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

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Comic-Shop Memories: Spinner Racks and Corner Stores, Edmonton, Alta., 1973-1985

I realize the biggest gap in what I’ve written so far is that I haven’t explained my earliest experiences with comics.

My first memory of comic-book material was on television. When I was about 4 — around 1973 — one of the local TV stations in Edmonton aired episodes of the various 1960s DC animated series at about 12:30 p.m. each weekday, right after The Flintstones.

(A side note: The Flintstones ran every weekday at noon on CFRN-TV in Edmonton for pretty much my entire childhood. It was how we measured lunch, as the morning session at school ended at 11:45 a.m. You got home just in time to grab your sandwich or bowl of soup and sit down to watch The Flintstones, and then head back to school after it was over. School resumed about 12:55 p.m., so you usually had a few minutes on the playground before class resumed. I remember visiting Edmonton in the mid-1990s, and The Flintstones was still playing at noon!)

These DC toons alternated, with Superman, Batman, Superboy, and Aquaman all getting a day to themselves. I think Superman may have aired twice.

Then there were the 1960s Spider-Man cartoons. Because this show was produced in its first two seasons by Toronto-based Grantray-Lawrence Animation, the show counted as Canadian content. Even back then, the Canadian government required broadcasters to fill a certain percentage of their airtime with shows produced in Canada. Since Spider-Man qualified, and it was popular, it was in constant re-runs from the 1970s well into the 1990s — usually on the independent channel, CITV-TV.

We had cable back then, but it was minimal compared to what we now think of as cable TV. We got via cable all the local Edmonton broadcast channels, plus the broadcast channels from Spokane, Washington. This included an independent channel, as well as the CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS affiliates — effectively doubling the number of channels we had. There was no cable box, but every channel from 2 to 13 had something on it.

It was through these channels that we got American Saturday morning cartoons. My earliest memories of Hanna-Barbera shows like Scooby-Doo and Speed Buggy, packages of classic Warner Bros. shorts, and, eventually, Super Friends. For years, getting up to eat cereal and watch cartoons was the best and only way to spend Saturday mornings without exposing yourself to dark and freezing winter conditions.

Before we got Super Friends, there was Shazam! This was a live-action show, made super cheap (not that I knew that at the time), and paired with a second superhero show, Isis. But what grabbed my imagination was the transformation sequence where Billy Batson yelled “Shazam!” and turned into Captain Marvel.

Opening credit sequence to the 1970s Shazam! TV series.

Which lead directly to the first comic book I remember owning: A Shazam! treasury edition I later came to know as Limited Collector’s Edition #C-27. I particularly remember one Captain Marvel Jr. story in which Freddy Freeman was captured at a circus, gagged, and left in a guillotine. He managed to loosen the gag enough to shout “Captain Marvel!” in time to transform — the guillotine blade broke on his neck. Cool stuff!

I didn’t buy that comic — or any others for a while — myself. But there always were comics around. We spent summers at various lake cabins with other families with older kids, and comics were just all over the place. There were plenty of Harvey Comics, Archie Comics, Gold Key Comics, Marvel Comics (especially Millie the Model), and DC books (Batman was popular). With no TV, comics were just what we all curled up and read when it rained or you were just tired from running around outdoors all the time.

When I got a little older, the corner store loomed large in the lives of all the kids in our neighborhood. We were constantly asking our parents for a quarter or two to fund a trip to “the store.” The great thing was you could get just about anything you wanted for a couple of quarters: a chocolate bar, pack of gum, bag of chips, small box of candy, a pack of trading cards (with gum), a bottle of pop, or a comic book.

The store did a lot of business with the neighborhood kids, so the candy and comics — displayed in a classic spinner rack — always were upfront. Located at 12305 63rd Ave., the store did not have a name that I can recall. It was a standard neighborhood convenience store that sold basics like bread, milk, canned goods, newspapers, magazines, and cigarettes. It was owned by a family that came to Canada from Lebanon, and they frequently seemed to sell it to a cousin or brother or uncle — but it always stayed in the family, and they always were very kind to the neighborhood kids.

Such stores were everywhere. Every neighborhood had one. And every one of them had a spinner rack of comics. Comics also could easily be found alongside racks of paperback novels at a drug store, and sometimes in supermarkets. Pretty much anywhere you could stop in for a pack of smokes, a newspaper, or a pack of gum was a place to get comics.

Most of the comics I bought were at “the store.” I remember stopping in one night with my dad, who let me buy a Superman and a Spider-Man — likely The Amazing Spider-Man #162 (Nov. 1976) since I pretty clearly remember Nightcrawler on the cover.

Science fiction was popular at the time, with reruns of the original Star Trek in full swing, so I bought several issues of the Gold Key Trek comic off the racks. I also liked Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man, and bought the Charlton comics based on those shows. I distinctly remember the story in the John Byrne-drawn Space:1999 #6 — and had no idea he lived just down the road in Calgary at the time.

Star Wars, of course, changed everything. I didn’t see the movie until June 1977, and the first Star Wars comic I saw was issue #3. A friend of mine had a copy of #2, and I managed to score a copy of #1 — the first comic I expressly went looking for — one day at Mike’s Newsstand on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton. Actually, what happened is I spotted the comic there while visiting with friends and, having no money, pleaded with my Dad to go stop by from his office on the way home the next week and buy it for me. And he did!

The treasury editions that Marvel and Whitman published were easy to find, and that’s how I and most of my friends read the adaptation of the movie. Over, and over, and over. They had better printing, too, than the original comics, and were what we now would call oversize.

