Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some Things Don't Age Well

After my recent Marvel Star Wars lovefest -- and it's still ongoing, so expect a few more posts on it in the future, at least -- I was reminded of another comic I read and loved as a kid: the Gold Key Star Trek comics. These were apparently the first licensed Trek comics and were published between 1967 (while the show was still on the air) and 1978 (just before the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture). I never owned the individual issues but instead had a couple of paperback volumes that collected many issues together under a single cover.

As I think I've said too many times, I became a Star Trek fan at a young age; I must have been four or five when I saw episodes in syndication on a Washington, DC independent TV station. So, these comics really grabbed me and, if you look at the illustration above, you might be able to see why. Despite the really goofy plots of many of them -- or, rather, most of them -- there was something to them that I found compelling.

At the time, I couldn't have told you what it was, but, re-reading them now, I'm pretty sure I know: these comics emphasized Star Trek as a descendant of earlier "serious" sci-fi, which, of course, it was. Just look at that "landing party" gear the crew are wearing there, complete with backpacks and canteens. That's like something out of Forbidden Planet (a movie I loved then, as I do now). Now take a look at this depiction of the transporters from the comics:

Maybe I'm crazy but I love the 50s sci-fi look of the thing, with big emitters on either side and the much flashier dematerialization effect. And the comic books are filled with this stuff. I simply adored the imagery, even if it was often at odds with what we saw in the series. (The reason for that, apparently, is that its earliest artists were working only from stills of the show, never having actually seen it themselves).

Yet, somehow, it all worked for me and I kept reading and re-reading these damned things, whose stories were invariably the worst kind of grade-Z space opera drek. Here's just one example of what I mean and it pretty nicely sums up everything that was wrong with the Gold Key comics:

Yes, I realize that, even now, several of you are preparing to write comments about how absolutely awesome it is to see Spock and Scotty decked out as retro-future space pirate swabbies, puffy pants and all, but I can't agree with you. Whereas I think the Marvel comics did a great job of extending the implied universe of the first film, the same cannot be said of the Gold Key comics. Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of really silly stuff in The Original Series, but, in most cases, an effort is made to provide a "plausible" justification for why Abe Lincoln and Genghis Khan are fighting or why Apollo is grabbing the Enterprise out of flight.

These comics, on the other hand, don't bother with such trifling matters. Space pirates dress like Blackbeard's men, because, well, that's what kids expect of pirates. No further explanation is needed, let alone provided. Now, maybe this is just a case where I really have become a bitter old prune without a sense of whimsy, but I don't think so. The Gold Key Trek comics are just bad. I love the artwork but the writing -- and the imagination behind it -- is sub-par, or, to be more charitable, inappropriate to the kind of sci-fi Star Trek was channeling.

I'm glad I'm having the chance to look at these again, but don't expect a flurry of posts from me extolling their virtues as inspiration for re-imagining Star Trek. The artwork is inspirational, but I'm not sure I can look past the stories, which are just shameful.

20 comments:

  1. I look at this kind of stuff as being part of a "lost age" of trek lore during the dark times between the show's end and the first movie. Some of us lived through it but you don't hear much about it anymore - novels, comic books and fan=produced material that came out in the 70's. Once the next gen started up later, all that stuff was buried in revised continuity and the onslaught of Trek's expanded universe.

    Star Wars has a similar if shorter era you pointed out in your Marvel post - that wild time between Star Wars and Empire when people went crazy for new material and most of it did not tie in with the later continuity.

    Both of these were interesting times that GM's can mine for ideas if they're running a game using either of these franchises and they have the added bonus that younger players have probably never seen them.

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  2. In the future there's an annual Talk, Dress and Act Like A Pirate Day.

    "Do not be absurd" doesn't sound to me like something Spock would say though.

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  3. Wasn't Harry Mudd pretty much decked out as a space pirate?

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  4. My favorite science fiction comic during that period, by far, was Magnus: Robot Fighter. It's a respect I retain to this day. :)

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  5. @migellito
    How can you not love a guy who punches out robots? (I suppose if you are a robot...)
    Magnus has much to teach all of us!

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  6. I'll just say this: You may be (for completely non-malicious, unconscious reasons, of course) giving the ST comics way less leeway for silly than you did the SW comics.

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  7. I think that's reasonable, though, Will. In part because Trek was written more as Sci-Fi than as Space Opera, and its genre admits of less pure zaniness.

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  8. I look at this kind of stuff as being part of a "lost age" of trek lore during the dark times between the show's end and the first movie. Some of us lived through it but you don't hear much about it anymore - novels, comic books and fan=produced material that came out in the 70's. Once the next gen started up later, all that stuff was buried in revised continuity and the onslaught of Trek's expanded universe.

    I remember this era well. I used to pore over the Star Trek Technical Manual and Bjo Trimble's Star Trek Concordance, read Blish's novelizations, and loved the animated series. As I understand it, all this stuff was cast aside in later times and has only recently started to be re-evaluated and appreciated, warts and all.

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  9. Wasn't Harry Mudd pretty much decked out as a space pirate?

    Definitely, but I'd argue -- or rationalize, if you prefer -- that Mudd was merely a singular individual and not at all representative of what all con men and grifters looked like in the 23rd century. His attire was a personal affectation rather than a mark of a criminal sub-culture. (It was also a visual cue that he was disreputable)

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  10. I think that's reasonable, though, Will. In part because Trek was written more as Sci-Fi than as Space Opera, and its genre admits of less pure zaniness.

