The PopCult Bookshelf
New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics is a collection of essays about all the various comic books based on the classic television and movie empire published over the last forty-eight years. It’s a long-overdue look at the underappreciated comic book incarnations of Star Trek, and the essays are informative and entertaining for the most part. While some chapters are in-depth and informative first-person accounts, written by folks who actually worked on some of the comic books, there are a few instances of sloppy research and questionable editing that were disappointing to encounter.
The best parts of the book are the essays by Robert Greenberger and Tom Mason, and the introduction by David Gerrold. They speak authoritatively, yet in a humble manner, about what working on Star Trek was like for them. Greenberger was the editor of the Star Trek comic books published by DC Comics starting in the 1980s, and his insights are informative and fascinating. Mason was the editor of the Deep Space Nine and other Star Trek comics at Malibu, and his point of view is very entertaining. Gerrold, of course, has been an expert on all things Star Trek since he made the leap from being a fan to writing the classic original series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” His participation elevates any book on Star Trek.
Jim Beard contributes a great chapter that covers how the overly-restrictive license hamstrung Marvel’s first attempt at producing Star Trek comic books by forbidding them to use any concepts that weren’t included in “Star Trek” The Motion Picture.”
Chapters on later Star Trek comics, such as the ones published by Wildstorm and the Manga adaptations are loaded with information that I was not aware of previously because I’d pretty much stopped paying attention to Star Trek comic books by that point. The articles make me curious enough to sample them.
There are great essays on the British Star Trek comics and a daily comic strip from the late 1970s and early 80s of which I was totally unaware. These are revelatory, well-researched and very detailed.
However, there are some disappointments. I was hoping for a wealth of infomation about the original Star Trek comics books, which were published by Gold Key. Scott Tipton offers up a brief overview that’s fun and respectful of its charm, while pointing out some of the weaknesses of the book. However, it’s a very short essay. Apparently to rectify this, there is a second essay on the Gold Key Star Trek comics by Julian Darius that is marred by a condescending tone and really sloppy research. In addition, the second essay alternately contradicts and overlaps with the first.
Both of the Gold Key essays rip apart the story in the first issue of Gold Key’s Star Trek comic book, which famously was written and drawn by people who hadn’t seen the show. Tipton recaps this story in a few short paragraphs in a fun way that shows how silly and unlike Star Trek it is. Darius spends eight pages dissecting the same story in a manner not unlike, and about as fun to read as, an autopsy report. I have to blame the editor for even including the second essay, although since it’s written by the founder of Sequart, his publisher, I guess he had no choice.
And I don’t mean to pick on Julian Darius, but he contributes another essay to this book, which is marred even more by sloppy research and a snotty tone. In his chapter about the Peter Pan/Power Records comic book/record sets, Darius tackles the issue of why Lt. Uhura was drawn as a blonde, caucasian woman, while Sulu was drawn as a black man. Darius writes:
“The artists for the four stories that got comics adaptations, however, weren’t nearly as familiar with the two shows. The most obvious discrepancies were Sulu and Uhura, the two human characters from the show most identified as being of a race other than Caucasian. Oddly, Sulu was depicted as a black man in a blue (science) uniform, while Uhura was a blond white girl! Clearly, something had gone seriously wrong with the colorist.”
This was painful to read, not only because Darius blames the artists or the colorists for what was clearly an editorial mandate, but because he is apparently unaware of the concept of “Publicity Rights” (AKA “Likeness Rights). Other chapters in this book discuss the issue of which comics had the rights to use the likenesses of specific actors and concepts, and I remember when these books were originally published that Neal Adams explained in several fanzines that Power Records was unsure whether or not they had the rights to depict Nichelle Nichols as Uhura or George Takai as Sulu, so they instructed the artists to draw them differently just in case, so that they wouldn’t have to pay the actors any extra money. Leonard Nimoy had filed several lawsuits against Paramount over the use of his likeness on Star Trek merchandise, and many of the licensees decided to play it safe with supporting characters from the show.
Darius also fails to mention the artists that he blames for the change. The art for most of the Power Records comic books was handled by Continuity Associates, the legendary art studio run by Adams and Dick Giordano. The artwork on these comics, clearly the work of Adams and Giordano with help from folks like Russ Heath, remains the finest art ever seen in any of the Star Trek comic books. If you’re going to write about the merits of a comic book, you pretty much have to mention who drew it. It’s fine to mention that Alan Dean Foster wrote some great stories, but those comics are sought-after by collectors because of the fantastic art.
It’s ridiculous to assume that Neal Adams wouldn’t bother to research what the actors looked like for a licensed comic book project that he was drawing. The man is a consummate professional.
There is another odd statement in the book, in an appendix about Star Trek comic books that were never published, Rich Handley writes about two unreleased collections of the Gold Key Star Trek comic books that were to have been published by Checker Publishing,
“It is unknown why the company stopped after only five volumes though sales may have been a factor.”
Thirty seconds on Google would have revealed that Checker Publishing hasn’t published any books for over seven years and is only still around as a digital division of Devil’s Due Publishing. They exited the physical book market before the last two volumes of Star Trek were published. That’s why IDW is now reprinting those books in deluxe hardcover editions. It’s not a great mystery.
Aside from those instances of poor research, some of which may be attributable to people writing about the history of comic books that were published before they were born, this is still a solid and informative collection of essays about the Star Trek comic books. It’s just a shame that they didn’t do a better job on the Gold Key or Power Records comics, especially considering that they use the distinctive Gold Key Star Trek logo on the cover.
Maybe we’ll get to read more details about the Gold Key Star Trek comics in upcoming editions of IDW’s Star Trek Gold Key reprint collections.
New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics is a good overview of Star Trek comic books, particularly from the 1980s onward. The book could have been improved with tighter editing, better research and more examples of art from the comics, but it’s still not a bad effort. It would have been nice if some of the writers put more effort into giving credit to the writers and artists who worked on the comics. Some do a great job while others gloss over such details. The most glaring errors are in the chapters that I most wanted to read, but the complete book is a worthwhile addition to your Star Trek library.
I still don’t understand why the cover shows an alarmed Star Trek crew running at what is apparently Kelsey Grammer wearing a red shirt.