As I’ve mentioned in passing a time or two before on this blog, I didn’t get to see Star Trek when it originally aired on the NBC television network from 1966 to 1969. Until 1970, we only had two TV stations in the Jackson, MS metro area; and although one of them was an NBC affiliate, it sometimes pre-empted that network’s programming to carry something else (usually a program from ABC, the odd-network-out in our market). My maiden voyage upon the starship Enterprise would thus have to wait until reruns of the by-then-cancelled show started airing locally in syndication, probably sometime in 1970.
Once first contact was finally made, however, I immediately (and unsurprisingly, considering the other stuff I was into) became a big Trek fan. And I was keen to extend my enjoyment of the show through what we would now call ancillary media. The thing was, in 1970 and 1971, there wasn’t a whole lot of licensed Trek story-product available.
There were the Bantam paperback books by veteran science-fiction writer James Blish, of course. If you’re not already familiar with these, they were primarily collections of short stories, which adapted episodes from the television series. (Since I started buying and reading these books while I was still catching up with the syndicated reruns, in a number of cases Blish’s version of a given story was the one I encountered first.). If you wanted to read an original adventure, however, your choices were pretty limited. There was a single paperback novel by Blish (Spock Must Die!) released as part of the Bantam series, as well as a hardcover novel for young readers, Mission to Horatius, which was written by another SF vet, Mack Reynolds, and published in 1968 by Whitman, aka Western Publishing.
And, of course, there were also the comic books, published by another division of that same Western Publishing, Gold Key Comics.
Gold Key’s Star Trek title began publication in the summer of 1967 and appeared on erratic schedule thereafter. That meant that, had I been really curious about the property, I could have checked it out in comics format well in advance of when I finally got to watch it on TV — but perhaps it’s just as well that I wasn’t quite that keen, that soon, as the earliest comics diverged from the television canon in a number of significant ways, and I might’ve been confused when I eventually encountered the real deal. Among the more obvious discrepancies, the Enterprise‘s away teams would carry knapsacks and canteens on their missions to strange new worlds. Meanwhile, the great starship itself apparently ran on rocket fuel, and flames were shown shooting out from its warp nacelles; it was also capable of flying within a planet’s atmosphere, and was even shown skimming rooftops a time or two.
In Gold Key’s defense, their creators were working from extremely limited reference materials, especially at the beginning. The comic book’s artists — first Nevio Zeccara, then Alberto Giolitti — were both Italians who’d never seen an episode of the TV series, and only had a smattering of still photos from which to recreate the show’s sets, costumes, and actors’ likenesses. The writer, Dick Wood, is likely to have had similar challenges regarding Trek‘s conceptual underpinnings, at least at the outset of his eight issue tenure; on the other hand, it does seem that he, unlike his Italian collaborators, would have had the time and opportunity to actually watch the show from time to time, and, y’know, maybe take a few notes — especially since the issue featuring his last story didn’t go on sale until June, 1970. OK, so it’s at least possible that Wood had written all eight of his scripts back in 1967 — Gold Key is known to have liked to work ahead — but it seems rather more likely that he simply wasn’t all that invested in getting this TV show’s comics adaptation just right. He was not, it seems fair to say, a fan.
Things began to change with the advent of a new writer in Star Trek #9 (Feb., 1971). This new guy was only twenty-two years old, and had been scripting comics professionally for just the last couple of those years; in following Dick Wood on Star Trek, he would be replacing a writer who’d been in the business for six years longer than he himself had been alive. On the other hand, he had, at least, watched the show. His name was Len Wein.
Wein, as many of this blog’s readers will already know, had gotten his start in 1968 at DC Comics, where he’d broken in with his friend and sometime writing collaborator, Marv Wolfman. But after some early success placing stories in several of the “mystery” anthologies, Teen Titans, and elsewhere, the two had run afoul of upper management at DC when they were wrongly suspected of having stolen original art from the publisher’s offices. (The actual culprit was editor Jack Miller — a sad story I’ve related in some detail in an earlier post.) For a period of around six months or so, Wein had found himself persona non grata amongst DC’s editors (with the notable exception of Dick Giordano), driving him to spend more time cultivating assignments for other publishers, including Marvel, Warren, Skywald — and Gold Key.