In the fall of 1977, I bought a copy of Star Wars #7 — the first original Star Wars comic book story. And that was it. I was on the hunt for all the issues after that. I missed #8 and #9, though friends of mine had them and I borrowed or read their copies while hanging out at their houses. Starting with #10, I figured out that Star Wars comics showed up about the third week of the month, usually on a Tuesday. I started timing my searches and successfully bought just about every issue from there through #31. Then there was a stretch where the store stopped carrying comics for a bit, then brought them back in time for Star Wars #39 and the adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back.

The other book I read at the time was Marvel’s Battlestar Galactica. I wanted the TV series to be good, but too many episodes were disappointing fill-in episodes using old Western movie sets. The comic, however, started to get really good after the show was canceled. Walt Simonson took over writing and drawing, and his talent in both disciplines was evident.

The last year of my early comics reading was 1981. The Battlestar comic was canceled. I read Star Wars through #54. And I also had the Marvel Super Special adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was the hottest movie of the year. I don’t remember making any conscious decision to stop reading comics, I just moved on to other things.

Marvel Super Special #18 cover.

Fall of 1981 was when I started junior high school, began to earn money by delivering newspapers after school, and became more interested in music and sports — particularly soccer and hockey. Edmonton was then a new addition to the NHL with the Oilers, and had this young hotshot named Wayne Gretzky who played for them. Gretzky and the other young stars of the Oilers were not much older than me — I was 12, they were around 20 — but their on-ice heroics made them appear almost like real-life superheroes who lived in our midst.

I don’t think I bought another comic until 1985, when I dug out my stack of Star Wars comics and rediscovered them. That lead me to the 7-11 and my purchase of Star Wars #96 — and I’ve never stopped buying comics since.

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1991, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 3

The summer of 1991 was huge for two reasons: X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991) and X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991).

I was mostly buying new comics from AAA Best, where I had a pull list. But I was really into it at this point and spent most of my free time that summer hitting every comic shop I could find in the Phoenix area. All About Books and Comics was my No. 2 choice. They had their main store on Camelback Road and also a small Scottsdale location close to where I was staying with my parents.

Most of the comics I was reading at this point were solidly entertaining, and I was buying a lot of them, so I wasn’t trying a ton of new books. Batman, Spider-Man, Justice League, Doom Patrol, Avengers, The Sandman, Hellblazer and probably a few others were keeping me pretty busy.

It was all about the X-Men that summer. The commercial success of the book with Jim Lee on it just spilled over into everything. Interest in X-Men comic books may never have been higher. Both the collector crowd, dominated at this time by speculators who bought up multiple copies — even cases! — of new issues as they came out, and the fans more into the creative and storytelling side of things were unable to resist the oncoming onslaught of X-Men books.

But this interest also was so intense, it couldn’t help but radically change the comics themselves. When Chris Claremont took over as writer on X-Men in 1974, this was a very small and unimportant corner of the Marvel Universe. A mere 17 years later, X-Men and its various spinoffs were an industry of their own. The demand for X-Men material was insatiable, and Marvel was more than happy to do its best to deliver.

There was one problem. Claremont and his closest collaborators — the artists he worked with, as well as the editors who backed him, most notably Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti — couldn’t deliver on their own nearly enough material to meet that demand, though they appeared to have a solid grip on the core of the X-Men franchise. And other comics creators, spying the very large checks X-Men books generated under Marvel’s sales incentives program, wanted a piece of that pie.

That changed with the publication of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X serial in Marvel Comics Presents #72-84 (March-September 1991). Claremont for years resisted any attempt to fill in the gaps in Wolverine’s past, and now another creator was doing exactly that.

Marvel Comics Presents #84 (Sept. 1991).
Cover art by Barry Windsor-Smith.

Suddenly, copies of Marvel Comics Presents were hard to find. I had missed a number of issues prior to Weapon X and had to track down the first issue in particular by visiting just about every store in the Phoenix area before finding one at, I believe, All About Books and Comics.

As the release of X-Force #1 approached, there was a lot of excitement because, for the first time I could remember, comics were becoming popular within the larger culture. I saw people wearing X-Force T-shirts at Target. The Levi’s TV ad featuring Rob Liefeld and Spike Lee was a minor sensation on TV. Comics shops on new release day and weekends were crowded.

And suddenly the comics world didn’t seem so distant from the rest of the world.

I stopped by AAA Best the day that X-Force #1 came out — the first week of June 1991 — to pick up my regular stack of comics as well as take part in that momentous event. The store was more crowded than I’d ever seen it, with people lining up to buy huge stacks of copies of that issue. One guy proudly boasted that he was buying 25 copies of the book – and that this was nothing compared to what he was going to get when X-Men #1 came out.

Polybagged copy of X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991).
Cover art by Rob Liefeld.

While there was only one cover, each copy of X-Force #1 was polybagged with one of five trading cards drawn by Liefeld. That means most people bought six copies — five to save, and one to open and read. Within a week, I saw All About’s main location was selling the extra cards from opened copies — for a premium. There also was a brief sensation about a certain number of copies that for some reason had a reversed image of Captain America in the UPC box on direct market issues. I don’t know if that’s a legit variant, but I did scoop up an extra set of those for some reason I’m glad to have forgotten.

I spent most of my free time that summer driving through the desert heat from comic shop to music store to movie theater to bookstore and back around again. One of the nearby stops was a Bookstar outlet in the then-still-new Scottsdale Pavilions. They didn’t have much in the way of comics, but they did have a big newsstand that included copies of the Comics Buyers’ Guide. I doubt I’ll ever forget picking up the July 12 issue and reading that Jim Lee was taking over as plotter of the book, with John Byrne stepping in to script, while Claremont took a “sabbatical.” This was less than a month before X-Men #1 was due out.

Cover story in Comics Buyer’s Guide #921 (July 12, 1991).

