote episodes of Stargate Atlantis and Star Trek: Enterprise under the pen name Michael Bryant.

It’s clear this is a pretty difficult comic to write for, mostly because too many of the scripters are trying too hard to do a TV episode instead of a comic. It’s also a good example of the original series format creating too much of an echo chamber. There’s a lot of repeating in these stories and not a lot of original ideas coming through. Not that that’s not normal for comic books, but it’s not done with sufficient energy or verve to work here.

Not a bad splash page. Good details and likenesses. But I have no idea what that pyramid thing Kadan is in is supposed to be.
I don’t think any of the proportions in this panel are corrct.

The art struggles to keep up with the story. There’s some very nice work here as far as likenesses. Palmer, clearly, has a few moments to shine. But the rest of the story lacks clarity and dynamism, and in a few places, just looks like it was done under rushed circumstances or by an artist whose skills weren’t up to the task of, say, drawing the Enterprise correctly.

Storywise, this issue sees yet another Kirk romance gone sideways as he learns his former yeoman, Janice Rand, has fallen in love with and married a being of pure energy named Kadan of Phaeton. Kadan is captain of the USS Icarus, which is tasked with exploring beyond the energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy. Rand is going along with Kadan on this mission as the lone human aboard, tasked with doing what the bodyless Phaetonians cannot. The mission will take 1,000 years, so Rand will live out the rest of her life aboard the Icarus, with her husband, who will outlive her by many hundreds of years.

Sad, no?

Nice page, especially that middle panel. It’s well drawn and the color use is interesting, too.

The Enterprise regulars check out the Icarus to ensure it’s in good operating condition. Kirk confronts Rand about her radical choice, reminding her that she’s a woman and her husband doesn’t even have a body. (Kirk’s nothing if not subtle, right?)

After the farewell, the Enterprise heads off to its next mission, while the Icarus hits the barrier and it drives the Phaetonian’s insane and makes Rand telepathic.

The plot’s wonky, but I do like this page. It’s one of the few uncrowded pages in the entire series and shows that it is indeed possible to draw good-looking Star Trek comics.

Now, this is where you have to wonder about this plot. Clearly, everyone in this story remembers what happened when the Enterprise tried to pierce that barrier in the classic second pilot of the series, titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” That was the episode where Kirk’s best friend Gary Mitchell, played by Gary Lockwood, gains god-like abilities when the ship tries to pass through the barrier. He’s joined shortly thereafter by Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman), and Kirk is forced to kill them both before their powers go out of control. It was one of the best episodes of the show, and one whose message would be hard to ignore. But ignore it Starfleet does, and the results are equally disastrous.

Rand seeks out Kadan for help, only to find he’s gone mad and is projecting an image of what his body-bearing ancestors once looked like into her mind for added effect.

The Icarus quickly destroys a cargo vessel and heads on a direct course to the Phaetonian homeworld. Far away, Spock receives a telepathic message from Rand and passes on what has happened to Kirk, who cancels his current mission to help out.

That first line of dialog in panel three is unintentionally hilarious. It’s also unclear what exactly is happening to Rand.

Aboard the Icarus, Rand is trapped on the bridge when the crew shuts down the turbolifts and drives the ship into a “white hole.” The Enterprise follows and both ships enter a strange dimension and attempt to disable each other with phaser fire. Rand gets a signal through and tells Kirk the Phaetonians are like salmon swimming upstream — they want to return to their home planet and “land” the Icarus, meaning it’ll crash into the surface and the anti-matter explosion will kill billions.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Chekov beam over through a hole Scotty shoots in the Icarus’ shields and are trapped there as the Icarus damages the Enterprise and is able to speed off.

Another mix of good and bad art — so much so that this could have been a page from the old Gold Key comic book series.

The Icarus itself starts fighting the crew, which it has to because the Phaetonians have no bodies. That means force fields enacted, artificial gravity giving out and training devices attacking the crew.

Nice top panel, but the rest looks like it was adapted from a rejected X-Men story set in the Danger Room.

Rand detects her old shipmates and crawls through a Jeffries tube to reach them, while Scotty prepares the Enterprise crew for his new orders: Ram the Icarus to prevent it from reaching its homeworld.

Spock and Rand manage to telepathically communicate with Kadan and help him regain his senses at the same moment Kirk turns the gravity and life support back on — just in time to avoid a ramming from the Enterprise.

Um, yeah. No comment.