As the writer later recalled in an interview for Comic Book Artist #5 (Summer, 1999):
So I went over to Gold Key, which was just a block away from DC in those days. They were doing all sorts of books including Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff’s Tales of Terror, Mod Wheels, Star Trek and others. I was doing Hot Wheels for Dick [Giordano at DC] when I showed up at Gold Key’s door one day, looking for work. Wally Green and Paul Kuhn, very dear men, were the editors there, and the company generally had older writers and artists working for them who had been there for many years. They said, “Why are you here?” I said, “I’d like to work for you guys.” They looked at each other, then back at me, and said, “Why?” I showed them some samples and ended up working for them for two or three years.
Wein’s first two published stories for Gold Key appeared in Twilight Zone #35 (December, 1970), though he seems to have picked up Star Trek — his first regular series assignment — in pretty short order after making his initial pitch to the company’s editors. In an article for the second issue of The Monster Times (Feb. 16, 1972),* Wein recalled what went through his mind upon receiving Wally Green’s phone call offering him the gig:
For a minute, I paused and put my head together.
I’d been one of those fanatics who camped in front of the boob tube every week and I’d been as dejected as the rest when the show went off the air. I also knew that Wally’s company published a comic book version of the series. It was a book I perused now and then, marveling at the flaws in both visuals and writing.
Now I’d been offered a chance to get things straight, a chance to be the only person around relating the adventures of the Enterprise crew to an expectant world. I brought my eyes into focus and mumbled my acceptance into the receiver.
“Great,” said Wally, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a few plot ideas ready.”
I hung up the receiver and fell back into the nearest chair. “Hot damn,” I thought smugly to myself, “I’m writing STAR TREK.”
In the article, Wein went on to describe some of the things he did to help “get things straight” prior to even beginning to write his first script. One was to write a letter to his new collaborator, Alberto Giolitti, to outline some of the ongoing issues with Gold Key’s visualization of the Star Trek milieu. Another was to immerse himself in the syndicated Trek reruns (which apparently aired nightly in his market), as well as to dig into all the reference material he could accumulate. “The world of STAR TREK was a complex place,” he wrote. “Certain precepts had been set down and to be true to the series, I had to follow them.”
According to Wein, one great help in this regard was Stephen A. Whitfield’s book, The Making of Star Trek. Originally published in September, 1968 (concurrent with the beginning of the show’s third and final season), this first non-fiction monograph on the subject of Star Trek was marketed (at least by the occasion of its fifth printing, in July, 1970) as “The Book on How to Write for TV!”. Indeed, it does seem to have been the first detailed examination of the production of a scripted network television show, and, as such, probably was quite valuable to professional screenwriters as well as others in the film and television industry. But it was also a treasure trove of “in-universe” data for early Trek fans (I certainly put great store by my copy as a reference source, though I must confess I never got around to reading it cover-to-cover) — and it was obviously a godsend for the only man then writing new tales of the USS Enterprise and its crew on an ongoing basis (outside of whoever was then scripting a weekly comic strip concurrently being published in the United Kingdom, that is), as it also likely was for the man drawing them, thanks to its many black & white photos (according to Wein, he followed up his letter to Giolitti with a copy of Whitfield’s book).
As already noted, Wein’s first issue was #9, which reached stands in December, 1970. That issue also had the distinction of being the last that had an all-photo cover; with the next issue — which, as you’ve probably already surmised, was the first one to be picked up by your humble blogger — the photos became a minor design element on covers dominated by the paintings of Gold Key mainstay George Wilson.
Unfortunately, Wilson’s cover for #10, though otherwise pretty spectacular, provides us with our first clue that despite Wein’s best efforts, Gold Key hadn’t yet managed to “get things straight” — at least, not all things. See that “exhaust smoke” billowing out behind the Enterprise?**
And those clues keep coming with the story’s title*** page…
…where everyone but Spock is wearing lime-green uniform tops, rather than gold or red (including Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who should, like Spock, be in “sciences blue”). And what’s with those wide, tunic-cinching gun belts?
Moving on to page 2, we have still more non-canonical rocket exhaust streaming from the warp nacelles…
…and I don’t recall Sulu’s console ever having its own little viewscreen.
Wait, “Mr. Scott”? Which one of those guys in the next-to-last panel above is supposed to be the beloved Starfleet engineer portrayed by James Doohan? Surely not the one with the light brown hair…
Yes, as is made evident in the sequence above, the brown-haired dude is indeed our Scotty. Evidently, there were no photos of Jimmy Doohan in the original packet of reference material received by Gold Key’s artists in Rome, leading them to recast him as a different generic white dude in each issue. Readers wouldn’t see the “real” Montgomery Scott until issue #12. (By that time, the copy of Whitfield’s Making of Star Trek sent to Giolitti by Wein had finally arrived, or so we may suppose.)