There was no internet back then, and few publications that carried comic book news in a timely enough fashion to learn any more details before X-Men #1 came out on Aug. 13, 1991. The new issues of The Uncanny X-Men offered no hint of what was to come. Jim Lee stopped drawing the series after issue #277 (June 1991), with the incredible Paul Smith returning for #278 (July 1991), and Andy Kubert on #279 (Aug. 1991), on which Claremont’s run ended halfway through the comic. The rest was by Fabian Nicieza, who wrapped up the storyline in #280 (Sept. 1991) and set the stage for the Mutant Genesis relaunch.

That summer also was a big one for Star Trek, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued to thrive on TV, its reputation growing with every new episode that aired. The original crew also was due back for one final voyage, with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country scheduled for a December release. Not only was the original crew getting back together, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director and writer Nicholas Meyer was returning to both roles. There also was a rumor that TNG’s Michael Dorn had been cast in a small role in the movie.

The teaser trailer was frustratingly unspecific, but the title — originally meant by Meyer for Star Trek II — was terrific and built up expectations for a satisfying and very final finale.

On the comics side, DC put two more great Star Trek annuals, and put together the first sanctioned crossover between TOS and TNG with a pair of four-issue miniseries called The Modala Imperative. The creative teams swapped, with TNG comic scribe Michael Jan Friedman starting things off with a four-issue story of Kirk and Co. that was released biweekly that summer.

It was followed up with a sequel TNG series by regular TOS scribe Peter David that brought back Admiral McCoy from the TNG premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” as well as an older Spock who was now an ambassador. (That last detail later panned out on the show itself when Leonard Nimoy returned that fall for a two-episode run as Spock on TNG, “Reunification.”)

There also was to be an original hardcover TOS graphic novel titled Debt of Honor from Chris Claremont and artist Adam Hughes, but it was delayed into 1992. More on that later.

August was the big month. With X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991), Marvel was releasing five variants of the double-size first issue. The first four would be standard format comics with covers that would connect to form a single image. Each also had its own pinup spread by Jim Lee. The fifth edition was a deluxe edition on glossy paper with no ads, all the spreads from the other four variants, a double gatefold cover with all four of the other covers as a single image, and some bonus sketches by Lee. The editions were released once a week, rather than all at once, with Marvel pushing back the release of X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991) a week to make room for the deluxe edition room to have its own week in the spotlight.

X-Men #1 — Cover E (Oct. 1991). Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Ken Strack at AAA told me that he thought the deluxe edition might be hot enough to be worth something. But at that time no one expected Marvel would print and ship 8 million copies of the book, making it the highest-selling comic of all time (at least to comics shops) and the most common. I picked up a couple copies of the first edition at AAA Best on the day of release, also swinging by All About’s Scottsdale location just to get some of the contact buzz.

Reading the book was bittersweet. It was much better than X-Force #1, featuring the full-on return of Magneto as a villain, some cool Danger Room shenanigans to introduce the new Lee costume designs, an orbital nuclear blast, and a final showdown in Genosha. To be continued!

The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991).
Cover art by Whilce Portacio and Art Thibert.

The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991), came out the same day as the first edition of X-Men #1, and was more of a mess. Marvel countered Claremont’s departure by bringing back John Byrne to script both series over plots from Jim Lee (starting in X-Men #4 (Jan. 1992)) and Whilce Portacio in Uncanny #281. While Portacio’s art was exciting, let’s just say letting an artist with limited writing ability plot one of your most visible and top-selling series is about as good an idea as it sounds. The story involved some Sentinels, the return of the Hellfire Club, and some new villains that didn’t make much of an impression at the time.

X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991).
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Claremont changes his plans for the series to wrap things up as best he could. While X-Men #1 was originally intended to be an introductory issue Claremont referred to as “X-Men 101,” it now kicked off a three-issue storyline that attempted to resolve the Xavier-Magneto conflict in some kind of convincing manner. When X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991) shipped in October, it was truly the end of an era. There was no acknowledgement of Claremont’s departure, no farewell message — no mention in any way that the man arguably most responsible for this commercial triumph was being displaced from that role.

X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991).
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Between the release of the first edition of X-Men #1 and the fifth edition, I returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona for my final semester. I was originally slated to be the assistant news editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but after only a few weeks found myself promoted to full news editor, in charge of keeping something like eight reporters busy covering the goings on of a campus of 36,000 students. Oh, and a full load of classes, too.

Next: How I almost — almost! — stopped buying comics after graduation.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #18 (Feb. 1982)

Cover to Star Trek #18 (Feb. 1982). This is the final issue. Cover art by Joe Brozowski and Terry Austin.

“A Thousand Deaths” (22 pages)
Writer:
J.M. DeMatteis
Pencils: Joe Brozowski
Inks: Sal Trapani
Letters: Shelly Leferman
Editor: Al Milgrom
Editor-in-chief: Jim Shooter
Cover artist: Brozowski & Terry Austin

Last issues are often unusual. It often seems like the regular crew jumps ship early, leaving the final issue to be cobbled together to be just good enough. And if it’s not? Well, there’s no next issue, no one to fire. That might explain why there’s no colorist credited on this issue — just a blank space in the credits that never got filled in before this went to press.

As I mentioned last issue, production on the upcoming movie sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan began in November 1981. This issue would have hit newsstands just a couple weeks before that, meaning the work on this issue and Marvel’s decision to cancel the series came far in advance of any hint of what was to come.

The cover is better than it needs to be. I like the purple tones and the color holds to show the mental connection between Kirk and Spock.

Star Trek #19, Page 1
An odd splash page. It took me a moment to figure out what Kirk was even doing here.