The story ends with less than a page explaining that the Phaetonians are off to an asylum on Elba II. Rand’s decided to seek an annulment and asks Kirk if she can have her old job back as the Enterprise transporter chief.

At least she’s not going back to getting Kirk coffee.

Rand’s story ends worse than it began. I get why that happens — characters like that might always be needed in the future and so you can’t really send them off on a 1,000-year mission. But nothing is added to her story. Her relationship with Kadan isn’t believable, nor her continued pining for Kirk. The captain fares no better, coming off as a complete jerk who expects Rand to be available to him on an ongoing basis — even though he has no intention of being with her at all.

And nobody else in this issue gets any more than that. The title lacks any kind of emotional connection with or between its characters and I can’t imagine that anyone other than a die-hard Star Trek fan finding much to enjoy with it.

I will add that this is one of several Marvel comics published this month that features the little gag at the end called “The Former X-Men,” which is a parody cover of The Uncanny X-Men #142’s cover. Cute.

Jim Salicrup and Terry Austin’s parody of the cover to The Uncanny X-Men #142.

One year out from the start of this series, it’s not looking good for its future. Star Wars was riding high, based on the success of The Empire Strikes Back and the anticipation for Return of the Jedi. It was hard at this time to think much of Star Trek: The Motion Picture or the future of Star Trek as a franchise, as The Wrath of Khan was still a year and a half away. But Marvel had another year on its license, so the comic book was still on track to publish through 1981.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #11 (Feb. 1981)

Cover to Star Trek #11. Art by Joe Brozowski and Tom Palmer.

“… Like A Woman Scorned!” (22 pages)
Writer: Martin Pasko
Artists: Joe Brozowski and Tom Palmer
Colorist: Carl Gafford
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Editor: Louise Jones
Editor in Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover: Joe Brozowski and Tom Palmer

A much better effort this issue, though the plots continue to be plagued by the embarrassing and not-very-interesting trope of the Enterprise crew encountering ancient Earth myths in the depths of space. Star Trek’s gone there on more than one occasion, but these are rarely the best episodes. Time travel and more straight-on, traditional sci-fi conventions that are integrated with character are the real hallmarks of Star Trek. And Marvel just can’t quite get there.

This issue we get a decidedly new look with art by Joe Brozowski and Tom Palmer. This is Brozowski’s first work on a Star Trek comic, not it’s not his last as he contributed to a number of issues in DC’s first series.

Tom Palmer is a legendary comic book inker. He’s inked tons of Avengers for Marvel, as well as having inked Neal Adams’ legendary run on X-Men. He also did finishes over Walt Simonson’s breakdowns on Marvel’s Star Wars. His work is detailed and organic, and his style is unmistakable and always welcome in any comic book I read. He has a real talent for likenesses, as well, which makes him well-suited to Star Trek.

Now that’s a splash page!

This issue starts off with a great image on the splash page of Starfleet officers dying of exposure to Berthold rays on the planet Andronicus. It’s dramatic, and exciting! There’s actually something going on this issue.

The officers died a while back, but the Enterprise is headed to Andronicus because it’s the home of a clinic founded by psychiatrist Carl Wentworth. The clinic had protected Wentworth and his staff from the Berthold rays with a transparent neutronium shield that is now failing. The Enterprise is to transport the doctor and his crew to Starbase 28.

I have to mention Wentworth for a moment, because he’s described before his appearance in this story as the founder of the “anti-apologists movement.” McCoy calls him a con artist, Kirk admits some call him a cult leader. And Spock describes his teachings as training people base their conduct on “enlightened self-interest.” McCoy remarks that he senses disdain in Spock’s voice, which he denies.

Lots and lots of words on this page.

Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy that dates back to Alexis de Toqueville as a kind of “treat others as you would have them treat you.” But it also evokes Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, which uses the term “rational self-interest” to describe the idea that improving and enriching yourself is the best way to improve the world. Like everything associated with Rand, her views are controversial and evoke extreme devotion among a small set of devotees and general derision from the rest of the world. And of course any discussion of Ayn Rand and comics leads back to Steve Ditko and the controversies associated with his career. Let’s see what happens …

The first member of Wentworth’s party to beam aboard is a lovely woman in a tiny wisp of a dress named Andrea Manning, who shares some unpleasant history with Scotty that he’s embarrassed by.

All of this, by the way, happens in the first three pages of this comic!