Though Chang declares that Kirk is in no position to demand anything, he nevertheless unfreezes Scotty before proceeding to tell his unwilling guests exactly why he’s abducted them:
When McCoy asks what’s so important about the sceptre, Chang explains that he needs it to gain the advantage in a war he and his people have been fighting for years against another sorcerer, named Xandu. “My people have become virtual prisoners,” he declares, “living under the threat — the shadow — of impending doom!”
“Suffering stars” is the sort of space-specific colloquialism that I don’t recall characters resorting to much on TOS (Star Trek: The Original Series), but which cropped up pretty regularly in Gold Key’s Trek comics — before, after, and (it must be said) during the time Len Wein was writing them.
On the other hand, Wein gets the cadences of Kirk’s speech just right, at least sometimes — such as in the panel at left, above. It’s hard not to hear William Shatner’s voice in your head when you read that dialogue (or at least it is for me).
Realizing they have little choice, Kirk and his crewmen agree to undertake Chang’s quest. He appoints a guide to lead them in their journey to the mountain — an attractive young woman named Marla. Marla’s midriff-baring harem-girl outfit doesn’t seem particularly practical for such a trek… but then, gratuitous displays of female flesh weren’t exactly off-brand for TOS itself. Similarly, the matter-of-fact way the Enterprise officers accept the existence of an alien culture that strongly evokes a 20th century Hollywood adaptation of the Arabian Nights is hardly out of character for our heroes. After all, they’ve encountered such highly improbable products of Earth-parallel cultural development several times before (in the TV episodes “Miri”, “Bread and Circuses”, and “The Omega Glory”, for instance).
Setting aside the matter of Mr. Scott, Giolitti’s likenesses of the show’s actors aren’t bad, for the most part — though perhaps everyone looks a little more weathered than necessary.
It’s not entirely clear just how Kirk’s gambit works — why does the second giant take a swing at the one grasping for the Starfleet captain? (Maybe the sequence of actions was clearer in Wein’s script than it is in Giolitti’s realization of same; but then again, maybe not.) In any event, it does work; and so our intrepid band continues on their way, until the fall of night compels them to make camp:
Regardless of what one might think of Marla’s choice of attire, it’s a good thing she’s around — since without her, there’s no female presence in this story at all, at least so far as named characters go. Interestingly, while Wein did make up a couple of female Enterprise officers to meet the needs of specific stories (just as the writers of TOS had done) — characters who were seen once, and then never appeared again — he made very little use of the TV series’ established women characters during his eight-issue run. Neither Yeoman Janice Rand nor Nurse Christine Chapel ever appeared at all in Wein’s tales, while Lt. Nyota Uhura — a regularly featured character for all three seasons of the show, as well as a ubiquitous figure on the Enterprise bridge in most Trek iterations derived from it — showed up four times, but only twice in a speaking role.
Well, it wouldn’t really feel like TOS without at least one fistfight, right?
Full-length Gold Key stories regularly “broke for commercials” in the middle of the issue; a practice that allowed the publisher to simulate the TV viewing experience in this one area, at least.
“We come from the year 1997!” Here’s where things get a bit more interesting, if you’re a reasonably knowledgeable Star Trek fan. Because the “Great Eugenics Wars” referenced by Brand are an established part of Trek lore — a significant piece of the “future history” that underpins the franchise’s imagined 23rd century.
The Eugenics Wars had become canon with the 1967 television episode “Space Seed”, which famously introduced one of Star Trek‘s best-known villains, Khan Noonien Singh. As it stands, the reference to the Eugenics Wars in “Sceptre of the Sun” is simply a nice tip of the hat to that episode — hardly more than what we today usually refer to as an “Easter egg”. However, it was originally planned to be much more than that.
As related by Wein in his 1972 piece for Monster Times, “‘THE SCEPTRE OF THE SUN’, when originally conceived, had been intended to continue the story of Khan…” But, as the writer soon discovered, Gold Key’s license did not allow him to “utilize any character who was not a regular member of the STAR TREK cast.”**** He was therefore “forced to make some basic plot changes, turning Khan into the evil Chang and altering the character’s primary motivation.”
Would Wein’s initial conception — a sequel to “Space Seed” that would have beaten the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to the punch by eleven years — have made for a very different story than what was ultimately published? Would it have been a better one? Alas, we’ll never know. One might wish that one of the many comics publishers who’ve had the Trek license over the last several decades had thought to commission Wein to write that version, which could have been published as a sort of “lost adventure” — but with the writer’s untimely passing in 2017, that opportunity’s sadly been lost.