This one starts with Kirk working out on a trampoline, drawn a little more like a superhero than not on the splash page.

Kirk’s workout is interrupted by a call from Spock, who reports a giant mechanical ship has just zipped up to the Enterprise and blocking its way. Of course, it’s 20.6 times the size of Earth, and it promptly sends ethereal probes to the bridge before focusing on Kirk and Spock and transporting them away.

Star Trek #18, Pages 2-3.
It’s deja V’ger! This looks much harder to draw than it is impressive.

I guess it was easier to rehash these points from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and call it a book end than to work out something more original. It fills the first few pages, at least.

Star Trek #18, Page 4.
The top panel foreshadows later encounters with the Borg. The rest of the page has decent art, and I quite like this version of Kirk and Spock.

Then it gets silly. Kirk and Spock appear aboard the vessel and meet a large robot who calls himself The Sustainer. (He sounds like he should play guitar in a hair metal band, but he looks like Box from the Logan’s Run movie crossed with the Superman villain Brainiac.)

Star Trek #18, Page 7.
Meet … The Sustainer!

The Sustainer calls the ship the Solopziz, and announces that one of the two men will die and the other return to the ship. He doesn’t say why, but Kirk and Spock soon find themselves in a holodeck-type experience aboard pirate ships. Of course, they’re set to duel to the death, but Kirk realizes the other pirates are all robots. Kirk and Spock fight them until a mast falls toward Spock. Kirk pushes it out of the way and is killed by the impact.

Star Trek #18, Page 11.
Pirate chic is a surprisingly good look for Spock.

The Sustainer then reveals he can revive Kirk and does so. A second scenario begins when Spock opens an unguarded door into the inner mechanisms of the ship. Fascinated with the layout, he deduces with logic the structure of the ship, how it works, and where they can find the equivalent of the bridge.

Note to aspiring comics artists: This panel layout does not work.
More interesting artwork, this time with a bit of a Klaus Janson vibe. I wonder if he pitched in

But while walking across a narrow gantry, it gives way and Spock falls to his death. Again, the Sustainer revives him, and proceeds to attack the Enterprise, heating its hull to 3,000 degrees.

The Sustainer says this time, one of them will die for sure. No revival. Spock tries to take one for team, using a nerve pinch on Kirk. The captain, however, fights through the effects of the pinch to push Spock out of the way of the killing blow … which never comes.

The Sustainer then explains the reason for all this. The Solopziz people had become intelligent but lost their morality. They had no empathy, so the Sustainer set out to record the feelings of sacrifice Kirk and Spock felt for each other so his people could learn to feel for each other once again.

And with this page, Marvel bids Star Trek au revoir.
They reunited in 1996, with results that were not much better.

Having got what he wanted, Kirk and Spock are returned to the Enterprise and the ship goes on its merry way, with Kirk reminding everyone that the human adventure is just beginning.

No letters column again, but there is a pinup page showing Terry Austin’s unpublished cover for Star Trek #2. Oddly, Star Trek is included in the list of Marvel titles you can subscribe to in this issue. Production work is so much quicker today with computers.

Star Trek #18, pinup.
I like this cover a lot, but I think the one they chose was a bit more dynamic.

It’s kind of nice to see the bit about Kirk and Spock being willing to die for one another, foreshadowing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But the plot suffered from the silliness and lack of original ideas that plagued the series from the start. Going into the far reaches of space to find haunted houses, gnomes, and pirate ships is pretty dull.

How much of that came down to the restrictions Paramount had on the license is unclear.

While this was the last issue of the comic book, there was one last Marvel Star Trek project under the license. In January 1982, Marvel Illustrated Books published a paperback collection that reprinted issues 11, 12, and 7. The panels were split up and rearranged for the format. The color book ran 160 pages and featured a new cover by Bob Larkin that re-imagined the cover to issue #11. This was a follow up to a similar book published in March 1980 that collected the adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, also in color and including the glossary from Marvel Super Special #15.

Editor Al Milgrom must have taken on this title as he was transitioning away from a staff job. He’d already started Marvel Fanfare, which was a terrific project for its time and that he worked on as a part-time or freelance editor. He later went on to pencil long runs on Avengers and West Coast Avengers, before settling into a predominantly inking role in the 1990s and beyond.

Marvel’s success rate with licensed books was pretty mixed at this point. They started doing them in the 1970s with Conan the Barbarian, which was arguably the most successful of them all. TV and movie licenses such as Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, The Man from Atlantis, Battlestar Galactica, and Indiana Jones all had pretty short runs. Star Wars, of course, was a huge hit for Marvel, but interest in it petered out only a couple years after Return of the Jedi. The toy-based licensed did OK: Rom, Micronauts, and Transformers all had respectable runs, while G.I. Joe was a runaway hit.

Star Trek was certainly in an odd place at the time this comic series ended. The novels were doing well, but other licensing options had not. The original series was still a hit in syndication, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had turned a profit despite its bloated budget. But I can’t imagine many expected for kind of comeback Star Trek had after The Wrath of Khan was on the near horizon.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #17 (Dec. 1981)

Cover to Star Trek #17 (Dec. 1981). Art by Walter Simonson.

“The Long Night’s Dawn!” (22 pages)
Writer: Mike W. Barr
Penciler: Ed Hannigan
Inkers: Tom Palmer & Dave Simons
Letters: Rick Parker & Harry Blumfield
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Al Milgrom
Editor-in-chief: Jim Shooter
Cover artist: Walter Simonson

Now, that’s a cover!

And it’s no surprise that it comes from Walter Simonson, one of the great comic book artists of all time. This could have been a fill-in piece or pinup that was looking for a slot and Al Milgrom was wise enough to use it. Since it’s in the poster genre of cover art and could have run with pretty much any issue of Star Trek.