En route to Starbase 28, Spock notes a decrease in Scotty’s efficiency, while Wentworth gets a tour of the ship. Of course, he’s dressed like a cult leader: robes, sandals, balding with long white hair and a beard. And, of course, an attitude. On the bridge, he gives Uhura an earful about following orders when she should decide what she wants to do on a moment to moment basis. She dismisses him as a kook.

What the heck’s going on here? At least the art is pretty to look at.

Then this story gets really strange. The intruder alert alarm sounds in engineering as a “witch-hag” appears and rips through crewmen as it goes after Scotty. The hag is pretty powerful, redirecting and amplifying phaser fire back at crew members, then enlarging a security guard’s phaser so much that he’s pinned underneath it. Kirk jumps in and is knocked back, while Spock’s nerve-pinch goes right through the hag’s shoulder and she makes him dance like he’s in a Beyonce video before disappearing.

Spock gets jiggy with it in panel 4.

In sickbay, Bones says Scotty shows signs of fear but otherwise should be OK. While he’s out, he whispers “Black Annis” and Spock heads off to look it up in the computer banks.

Wentworth, meanwhile, is in the recreation deck telling Uhura and Sulu they should follow their whims and change course to Drexler II for shore leave. Somehow, they find themselves following his lead. And Dr. Chapel checks in on Andrea Manning to find her downing a bottle of saurian brandy by herself and going off on how much she loved Scotty and how much she gave up for him, only to less important to him than a rivet on a baffle plate.

Andrea Manning’s apparently a lightweight when it comes to drinking. No wonder Scotty left her.

Spock learns Black Annis is a character from ancient Scottish folklore that used to eat small children. Then Kirk finds the ship’s off course and headed to Drexler II. Kirk orders security to the bridge to arrest Sulu and Uhura and put them in the brig. And then another intruder alert comes in as another creature from Scottish folklore — a birdlike creature called a direach — is attacking Bones, Spock and Scotty. Spock tries to nerve pinch it, but it responds by kicking his ass. Bones shoots it with a phaser, to no avail. Kirk then tries to throttle it. Yes, throttle it! At that moment, Andrea Manning passes out from too much brandy and the creature disappears.

This page is all kinds of crazy: Kirk throttling a mythical creature and Andrea passes out drunk.

Chekov then reports that a full-fledged mutiny is underway as Wentworth takes control of the Enterprise. He rants about having leaned mind-direction techniques from ancient archives on Andronicus and he plans to create a new base on Drexler II, with the Enterprise at its command. Spock decides to mind-meld with Scotty to erase his memories of Scottish folklore as a way to cut off the source of Andrea’s power, while Kirk storms the bridge. Wentworth appears to win over Kirk, Andrea wakes up ranting about how much she hates Scotty and the ship is rocked by a giant alien creature wrapping itself around the ship.

Wentworth looks a little like Hitler in panel 5.

As the entirety of Star Trek up to this point has made clear, the only thing Kirk really loves is the Enterprise and his mission. So he overcomes Wentworth’s influence and decks him with a left cross. He realizes the creature is, of course, the Loch Ness Monster. Bones knocks out Andrea with a sedative, and the monster disappears. The Enterprise drops off Andrea, Wentworth and the rest of their people at a rehabilitation center. Kirk notes no charges against the crew because they were under Wentworth and Andrea’s influence, and the ship warps off to the next issue.

As you might expect from what I wrote above about the artists on this issue, I like the way this looks. The problem is the story, which tries to pack way too much into a mere 22-page comic to work. There are quite a few seven-panel pages in this book, and one nine-panel page — just to keep up! There’s also a lot of script to explain things going on that the art can’t convey.

But it’s just a mess, overall. The folklore creatures, the mutiny, Scotty’s bad breakup, the heavy drinking, the cult leader — it’s all too much. None of it has space or time to develop into anything of note. And the villain, who’s clear from the start and about as one-dimensional as you can get, is practically squeezed out of his own story. It evokes enough Star Trek flavor to feel kind of like a Star Trek story, but it’s too crammed full of elements for the story to deliver anything more than a surface experience.

No letters column appears in this issue, replaced by a house ad for Spider-Woman.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #10 (Jan. 1981)

Cover to Star Trek (Marvel) #10 (Jan. 1981).
Art by Frank Miller and Gene Day.

“Domain of the Dragon God!” (17 pages)
Writer:
Michael Fleisher
Artists: Leo Duranona and Klaus Janson
Letterer: Rick Parker
Colorist: Carl Gafford
Editor: Louise Jones
Editor in Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover: Frank Miller and Gene Day

“From the Files of Starfleet Command Headquarters” (5 pages)
Artist: Dave Cockrum

Based on the page count, this must have been an inventory story commissioned before Marvel raised its page count starting with issues cover-dated September 1980.

