Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Star Trek: The Newspaper Comics vol. 1, 1971-1981 review

Did you know there once was a Star Trek newspaper comic? It’s true. Around the time of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture Paramount launched a daily newspaper comic chronicling the further adventures of the Enterprise and her crew. The daily strip was set during the timeline of the movie, rather than being set during the time of the original television show’s run. It’s very likely that this was done in order to make the daily strips more marketable and relatable to late 70s and early 80s Star Trek audiences. Having launched at the very end of the 70s and just a few days before the release of The Motion Picture it made sense that the comic strip would tell new stories of Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

This volume collects the first half of the US strip produced by Los Angeles Times Mirror Syndicate. There was also a UK strip which remains uncollected to this day but Rich Handley, who wrote the introduction to this volume, has collected the US and UK strips. He’s responsible for initially bringing this project to Dean Mullaney, the editor of IDW's The Library of American Comics imprint, which resulted in the two volume collection of the entire US newspaper comic. Handley is looking to have the UK strip collected as well but it’s unclear if this is a project that Mullaney and IDW are actively working on.

The Star Trek comics strip debuted on December 2, 1979, just a few days before the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It did not have a long life as it ended on October 25th, 1981. There are two primary reasons for the short lived existence of the strip. The first is that the young Star Trek newspaper comic had to compete with classic series such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon which had both been in print for decades. There was also a newer rival as Star Wars was also being distributed as a comic strip. There was simply not enough of a fan base to allow for all those various titles to survive in the newspaper landscape. The second reason is that Star Trek received rather poor circulation in newspapers in the US.

There are lots of picture in this post and I have to apologize for the quality of the images. I didn't want
to damage the book on the scanner. I'm starting with this picture because it's a simple image that is
well executed. I like it. 

The upside, of course, is that a publisher has finally collected the strip in its entirety and reproduced it for a new generation of fans. Using Handley’s private collection as well as many others that IDW could get access to (purchased and borrowed), the publisher was able to put together yet another stellar collection as part of their The Library of American Comics imprint. They’ve done a very successful job putting together many collections of classic and influential comic strips and while I’m not entirely certain that Star Trek: The Newspaper Comic deserted such a prestigious reproduction it’s nice to know that IDW continues to produce some of the best archival comic book collections. 

Artist Ron Harris adding some dynamic action in a Sunday page.

I recently sat down and read the first volume and I had good time but it was also a very frustrating read, mainly because of the nature of Star Trek stories and the format of daily newspaper strips. In short, I just don’t think that Star Trek lends itself well to the format. While my overall impression is a negative one there were still some rather impressive illustrations by writer/artist Thomas Warkentin. His drawings were, hands down, some of the best things about this book and it’s unfortunate that some strips simply look better than others because of how well they were able to be reproduced. It reminds you that this truly is an archival project and for that element alone I like this book. Yet none of that really matters if you’re looking at the quality of what’s being reproduced and that’s where even Warkentin, who is without a doubt the best writer and artist of the strip as far as this collection goes, fails to deliver a completely satisfying set of stories.

The first sample of many terrible alien designs to come. Those
things like kind of look like scarves? Arms.

This is a closer look at their faces. They're essentially big, cartoony eyes
with what appear to be a series of neck flats for mouthes. Just nasty and boring.

He certainly has a knack for writing dialogue that feels true to the character and harkens back to the actors’ performance on the original television series. Unfortunately, convincing dialogue and to-the-point storytelling, even when well done, it’s enough to carry the book. The main problem is the format of the newspaper strip. The structure of the comic strip is very simple. Monday through Saturday saw the single strip which is often made up of about three panels. Sundays consisted of a full page in colour. The problem is that three panels a day just isn’t enough to make for a satisfying Star Trek story. It has a choppy rhythm that is ultimately disruptive and breaks any momentum that the creative team can possible build in three-panel doses. The longer Sunday strips are good for building momentum but they’re undermined every Monday by a three-panel recap strip to reintroduce readers who don’t read the Sunday paper back into the story.

Another full page but this time it's with art by Warkentin and it's made up of daily strips.
Notice how it's mostly made up of talking heads? Just riveting stuff.

The comic strip brought with it the writing credits of well-known writers and artists. The most famous contributor to the comic was Larry Niven, famed science fiction writer and Gerry Conway, celebrated comic book illustrator. Unfortunately I did not get to read any of the stories by either of them as the first volume mostly collects the stories written and illustrated by Thomas Warkentin, the first person to work on the comic strip. He held the most reliable and sustained tenure on the title. He left after completing eight complete stories from the first daily in 1979 to 1981 after which he was followed by several other writers and artists. Based on the last two stories that are feature in this collection Warkentin was likely representative of the best stories the newspaper comic had to offer as the stories that followed are of a lesser quality. A lot of that has to do with the art though as Warkentin’s style was cleaner and more precise than that of the artists who drew the last two stories in this volume.

This is the first half of one of the earlier Sunday pages. I just love the red suits
with jet packs which Warkentin took from The Motion Picture. Great stuff from early on.

That being said there could very well be nice surprises in the second volume but I will probably not find out anytime soon. The reproduction of the strip was expertly handled by IDW but that also results in a high sticker price. The books, even when purchased at online bookstores, are a little too expensive for my tastes. I enjoyed reading Star Trek: The Newspaper Comics but not enough to cough up the money for the second volume. The biggest deal breaker here is the format of the comic strip. It simply doesn’t work well enough to justify spending money on the second volume. The newspaper comic format has such a bit impact on my reading experience that I wasn’t able to read this book from cover to cover. It took weeks to read in its entirety because I would sit down on weekends or evenings and read one story at a time. The narrative flow was too erratic and choppy that I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the stories being told, no matter what a particular story was about or how much I enjoyed the art.

Here's another terrible alien design. These poor bastards don't
even have eyes!

It’s fitting that IDW gave this newspaper comic the prestige treatment as they’ll most likely attract the attention of lifelong and diehard fans of the franchise. The stories (their format, execution and reproduction, and price) are not for the occasional fan of the movies or some of the television series.  The comic strip will likely only be loved by those who have watched and rewatched all the movies and (at least) all of TOS. A lot of what makes Star Trek enjoyable, including the enhanced visual effects of the movies (in comparison to the television series) and the soundtracks, are obviously not part of the reading experience but it’s also missing the momentum and the Act structure of the episodes.  For the most part this is a “talking heads” comic and while that’s pretty true to the TOS episodes at least on the TV series you could see the characters inhabit the fantastic setting of the Enterprise’s bridge. The TOS movies were able to expand on the visions of the original series and it’s unfortunate that the strip, intended to attract the same audiences as the new movie, doesn’t have any of the gravitas of its theatrical counterpart. Likewise, the format itself presents a clear disadvantage to readers compared to other available Star Trek reading material at the before, during and after the original publication of the newspaper comic. I’m thinking primarily of other comics by Gold Key and Marvel Comics but paperback novels were also widely available at the time. I’ve read Star Trek in all three of those formats and the comic strip is the clear loser in nearly all categories.

Before buying this comic you must ask yourself how big of a Star Trek fan you are. Not in order to brag about it or to compare yourself to other fans (doing that will only prove that you’re an asshole) but in order to determine just how likely you are to enjoy this collection of newspaper comics.

Mushroom head aliens? Yes. Only in Star Trek, unfortunately.

Mudd cameo. It's difficult not to love these panels. 

I'll end it here with a great illustration of the Enterprise by Warkentin. 

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