Also, I can’t imagine anyone on the editorial side of things at Marvel enjoyed that front-page ad mucking up the cover layout.

Overall, this is a much better issue. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a near masterwork of competence compared with the previous issues.

Star Trek #17, Page 1
I like this splash page, even though it shows the limitations of comics production in 1981.

The Enterprise has been diverted to the planet Goran IV, where a Federation satellite that had been monitoring its star has fallen into the planet’s atmosphere. It burned up, but its fuel was released and is interacting with the planet’s atmosphere in way that will soon make it toxic to the people living there. They need to run a covert landing party to ensure the antidote they carry will work, though, before deploying it. So Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down in disguise to carry out that part of the mission.

Star Trek #17, Pages 2-3
Sorry for the page curve, but this is what they should have done more of in this series. The big panel across the top looks great and the rest of the page is well composed for exposition — and nice to look at. That’s not easy to do.

All of this is classic Trek plot. What makes it work is Barr and Hannigan’s collaboration. The thick exposition is effectively played out over a nicely restrained splash page, and particularly nice double-page splash that brings some of the movie’s widescreen scale to the comic.

By Page 4, the landing part has beamed down to a forest, their arrival observed by a girl who believes them to be angels and follows them into a town that evokes Europe in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance period.

The latter period is more explicitly evoked when an old man named Gorman bumps into Kirk and Spock, dropping scrolls that show diagrams of the planet’s solar system. The old man grabs the scrolls and runs off.

Star Trek #17, Page 6
The detail helps sell this. It’s almost like something you’d see in an issue of Conan the Barbarian.

Then the authorities arrive in the form of Clerics, who serve the Cathedral, and they’re looking for Gorman. Suspicious of Kirk and Spock’s interaction with them, a fight breaks out, and Spock is knocked out. His hood is pulled back to reveal his ears, and he’s declared, of course, a devil.

Star Trek #17, Page 8
Faceless villains are impossible to care about, but the reveal of Spock’s ears is nicely staged.

McCoy meanwhile has found a local hospital. He finds one, though he thinks little of it, given that they refuse on religious grounds to relieve the pain. He surreptitiously scans a patient and learns the atmospheric toxin is affecting the population as expected. He tests out the antidote on one patient, and it starts to work immediately — but he’s been caught by the Clerics and taken prisoner.

The Clerics collect all the tools taken from McCoy, Kirk and Spock, and smash them to bits with a hammer. They then discover the little girl has been watching them, and try to catch her. She escapes, grabbing a pile of the wrecked equipment before Gorman helps her escape into the tunnels under the Cathedral.

Gorman and the girl find Kirk and Spock, but can’t unlock the door. They give them the remains of their equipment as it’s all they have.

Back on the Enterprise, they’re nervously awaiting word from the missing landing party, even as the toxins in the air begin to take effect and people start getting ill.

Spock uses a wire from the remains of a communicator to saw through the bolt of their prison door. They try and fail to free McCoy, and escape to find the girl waiting to take them to Gorman.

Spock stays with Gorman to try to signal the ship to use the antidote, admiring the primitive but scientifically useful astronomical equipment in the old man’s lab. The girl takes Kirk to save McCoy, who is scheduled to be tested as a witch at dawn. Spock uses a nerve pinch on Gorman, and sets to work building a device that can contact the Enterprise.

Star Trek #17, Page 17
Great example of something the comic can do that the TV show would have a hard time with. I also like the grit in Bones’ face in that last panel.

McCoy is set to be dunked into the river to see if he dies or his sorcery will save him. Once under the water, Kirk swims up to him, cuts him free, and they float down river a ways to get away from the Clerics. They come ashore, and the Clerics come after them after seeing McCoy got away and therefore truly must be a witch.

The toxin really kicks in, and the Clerics as well as Kirk and McCoy start to succumb to its effects.

On the Enterprise, Uhura is surprised to receive a primitive signal from Spock, telling them to drop the antidote into the atmosphere. Scotty makes it so, and the antidote quickly does its job.

Star Trek #17, Page 20
Star Trek comics can be cool when they push the visuals in a good way, i.e., they know what it’s supposed to look like and keep that in mind as they exaggerate for effect.

Kirk and McCoy wake at Gorman’s place with the girl and Spock, who explains he was able to use the materials in Gorman’s lab along with wiring from the wrecked equipment to create a crude radio transmitter and order the antidote dropped.

Star Trek #17, Page 21
This page looks like something from the first DC run of Star Trek, which was drawn mostly by Tom Sutton and Ricardo Villagran with great consistency and clarity.

McCoy gives the girl, whose name we finally learn is Lori, a little vitamin shot to clear up a muscle ailment that made it hard for her to walk. She’s grateful, and Spock tells Gorman to keep up the good work, and then they beam up to end another issue.

Barr writes a solid story in the Star Trek style, something he’d do with much more fanfare at DC a few years after this issue came out. It’s the equivalent of a standard episode of Star Trek, which other writers have shown is not an easy mark to hit. It also has good logic, not much fat to it, the characters all behave like themselves, and the script has the right tone and avoids going off into Stan Lee territory. (Stan was still the most admired writer at the time — most Marvel writers tried to emulate him in some fashion, at least until Chris Claremont’s X-Men and Frank Miller’s Daredevil grabbed the industry’s imagination and bottom line by the short hairs — and never let go.)

This issue draws on a lot of coincidences, but does it a thousand times more effectively than the previous one. The bit with Gorman as a Galileo analog is very on the nose, but still works reasonably well. Same with the little girl who saves the day, and the many speeches about how this race will, like humans, evolve out of superstition into a logical and scientific understanding of the universe. Maybe the analogous time period isn’t early Renaissance Europe, but 2022 America.