I’m not too familiar with the creative crew on this issue: Micheal Fleisher was best known for his work at DC on characters like Jonah Hex and The Spectre. Leo Duranona was from Argentina and worked in the 1970s on comics stories for the Warren line of magazines before working as a storyboard artist in animation and returning to comics in the 1990s to do some Predator work at Dark Horse. Janson, as finisher/inker on this issue, makes it look consistent with Marvel’s other Star Trek comics.

A decent splash page, but these shots of the USS Enterprise lack drama unless something’s happening to the ship. Also, I wonder how Gene Roddenberry felt about his name being so small and Stan Lee’s so large on the page.

This starts with the Enterprise orbiting Barak-7 to investigate the strange properties of its magnetic fields. The fields make it impossible to transport to the surface or use communicators. Kirk is recovering from the flu, so Spock and McCoy take it upon themselves to head up the short surface survey needed to complete their mission. Of course, the engine filters get clogged and the engines overheat, forcing the shuttlecraft to land. Thanks, Obama!

Not sure where this shuttlecraft design comes from. The one that appears at the end of the story is based on the shuttle design from the original TV series.

Spock says he can unclog the filters, while McCoy spots a tribe of primitive humanoids who are about to sacrifice a young woman by tossing her into a pool of hideous reptile creatures. McCoy wants to help her; Spock says they can’t violate the prime directive.

The girl breaks free and runs for the hills — right into Spock and McCoy. The tribesmen attack and the officers defend themselves with phasers set on stun. Spock decides to hold off the attack so McCoy and the girl can escape. Spock is soon overwhelmed by their numbers and captured.

Meanwhile, McCoy gets a history from the girl, whose name is N’Shulu. She say her brother and his followers are trying to destroy the evil ruler Ragnok, whose minions were the ones who just captured Spock.

Solid, but not very dynamic.
The bottom panel is as close as this issue gets to fulfilling the promise of the cover.

Spock meets Ragnok, who sentences him to work as a slave shaping a mountain into a likeness of Ragnok. Back on the Enterprise, Kirk is worried for two thirds of a page.

Spock makes friends and enemies by showing the workers how they can use leverage to lift large rocks more easily. A fight breaks out and Spock gets clubbed.

McCoy meets N’Shulu’s brother, K’Barrgh, and decides the only way to save Spock is to teach these people how to fight. So he creates a bow and arrow and shows them how to use archery to attack from a distance.

McCoy easily and completely violates the prime directive.

Now Kirk is really getting worried, taking a whole page this time asking the crew to find ways to contact Spock and McCoy.

Back on Barak-7, K’Barrgh’s people attack with arrows, and K’Barrgh defeats Ragnok in battle to become the new leader of both tribes. Spock and McCoy are reunited, though disappointed to find out that K’Barrgh’s first act is remake the mountain visage of his defeated foe into a tribute to his own.

The story’s climax is something no one who bought the issue wanted to see: The non-exciting final battle between Ragnok and K’Barrgh! Thanks, Barak-7!
Also, what’s with the random panel break on the left side of the page?

The tribes all turn on McCoy and Spock, who make a break for it and are rescued by the arrival of Kirk in a shuttle modified to not get its engine filters clogged. He picks up his pals and they pass the mountain visage of Ragnok as they head back to the Enterprise.

This is the least interesting story to date in Marvel’s version of Star Trek. It offers very little in terms of plot, character or action. The art by Duranona and Janson is solid and professional, but lacks excitement and drama. This issue is so bland that it’s hard even to make fun of it.

The last five pages of this issue include some rather nice model sheets by artist Dave Cockrum that explains the various uniforms and their markings worn by the Enterprise crew. Cockrum did lots of sheets like this, and his “How to Draw the X-Men” series is like a master class in the art form. These are similarly useful and interesting for the level of detail put into the drawings and explanations.

There is a truncated letters page in this issue with a few short missives from fans and responses from Mike W. Barr, whose involvement in the series at this point is a mystery as even he writes that Martin Pasko is the regular scripter. The only bit of note is that one letter mentions a Spock reference to Sherlock Holmes, which Barr says he wrote in with the consent of editor Louise Jones and artist Dave Cockrum because it made sense that the Vulcan and the detective would be kindred spirits. This kind of foreshadows the more explicity Trek-Holmes connection with Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Lastly, the best part of the whole issue is arguably the cover. Frank Miller and Gene Day make a solid pairing and the cover copy promising “Spock — The Barbarian!” makes a great sales hook. Even the colors are nice, with the purple background, though the light yellow in the logo fails to pop as well as it could have.

