Thoughts on the Gold Key Trek comics

45 years of Star Trek comics on DVD.

So, in case you missed hearing about this, Amazon has had this collection of Star Trek comics on ridiculous sale (merely seven of your Earth dollars) for awhile now.

Sadly (especially for Matt), this deal is only happening on the US version of Amazon. But if you’re fortunate enough to live in the United States and have even the faintest passing interest in Trek, rest assured: there is easily $6.99 of entertainment on this disc. Substantially more if you’re willing to bend your definition of “entertainment” a little.

I’m not prepared to commit to sharing my thoughts on everything in this collection, but so far I’ve skimmed through the 61 issues published by Gold Key comics from 1967 to 1979. I’d like to be able to tell you that I’ve read them, but… well, they’re not great. There’s some fun retro-cheese in here, but even that tends to wear thin after a time.

Click to embiggen.

Mind you, some of the design aesthetic is fantastic — especially when it comes to the covers. I’m particularly fond of the one I’ve posted to the right here. Not only is it cool to look at, but it’s very much a product of its time. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, here — as cultural trends in visual design go, the late 60s were a pretty amazing time. I would totally buy a poser-sized print of this cover, in all its Saul Bass-y glory.

Click to embiggen.

However, not all the covers kick open the doors of perception and force your buttoned-down Madison Avenue mind to freak out and let go. Some of them are a bit of utter nonsense, like this one to your left: GEORGE WASHINGTON IS ALIVE AND WELL – WATCH OUT, MR. SPOCK! Now, the story within this comic sort of expands upon this statement (your typical world of faux-resurrected historical figures), but the cover image (featuring Nimoy in a rather unfortunate belly scarf — a trend that never quite took off in 1968, despite indications from Paris and Milan that they were the next big thing) offers absolutely no context for this bizarre phrase. I can only imagine the average Gold Key reader, pedaling his bike feverishly down to the drug store to blow his allowance on comics, baffled by this rather moronic incongruity. Nowadays we’d call a cover like this deliberate and ironic. But everybody knows they didn’t have irony in 1968.

Click to embiggen.

Then there’s this gem to your right: THINK FAST MR. SPOCK! A Freak Impulsion Is Creating GALACTIC DISASTER! Now, I’ll freely admit that, while I have a basic grasp on my native tongue, my vocabulary certainly isn’t what it could be. It seems to me that they mean “implosion” and not “impulsion,” but maybe I just don’t know what “impulsion” means. So, I looked it up. Apparently it means “to drive something forward,” usually a horse. I suppose it’s possible that a freak horse spurring is creating galactic disaster, but it’s more likely to me that this so-called impulsion is a result of poor copy editing. Probably from THINKing too FAST.

Okay, so… am I really just going to sum up over a decade’s worth of comics by pointing out a handful of covers? What about, you know, the actual content inside the comics? What indeed, dear reader. What indeed.

You know how TV shows like Star Trek tend to find themselves in familiar settings with great regularity? On the podcast, we refer to these as “Planet Backlot” — all those worlds of Nazis, Romans, gangsters or just “coincidentally exactly like Earth of the 20th century.” It got a bit tedious after awhile (though, with decent writing, a Planet Backlot story can still be worth your time — hell, 75% of “City on the Edge of Forever” took place on a pre-existing Depression-era city set), but we forgave them because of, you know, budgetary concerns. Truly alien worlds would be nigh impossible to depict on the meager budget afforded to Trek in the late 60s. Hell, TNG had several times that amount to spend and they couldn’t pull it off most of the time. It’s hard to create uniquely weird surroundings and aliens on a weekly television budget. That’s just how it goes.

Which is why the idea of a Star Trek comic is so promising. While you might not have the immediacy of moving pictures, spurred on by the score and some often-decent acting, the blank page gives you an opportunity that television doesn’t. Namely, that it’s a blank page. More or less anything you can imagine can happen in a comic book. And in a Star Trek comic book, this would ideally mean finally taking these beloved characters to the strange, new worlds they never got a chance to visit on television.

Sadly, to borrow a phrase from Michael J. Nelson, the Gold Key comics whiz this opportunity right down their legs. Issue after issue, the crew of the Enterprise (often barely distinguishable from one another) find themselves on mundane, unimaginative worlds populated by bland, usually humanoid aliens. You can’t blame this one on budget — the only explanation here is that the artists wanted to stay within safe, well-defined adventure story clichés. Here are but a few of the overwhelmingly boring people and places visited by Kirk and company during their 61 issue mission:

Homer, you can't escape all your problems by going under the sea.

I'm pretty sure this exact panel was also in my comic book adaptation of the Old Testament.

"Niiiice beaver!"

"It's only a model."

This wasn't from that George Washington story from earlier — this was an entirely different encounter with 1780s soldiers.

Oh, and then there was the thrilling Prince Valiant crossover.

Click to embiggen.

Very occasionally, the crew would encounter some variety of incredibly generic bug-eyed sci-fi monster. But these would prove to be no more alien than that vicious dog creature from “The Enemy Within” — essentially they were just dragons, or giant bears or something. Which are scary, and not even entirely out of place in Star Trek, but… come on, you guys. You could literally draw any weird thing you could possibly think of. This is really the best you could do?

Perhaps worst of all is the series’ utter lack of continuity with the series. And I don’t mean that in the “James R. Kirk” sense of the word. I mean that they already had access to a few dozen great ideas worth revisiting in detail — the Mirror universe, the Horta, Vulcan and its customs, Klingons, Romulans, Tholians, Gorn, what Earth looks like in the 23rd century, Tribbles, Harry Mudd, Trelane, the Guardian of Forever, et. al — and they didn’t touch any of them.

Okay, I tell a lie. I think one or two Klingon stories pop up near the very end. But that’s it. Seriously, even if your imagination can’t cook up a properly alien alien, it would kill you to come back to some already-established piece of Trek lore, both to service the fans and ease the apparently incredible burden of you having to think up a new idea?

So, yeah. I’d like to be able to tell you that these comics were great, or at least that they were so bad they’re good. Sadly, they’re the worst of all worlds: boring, uninspired and largely uneventful. In short, the exact opposite of everything we want out of Star Trek.

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