    That's my feeling too, although I'm sure others disagree. Trek has always had a degree of self-seriousness about it that's rather lacking in the original Star Wars film, so I don't see them as quite comparable. But, that said, I'd be the first to admit that, as a dyed-in-the-wool Trek fan, I tend to be much more critical of Trek media than I am of Star Wars stuff.

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  11. I'll just say this: You may be (for completely non-malicious, unconscious reasons, of course) giving the ST comics way less leeway for silly than you did the SW comics.

    Quite likely, although, as shimrod says above, I give Trek less leeway because the general thrust of the series was more "serious" than Star Wars. It wasn't intended as space opera in the Flash Gordon mold.

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  12. The creators of the Star Trek comics had never seen the show before they started work - I believe they had some concept art and the script for the pilot episode to work from (I'll have to check my Slings and Arrows Comics Guide for more details.).

    Take a look at the early issues: Scotty was a redhead!

    @migellito: Check your comics shop. Dark Horse Comics is bringing back Magnus Robot Fighter, Doctor Solar, Turok (The Son of Stone, not the Dinosaur Hunter) and other Gold Key stalwarts, all written by Jim Shooter. More robot-punching good times for all! (I'm a huge fan.)

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  13. Having re-read both these comics in the last year I have chime in.

    TOS definitely started off firmly in the pulp SF and action/adventure genre. What's pulpier than Chris Pike fighting the Kehlar to protect Vina in "The Cage"? It's a scene straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs! I re-read the Gold Key trek comics and enjoyed them alot. Even though Alberto Giolitti didn't drawn the characters to look like the actors he was still a great artist for backgrounds and especially historical style costumes. To me many of these adventures fit the TOS mold better than much of the later TNG-era material.

    Conversely I think there is evidence that the writers and artists working on Star Wars at Marvel thought of it as a joke. I remember the giant green rabbitoid alien and his antagonists Dafi and Phud...and Asteroids in space with icicles hanging off them to show the effect of a cold ray....

    I think you are showing more than a little favoritism to Star Wars, James, but I forgive you. It's all cheesy fun and not to be taken too seriously (until you get to TNG which definitely got too serious and boring).

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  14. "I remember this era well. I used to pore over the Star Trek Technical Manual...."

    Ditto. One could call it the "Golden Age of Star Trek"

    "As I understand it, all this stuff was cast aside in later times and has only recently started to be re-evaluated and appreciated, warts and all."

    Enterprise season 4 had more than a few TOS moments. Star Trek TOS with new effects had a few nice shots but could have been even better. On the whole I'd rather live in the future as it was in the past!

    Don't get me started on the 2009 movie....

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  15. James Maliszewski said: "But, that said, I'd be the first to admit that, as a dyed-in-the-wool Trek fan, I tend to be much more critical of Trek media than I am of Star Wars stuff."

    I'm exactly the opposite -- far more a Star Wars fan than Star Trek -- yet my feelings for these works are just the same. To me, Star Trek always felt a lot more "frail" than Star Wars.

    Possible that's because Trek was a TV show with smaller budget and locked into fixed sets with lots of recurring shots -- whereas Star Wars was a big-budget movie, filmed outside, with a freedom of shot selection, etc. It always seems to me like if you "shook up" Trek the rear set might fall down and you'd see camera, crew, etc. (the 2nd illustration above gives me that vibe a lot). Classic Star Wars gave me a different, deeper feel -- like there's "more out there", because while filming on location there literally was -- and therefore seems to support varied expansions and exotic locations better.

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  16. Don't get me started on the 2009 movie....

    Sounds like you and I would get along just fine, despite our disagreement about the Gold Key comics :)

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  17. What was compelling was the fact that the visuals matched the stories...in those early days before Star Wars and later CGI - we heavily relied upon comics to help us visualize what we saw in our heads when we read - say a Star Trek spinoff. And, we loved the fantastical and the whimsy that comic creators could get away with (comic code notwithstanding). Comics were a zone of liberation - as at that time not every IP was scrutinized as it is today.

    Slash fiction/mashups are doing the same thing today but with a more media savvy audience. Which partly good for the old school, as it allows us to insert back some of the fun by juxtaposing of different genres/images/story devices to tell a good yarn.

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  18. Um, I really hope you mean "fan fiction" instead of "slash fiction." :)

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  19. LOL@Will

    As for the movie, I thought it was fun. It wasn't really Trek, though. Star Trek, ever since "First Contact," has been lousy at retelling past events. It gets the details entirely wrong -- a lot. Zefram Cochrane, for example, the inventor of the warp drive, was not a redneck in TOS. Yet there he was, in his drunken whoopin' glory, in "First Contact." In a word -- NOT.

    Back to the 2009 movie, I thought the idea of the alternate timeline was a good one, as it allowed them to tinker with the storyline. I wish they hadn't, as seeing those golden days when Kirk and Spock were green would have been fun.

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  20. @Will - no I did mean slash fiction...for Slash Fiction is taking the characters into areas that the creators would not dare tread. RPGs did the same. Fan Fiction is scrutinized and often sanitized by Paramount. Whereas, slash fiction is the Open West/Frontier once again...yes, it is often violent & sexually explicit but so were the early RPGs. But, some are mature thoughtful considerations and put the relationships between characters as the driving force.

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