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1988-1989, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 1

Completing my freshman year at University of Arizona, I returned to Scottsdale for the summer. I think I took a short visit back to Edmonton, and then returned to Scottsdale and secured a summer job in the engineering department at the Hilton Scottsdale Resort & Villas, located at 6333 N. Scottsdale Road. I remember getting my first check and heading to the comics shops, the closest of which that I knew to be a good one was AAA Best Comics, located at 9204 N. Seventh St. in Phoenix.

This was the shop to which Fog Hollow transferred its subscription accounts when it closed the year before. I don’t remember much about my single visit to the store the year before, but I do remember pulling up to AAA Best on a sunny morning in June 1988 and walking in to find an older woman sitting by the door and announcing to her son, the owner, that he had a customer. The man was Ken Strack, and he was a terrific comic shop owner who earned a lot of my business for the next five or six years.

Excalibur #1 (Oct. 1988). Art by Alan Davis and Paul Neary.

On that day, Ken was busy sorting and the new issues were just laid out on a table in near the front entrance. The store occupied a long and narrow space at the end of a strip mall structure. I distinctly recall Excalibur #1 was just out and I scooped it up ASAP to flip through the lovely artwork by Alan Davis and Paul Neary. The other book I recall grabbing, either on that visit or one shortly thereafter, was Marvel Comics Presents #1, with that cool Walt Simonson wrap-around cover.

Marvel Comics Presents #1 (Early Sept. 1988). Cover art by Walt Simonson (and friends).

This also was the summer when Marvel experimented with twice-monthly publication of its top titles, which included X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. The latter was, of course, drawn by Todd McFarlane and was taking off like a rocket.

I still visited other stores, most notably All About Books & Comics, during this time. But AAA Best was my favorite. Ken was quick to spark a discussion and recommend new books based on what he knew you liked. I looked forward to visiting the shop as much to talk with him about comics as to buy my weekly stash. I once was checking out with a large stack and as he rang them up, I said it should keep me busy for a week or so. His reply was something along the lines of “No way! You gotta grab a bowl of cereal and stay up all night reading them!”

I kept my subscriptions with AAA Best even when I went back to school in Tucson that fall for my sophomore year. I had a new place to live in a different part of town, but I also had a car and a girlfriend I met in traffic school that summer. She was starting as a freshman at U of A, but I was so insecure about my comics habit that I didn’t tell her about it until we’d been dating a few months already. I need not have worried. She thought it was kind of cool and even read some of the books — she liked McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man — when I’d acquire a new stack of stuff.

I had braces at this time, and at least once a month would come up to Scottsdale to have the orthodontist adjust them. He had office hours on Saturday morning, so after my appointment, I’d head over to AAA Best. One day in January 1989, Ken was on the phone when I walked into the store. He was having an animated conversation with someone about flying in for an event, weekend accommodations, etc. At the end, he pulled out a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man, #315, which was the most-recent issue at the time, to look up the circulation figures in the statement of ownership in the back, and said he’d be happy to pop a few copies in the mail. That was when I realized he was talking to the one and only Todd McFarlane. When Ken hung up, he looked at me and said, “You are sworn to secrecy!” He then told me that McFarlane was coming for a store signing that spring and that subscribers like myself would get a special poster signed by Todd, whether they could make the event or not. This was quite exciting news, to be sure, but it was easy to keep to myself since I knew almost no one who would have known who McFarlane was.

The front page of the Life & Leisure section from The Arizona Republic newspaper on March 23, 1989, featured this interview with Todd McFarlane.
He says at the end that he ultimately wants to do a gag strip like Garfield.

The signing itself was March 25, 1989 — a Saturday. There was an article with and interview with McFarlane on the front of the Life & Leisure section of The Arizona Republic newspaper on March 23, 1989, promoting the signing and, when I arrived fairly early on there was already a long line of folks ready to meet Todd. It took a long time, and I’m glad this was March instead of July. Todd at one point agreed to take a short break to review the portfolios of artists looking for feedback. But eventually, I got to the front of the line. Todd was sitting at a table in the back of the shop, with a stack of original Spider-Man art that was for sale, as well as copies of most of his books for sale at then-relevant prices. I regret not buying any of that art, but at the time $75 or $100 a page was out of my price range. I remember the guy in front of me bought a copy of The Incredible Hulk #340 for $10, and Todd teased him by saying he could buy 10 Spider-Mans instead for the same price.