This is much closer to the quality level that was consistently delivered when DC Comics took over the Star Trek license, about three years away from this point. This issue would have gone on sale in August 1981, so it was still a ways out from when filming began on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in November of that year. Perhaps if Marvel had a glimpse of what was coming with Star Trek, they might not have canceled this series.

The art is quite good on this issue, though there’s a clear distinction between the first eight pages, which were inked by Palmer, and the rest of the issue, where Simons gives things a scratchier feeling. Hannigan was a real comic book work horse in the 1980s — what some might call a “jobber,” though I dislike how much that term brushes very talented artists who regularly delivered above-average work. Hannigan’s work wasn’t in the same league as a George Perez, John Byrne, or Neal Adams, but I always find plenty to admire and a solid sense of storytelling in the books he draws.

I remember putting this run together at various points in the 1990s. Whenever I’d run across an issue I needed, I’d pick it up. This ended up being the last issue I needed, and no place I looked had it in stock. It ended up being one of the first comics I ordered from on online retailer, from Mile High Comics, back in 1996 or 1997. Their prices were much more affordable at the time.

And with that, there’s only one more issue to go.

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #16 (Oct. 1981)

“There’s No Place Like Gnomes!” (22 pages)
Writer: Martin Pasko
Pencils: Luke McDonnell
Inks: Gene Day & Sal Trapani
Letters: Janice Chiang
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Allen Milgrom
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
Cover artists: Luke McDonnell & Allen Milgrom

This post has been in draft form for months, mostly because this issue is a real chore to get through.

Why?

Just take a look at the cover, with the awful brown color hold background and the strange proportions of the attacking gnomes versus the one in Spock’s hand.

It gets just a little bit better on the first page, which is nicely colored.

Star Trek #16, Page 1.
By far the best-executed page in the book. It’s all downhill from here …

The story begins with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and some guards beaming down to the planet Valerian — Pasko must be a fan of Christin and Mezieres — for an annual check-in with Federation colonists who have not replied to hails.

Scans on the surface and from the bridge show there are humanoid life forms, though they are only 15 centimeters high — too small to be part of the Andorian colony — and they’re coming from beneath the surface.

Star Trek #16, Page 3, panel 5.
Is Chekov a serial harasser? Or is he the victim of bad writing? You decide!

The encampment is abandoned and Chekov comforts Themon, a female Andorian who is on her first planetside assignment. Pasko was clearly trying to echo the season two episode “The Apple.” Today, Chekov’s pattern of romancing junior female officers during landing party missions just looks creepy.

Star Trek #16, Page 5.
I don’t know where to begin outlining what’s wrong with this page.

A shambling humanoid creature appears, trying to speak. He’s zapped with some kind of energy flare, and McCoy takes him back to the ship for examination. Just then, similar creatures grab Themon, Chekov fires his phaser, and a fight breaks out. The creatures, however, appear only interested in disarming the Starfleet officers.

Star Trek #16, Page 6.
Kirk fights an ape-like creature, which is good. The gnomes coming out of the ground are just bad. And it’s a shame there’s no equivalent to “red shirt” for this era of Trek (at least that I know of).

Back at the beam-down point, security guard Sternbach is watching over the supplies when gnomes rise up through the earth and toss him into a tree.

This continues for a few pages, with the humanoids at one point dragging away Themon by her hair (or perhaps her antennae), and gnomes popping up out of the ground wielding crossbows and hammers.

They drive off the humanoids, which Spock identifies as trolls and the little people as gnomes. Back on the ship, McCoy’s annoyed to find his patient is shrinking in height.

Star Trek #16, Page 9.
The inking on this isn’t bad. It’s definitely got a Terry Austin influence to it. But the anatomy is strange, and Kirk and McCoy both look deformed in the first and last panels.

Kirk is bemused and annoyed by the whole thing. Me too.

The crew checks in with Sternbach and decide to take the supplies back to the ship. Once they beam up, though, a little armed troll on a flying bat escapes from the boxes and starts wrecking the transporter room.

Star Trek #16, Page 11.
Security is just as weak as it’s always been on the Enterprise. Imagine how bad this would have looked with 1960s or 1970s-era special effects if this was a TV episode!

On the surface, Kirk and Spock meet with the gnomes and Spock deduces that this alien race must have visited Earth in the past and inspired the legend of the gnomes. This is another of Pasko’s echoes from the original series (“Who Mourns for Adonais?” for example).

The bat-mounted dude on the ship makes it to the bridge, where he dive-bombs Uhura’s station and is at last captured by security. He starts speaking Irish-accented English and surrenders, but communications are out with the surface.

Down below, Kirk, Spock and Chekov follow sensor readings for Themon into a cave populated by Trolls, who attack.

Star Trek #16, Page 15.
Do universal translators even work with dialects like this? I may use that scan of the last panel to reply to online trolls — perhaps the only lasting contribution this issue makes to, well, anything.
Star Trek #16, Page 16, panel 1.
Someone’s reference model was built incorrectly.

Back in space, aboard a ship that bears no resemblance to the USS Enterprise, McCoy and Chapel’s patient continues to shrink. The bat-riding critters are put in the brig, and when zapped by the force field, lose their red caps and transform back into regular looking gnomes.

The landing party finds Themon, who’s just fine. McCoy calls and says the creature he beamed up had an alien virus that caused his transformation. He’s got a cure, of course, which returns the troll to his natural form as a human. He beams down and gives the cure to the trolls, who are revealed as the missing Andorian colonists.

I can’t even begin to summarize the ending of this issue, but it turns out that there’s only two gnomes, and their caps give them powers of illusion, etc. Kirk puts on one of the hats and beats the little shits at their own game, then high-tails it out of this miserable issue.