But to return to the story as we do have it… Continuing his account, Brand tells Kirk and the others how he and the other war refugees from 1997 Earth eventually reached the very planet all the characters are now standing on. Upon awakening from suspended animation, they dismantled the rocket that had brought them, intending to make this “quiet, peaceful world” their home forever…
Brand believes that the Sceptre of the Sun may provide he and his rebel band with the power to overthrow Chang once and for all — and so, they’re joining the quest. Not feeling that he has much choice, Kirk agrees.
Finally, after several more miles of walking, the now considerably larger band reaches their destination. Their goal is at lasy in sight:
It’s not entirely clear why either Kirk or Spock thought the former would be able to utilize the Sceptre against the robot simply by aiming it and (I presume) wishing hard — but no matter. Spock, after all, has “devised a plan” — which essentially is to climb up behind the contraption, and then jump onto it:
I’m hoping that there’s supposed to be a little ledge or something just off to the right where Spock is leaping away from the robot in that third panel, as that otherwise looks to be a mighty steep drop, even for a Vulcan…
Chang is skeptical of Kirk’s claim that the Enterprise will break apart in the planet’s atmosphere (maybe he’s read some of those early Dick Wood-scripted issues?). When Spock attempts to forestall further argument by rushing the wizard, the latter responds by conjuring a huge, shaggy beast out of thin air to stop the Vulcan. However…
Okay, so the giant space genie was an illusion all along; presumably, Chang’s mental powers also affected Sulu and the other bridge officers’ perceptions, so that they believed their instruments told them the ship was immobilized. Sure, I can see that. Same with the flaming sword in the sky — and even the rock giants. But the robot? The one that Spock actually jumped onto, and pulled out its wires to disable it? Um… I guess, if you say so, Mr. Wein.
Moving right along… in the pandemonium that follows Chang’s ordering his soldiers to attack, the false wizard attempts to escape. But he’s mot eluding Captain James T. Kirk that easily:
The electrocuted Chang is dead by the time he hits the castle flagstones. But the danger’s not over yet, as our heroes find themselves unable to disable Chang’s very real tractor device. Kirk orders the evacuation of the castle, then attempts to contact the Enterprise:
In the interest of summing up — I’d say that for all its faults, “Sceptre of the Sun” is probably at least as enjoyable as some of the lesser episodes of TOS‘s third season — though I realize that for some reading this, that’s the equivalent of damning with faint praise. What can I say — in 1971, we took what Trek we could get.
In his Monster Times article — which, as already noted, came out in February, 1972 — Len Wein provided one-paragraph synopses of all the Star Trek comics scripts he’d produced to date. The very last one he described, titled “The Day of the Inquisitor”, wouldn’t actually see print until issue #16, which was released in August of that year. (Obviously, the folks at Gold Key really did like to work ahead.)
As it happened, that story was also Wein’s last Star Trek tale for Gold Key. By this time, the writer was back in DC Comics’ good graces; in fact, he had been for quite some time. In April, 1971 — just one month after Star Trek #10 shipped — his collaboration with artist Bernie Wrightson on the original “Swamp Thing” short story had appeared in House of Secrets #92. A month later, he’d become the regular writer on Phantom Stranger. And by August, 1972, when his final Gold Key Star Trek appeared, he’d added Justice League of America and the brand-new Swamp Thing series to his workload.
Wein’s departure from the perennially low-paying Gold Key, though inevitable, was apparently as genial as his arrival. As he related in an interview published in Alter Ego #135 (Sept., 2015):
I started making much more money at DC than at Gold Key… I finally had to ask Wally and Paul, “I know you can’t match this but I’ve got to ask… otherwise, I’ve got to go.” So they said “No, no. Go. Go. Thank you for everything you did. We loved everything you did. We loved working with you and we’d love to keep working with you, but we can’t afford you anymore. You should go where the money is.” So they sent me on my way. [laughs] It was very sweet, very paternal.
Gold Key’s Star Trek went on without Len Wein, of course. He was succeeded on the series by Arnold Drake, a writer best remembered today as the co-creator of the Doom Patrol and Deadman — and one who, like Dick Wood, was a veteran comics scripter from an earlier generation of industry professionals. Whatever else you might say about Drake, I think it’s fair to say that he had little “fannishness” in him — which may account for his evident lack of commitment to maintaining fidelity to the Star Trek TV canon. Looking back at his first few issues, the plots aren’t bad, but many technical details are wrong, and virtually all of the characterizations feel “off”. Most of the ground gained in those ares during Wein’s tenure seems to have been lost.