My signed copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988), which I’ve kept in a mylar sleeve for more than three decades now. It is not now, nor will it ever be, for sale.

I got my copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #300 signed — I’d never been to a signing before and hadn’t thought to bring more than the one comic for him to sign! He also signed the poster the store had printed up. That poster now hangs, framed, quite visibly near the dining table in my house.

My signed poster from Todd McFarlane’s 1989 appearance at AAA Best Comics. I have number 52 out of 2000 because my subscription box number at the shop was 52.

That summer, I worked again in Phoenix at American Express — this time tracking down, repairing and cleaning credit-card authorization. Not very exciting — and sometimes quite disgusting — but it did put me in position to visit All About Books & Comics and then swing by AAA Best on the way home. I remember buying a copy of Marvel Graphic Novel #5: X-Men — God Loves, Man Kills that summer at AAA Best, and being completely blown away by it.

And for those who don’t remember or weren’t there yet, 1989 was a huge summer for movies, starting with the release in May of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and followed by Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, License to Kill, Ghostbusters II and, of course, Tim Burton’s Batman. The rest of the summer was pretty good too, with Lethal Weapon 2 and James Cameron’s The Abyss. It was all very exciting at the time, even though most of those movies haven’t held up especially well. (One thing to remember is there was a writer’s strike in Hollywood in 1988 that limited rewrites on a lot of those movies, including most notably Batman and Star Trek V. The TV networks were so starved for cash, they started re-shooting old Mission: Impossible scripts as a new series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation used a few scripts that were originally written 10 years prior for the never-made Star Trek: Phase II series that eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

The runaway success of Batman showed a comic-book property could result in a good movie and make a ton money at both the box office as well as with sales of T-shirts, toys, books and comics. The teaser trailer Warner Bros. released in early 1989 got everyone very excited and Batman comics started selling in big numbers, picking up lots of new readers. New comics at the time were still only 75 cents or $1, so they were cheap enough for kids excited by the movie to buy and read.

The movie came out at a good time for DC Comics, which had been doing right by Batman for a few years with things like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Batman: Year Two, Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast and Batman: A Death in the Family. DC’s investment in quality was really paying off for them.

Leading into the movie was DC’s celebration of Batman’s 50th anniversary with a really terrific story in Detective Comics #598-600 that was written by the new movie’s scripter, Sam Hamm, and drawn by Denys Cowan and Dick Giordano. (That writer’s strike idled Hamm, who I recall reading was quite pleased he was being paid to write comics when there were no movie or TV work to be had.) Issues #598 and 600 were 80-page giants, featuring lots of tributes in the back to Batman from top artists and writers in comics and beyond. I remember how impressive it was that the likes of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, along with the unexpected tribute from Stan Lee, had classed up those books.

There also was a booming business in selling trade paperbacks of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. And Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke was also in the mix, proving endlessly popular that summer with a spot-on $3.50 cover price because it was the closest of any of them to the movie’s plot.

And the public interest was extremely intense. Demand was so high for Batman T-shirts that there was a worldwide shortage of black cotton. (I read this in Variety years later in an article interviewing the then-head of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, but I don’t have the specific citation.) Every newspaper, TV station and radio outlet was doing something Batman related, from interviewing fans to “morning zoo” DJs joking about what kind of sound-effect would appear on screen when Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale got intimate.

I was late to the game on Batman comics, but Ken set me up with trade paperbacks and enough recent issues of Detective Comics and Batman to keep me happy. This was my first regular pathway into DC Comics, which were really strong in those first few years after the reset of Crisis on Infinite Earths. I discovered the Justice League comics by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and loved that affectionate and funny take on superheroes. I tried stuff like Emerald Dawn, which relaunched Green Lantern, but it didn’t take with me.

Marvel was, of course, still going strong with all the Spider-Man, X-Men, The Punisher, Silver Surfer and Avengers titles. I also really dug Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology that exposed me to a lot of characters I hadn’t read before, including Black Panther in an excellent 25-part serial by Don McGregor and Gene Colan.

When I went back to Tucson that August for school, I again had a new place to live, in a new part of town. I also had broken up with my girlfriend and was now intent on majoring in journalism. I don’t know why I stopped getting my new comics from AAA Best, but it was a temporary situation, to be sure.

More to come …

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