Star Trek #16, Page 21.
Thank god they did this story in the days of one-and-done issues. Today, this would have been six issues and cost you about $24 to “enjoy.”

Closing it off is a terrible pun from Scotty, again an echo from the final scene in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” though completely lacking in humor or originality.

Star Trek #16, Page 22.
Scotty, you’re demoted.

There’s no letters page this issue, because it’s clear the series is on its last legs awaiting cancelation. Only two more issues to come, but this one is clearly the nadir of the series.

I don’t have much to say about the art. It’s not the worst art I’ve ever seen, and a lot of the time it’s recognizable as Star Trek of this period. But it’s not good, either.

I have to say that I’m glad later versions of Star Trek were able to move past the original series’ predilection for tales in which Earth fantasies turn out to have been inspired by real aliens in space. I know that budgetary and technical limitations drove the need for those stories, but they generally do not hold up well as TV shows or comics.

And with that, I can at last file away this ugly cover and stop looking at it. Blech!

Comic Treks: Star Trek (Marvel) #15 (Aug. 1981)

Cover to Star Trek #15.
Cover to Star Trek #15 (Aug. 1981). Art by Dave Cockrum.

“The Quality of Mercy” (22 pages)
Writer: Martin Pasko
Artist: Gil Kane
Letters: John Morelli
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Al Milgrom
Editor-in-chief: Jim Shooter
Cover artist: Dave Cockrum

Al Milgrom takes over as editor of Star Trek. That lets Louise Jones focus on Star Wars, X-Men, and the upcoming X-Men spinoff — eventually titled The New Mutants.

This issue is clearly a rush job. Martin Pasko’s script is a jumble of plot elements and twists from classic episodes of the show. Gil Kane is one of the all-time great comic-book artists, but his work here is sketchy. It looks like the whole issue was cranked out over a weekend to make deadline.

The problems start with the cover. Dave Cockrum draws a menacing, satanic-looking figure in shadow threatening McCoy, Spock and Uhura. My first thought was this would rehash the previous issue, and have Kirk turn into some version of Satan.

Or maybe it would be an alien posing as the devil. The idea dates back to the original Star Trek series. It was developed for the unmade Star Trek: Phase II series, and resurrected as the basis for the 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Devil’s Due.” A three-part comic-book sequel to that episode appeared in DC’s Star Trek: The Next Generation #36-38 (Late Aug.-Late Sept. 1992).

Turning to the splash page shows Pasko has something different in mind. It’s almost impossible to synopsize this issue, but here’s what I think happens:

This is the best page in the issue, which isn’t saying much.

Wearing an alien disguise, as in D.C. Fontana’s excellent “The Enterprise Incident,” Kirk fools his crew into not recognizing their own captain. The alien design is pure Gil Kane — straight out of Silver Age Green Lantern. It’s also painfully generic, and only vaguely resembles the cover image.

The over-stuffed tale begins with the Enterprise engaging a cloaking device on a secret rescue mission to Miaplacidus V, a prison planet where death-row inmates are painfully executed. There’s an unexpected benefit to this, in that it allows Kane to avoid drawing the Enterprise. He doesn’t have the knack or the interest, and the iconic ship never looks right — or even like the same ship — throughout this issue.

One of many pages of talking heads in this issue, plus a terrible version of the Enterprise.

Kirk reveals to his officers his orders for the Enterprise to intercept a shuttle taking new guards to Miaplacidus. Spock will brainwash the guards, who will be returned home while Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Sulu and Uhura take their place using a replacement shuttle. This has to be explained, so Spock volunteers that this will prevent the proud, xenophobic Miaplacidan guards from committing suicide. Right.

Spock and Sulu take two pages to beam over and subdue the guards using a combination of martial arts and nerve pinches. It’s generic as hell, but somehow the inking here reminds me of the work of Walter Simonson. More on him in a few issues.

Hikaru Sulu: Master of Kung-Fu! Plus, nerve pinch! Those uniforms never stop looking like pyjamas.

In the issue’s second briefing-room sequence, Kirk reveals the reason for all this subterfuge: Starbase 9 commander Commodore Markessan married a woman from Antos IV, whose inhabitants have mastered molecular metamorphosis and can take on any form they wish. The commodore’s 18-year-old son, Tak, was involved in some sort of recent tragedy and fled in a small spacecraft headed for Miaplacidus V. The Enterprise crew is to infiltrate the base, find Tak, and bring him home. The Federation can’t be publicly involved — hence the cloaking device, coy disguises, and elaborate plots.

Having studied the Miaplacidan language and customs, Spock telepathically transmits that knowledge to his disguised teammates as they approach the prison planet. They’re greeted by Deputy Supervisor Kohll, who takes them to his boss, the imaginatively named Supervisor Viermann. He delights in showing the newbies the most recent execution in all its gruesome detail, thereby confirming his villain status.

As if the dialog wasn’t enough, you know Viermann is a villain because he holds his hands behind his back.

Viermann orders the newcomers to track down a woman convict who’s escaped. Not trusting them, he commands Kohll to follow them.

Kirk and pals quickly find her remains, and deduce she was melted by the acidic spit of a creature known as a desert-devil — which then attacks the Enterprise crew.

There’s a fight. Kirk is trapped and loses his mask while escaping. How this happens is not shown or explained.

No one in the known universe knows exactly what’s happening on this page.

Meanwhile, Spock fires at some rocks containing magnesium, which explode in a blinding flare. McCoy deduces that Spock isn’t really Spock, because his inner eyelids would have protected him, as they did in “Operation — Annihilate!”

That introduces Tak, the subject of the mission, who has been using his powers of metamorphosis to masquerade as the disguised Spock.

And then it gets very 1980. Tak explains that the tragedy on Starbase 9 involved a girl he loved very much. He was driving home with her from a party and they crashed and she was killed. Tak was exonerated, but the truth is he was stoned on cordrazine. He feels guilty and wants to die. Using his powers to make himself look like “empty air” — this is, unfortunately, the exact term used — he vanishes.

The moral is clear. As any kid alive at the time this comic was published remembers: Don’t drink (or do drugs) and drive (or anything else). Especially if you’ve been shooting up hits of cordrazine!

This message brought to you by AACD: Antosians Against Cordrazine Driving.

Kohll shows up and wants answers, but the real Spock appears to nerve pinch him. Turns out Spock had spotted Tak a ways back — always a sign of poor plotting — and the youth used his powers to lure Spock into a pit used to trap desert-devils. Spock says it took him a while to climb out. I think he just wanted a break for a few pages.

Stuck in a plot he can’t get out of, Kirk orders everyone back to the prison complex. There, Tak has morphed into the woman convict who escaped earlier. Viermann orders her executed, but Kirk arrives with the crew to stun the guards just before they throw the switch on poor, confused Tak.

Add in your mind a Wilhelm scream in that last panel.

There’s another weak fight scene. Viermann shows up and is ready to kill the invaders, but Kohll shoots him in the back and identifies himself as a man of peace who wants to stop executing the prisoners. He illustrates his sincerity by explaining the woman convict was royalty on her planet, but still was sentenced to death for — wait for it — falling in love with a commoner. Silly nameless royal dead woman.

Is Kohll a good guy? Or is he just mad he was shut out of the family retail empire?

Despite all this, Kohll has to follow the law and execute the outworlders for intruding. But Kirk and crew are beamed up by Scotty on a pre-arranged schedule — quite lucky timing that — and zip out of orbit at warp factor 12.

The last page features two panels in which Kane mutilates the Enterprise like a pretzel, while Kirk and McCoy wonder if Tak will ever be — “okay.”

It’s over. Thank you!

Forget Tak — I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay after reading this issue.

If you’ve read this far, it’s clear that this issue is an over-plotted mess. It has to jump through hoops to make sense of itself, rehashing the show’s most tired tropes along the way to make it “Star Trek.” There are no character moments to speak of.

And the art deviates so far from the established Trek esthetic, that most pages would not be recognizable as being from a Star Trek comic. This could be a barbarian comic, a fill-in issue of Green Lantern, or some other generic sci-fi comic. There’s nothing Star Trek about it. Gold Key would have loved it.

I don’t know if it’s my particular copy of this issue, or something that affected the entire print run, but the printing on this issue is terrible. The lettering is at times illegible, and the whole thing is a muddy, ugly mess.

There’s no letters column this issue, which is just as well. The writing is on the wall. The series is fading away gently into cancelation after only three more issues.

How much worse can it get? Well, next issue has gnomes in it. Yes, gnomes. Read on, bold friend, read on.

‘Nothing Changes … On New Year’s Day’

U2 performs New Year's Day in 1983.

Happy New Year. I hope 2022 is good to us all. Headline courtesy of my favorite band, which I hope puts out an album of new music sometime soon. I don’t know if their songs saved my life, but if any band’s music has ever done that for me — it’s theirs.

I have been busy with life and unable to find the time to post regularly to this blog. I’m currently holed up in a mountain home near Lake Arrowhead, with more than a foot of snow expected in the next 24 hours. It’s like old times for this ex-pat Canuck, and my kids are loving their first exposure to winter fun.

If you’ve been reading the blog, or wanting to see what I have to say about the last few Marvel Star Trek comics, I apologize. I promise they’re not that great, which is probably why I haven’t been keen enough to write them up to get it done.

Mage 2 cover
Cover to Mage #2, by Matt Wagner.

Comics-wise, the year’s end saw me go on a big Matt Wagner kick. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I’ve acquired a full run of the original Mage series. I’d read that story before, when Image reprinted it in the late 1990s. But those prestige-format reprints had issues with the glued binding, and I wasn’t a fan of the re-colored and re-lettered pages. The original issues, as soon as I saw one, was the only proper way to read it. The wraparound covers are fantastic.

Cover to Mage #5. Art by Matt Wagner.

Having just acquired right before Christmas the final issues of that 15-issue run, I’m ready to read through The Hero Discovered, the original issues of The Hero Defined, and then finish it off with the relatively recent The Hero Denied series. It’s 47 issues in all, and I’m looking forward to it.

Cover to Mage #9. Art by Matt Wagner.

Along the way, it was impossible to not reawaken my interest in Wagner’s other major character, Grendel. I found in some long boxes the first 12 issues of the color Comico series from 1986 or so and read them — I think for the first time. It’s becoming clear that I’m going to be happier going forward reading rare 1980s gems than most of the current crop of comics being published by Marvel, DC, etc.

Cover to Mage #15, the series finale. Art by Matt Wagner.

I acquired via eBay a cheap copy of the 2007 collection, Grendel Archives, which collects the original black-and-white Grendel tales from Comico Primer #2, and the original Grendel #1-3. That was a fun read. You can really see the early elements of Wagner’s art and writing style that quickly matured over a few short years into Mage and the later Grendel projects.

Cover to Grendel Archives, a hardcover collection published by Dark Horse Comics in 2007. Art by Matt Wagner.

It may seem strange for a grown man to say this, but as I face a new year that promises great successes alongside tremendous challenges, I take great comfort from this strange hobby of reading and collecting comic books. It is art. It is story. And it offers experiences no other medium comes close to offering.

So, thank you, comics. Happy New Year.

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.

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.

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