That may well be the main reason why Drake’s second issue, #18 (published February, 1973) turned out to be the last Gold Key Star Trek comic book I bought. Like so many other titles from my younger days, I don’t remember making a specific decision to drop the series; nevertheless, there came a time when I saw a new issue in the spinner racks, and simply opted to leave it there. Truth to tell, even though I’d enjoyed several of the stories of the Wein-Giolitti era well enough, the title was probably never much more than a marginal purchase for me (save, perhaps, for in the very first months of my Star Trek fandom, back in 1971). In any event, there were other comics I preferred to spend my money on.
Not that the Gold Key Star Trek needed my patronage to ensure its continued success, of course. The book would keep going along just fine without me, year after year. Over time, there would be a number of further personnel changes on both the writing and artistic fronts (not at all unusual with such a long-running series), and, thankfully, a gradual trend towards greater fidelity to the source material. Towards the end, Gold Key’s license even appears to have had some restrictions lifted, as later issues featured appearances by more than one character who, though drawn from the TV series, had never been “a regular member of the STAR TREK cast”, to use Len Wein’s phrase; these included Zefram Cochrane and the Companion in #49 (Nov., 1977), the Guardian of Forever in #56 (Oct., 1978), and Harry Mudd in #61 (Mar., 1979) — incidentally, the series’ final issue.
When the end finally came for Gold Key’s Star Trek at the decade’s close, the culprit wasn’t poor sales; rather, the publisher simply lost the license to a better-heeled competitor, Marvel Comics. A full decade after the cancellation of TOS, the Enterprise would rise like a phoenix from its live-action media ashes as the unexpected success of another science-fiction property with “star” in its name made a major motion picture version of Star Trek not only feasible, but inevitable — and simultaneously made the Trek comic-book rights more desirable, as well. Who’d have seen that coming, in March, 1971?
Over the four decades since then, the Star Trek comics license has bounced around from publisher to publisher, making two stops each at both Marvel and DC as well as having stints at smaller outfits like Malibu and Tokyopop. Currently, it resides with IDW, which, having acquired the property in 2006, at present holds the record for longevity as a continuous publisher of Star Trek comics.
While your humble blogger can’t claim to have been a consistent purchaser of Trek comic books in all their iterations over the years, I have picked them up from time to time, and I’m certain I will again some day. In the meantime, I’m happy just to know they’re there — one more sign of good health for a concept in imaginative storytelling that’s still going strong over half a century since I first discovered it — and which I fully expect will continue to do so long after I’m gone.
This happens to be the 200th post I’ve published on this blog. I don’t really have anything profound to say about that fact, but it still seems to be a milestone worth acknowledging (especially since I let the 100th post slip past me a couple of years ago and didn’t even notice.)
Well, I guess there’s this: Whether you’ve been around since the beginning, 5 1/2 years ago (is there in fact such a creature?), or just stumbled upon the blog today, your readership is what has made, and will continue to make, this whole enterprise worthwhile. So, thanks, y’all. Here’s to the next 200.
*Wein’s article for “The World’s First Newspaper of Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy” appeared in a special Star Trek issue (timed to coincide with the first major Star Trek convention, held in New York in January, 1972), and bore the full title, “…Writing Star Trek for Fun and Profit… or YOU try thinking like a know-it-all alien with green blood and pointed ears and see what it does to YOUR head.” It, along with the rest of the issue (a fascinating artifact of early-’70s Trek fandom), are as of this writing fully available in scanned form, thanks to the good folks at the Zombo’s Closet blog. (Cover art by Gray Morrow.)
**In defense of Wilson, as well as the other Gold Key artists, they weren’t the only early Star Trek illustrators to get the visualization of the iconic starship’s propulsion systems wrong. For example, you might have noticed that the James Bama cover for the first Bantam Books Star Trek paperback, shown near the beginning of this post, had a similar problem. On the other hand, Bantam (and Bama) had the excuse of having produced that painting much earlier in the franchise’s history (Star Trek 1 was published in January, 1967); by March, 1971, this was a harder mistake to justify.
***According to the Grand Comics Database, the story’s title, “Sceptre of the Sun” was inspired by that of an otherwise unrelated Trek TV episode, “Spectre of the Gun”. I haven’t found independent corroboration for this claim, but the similarity of titles does seem extremely unlikely to be a coincidence.
****This prohibition could also explain Wein’s not using Nurse Chapel, who was a recurring character in TOS, rather than a series regular — though it doesn’t seem to account for the absence of Yeoman Rand, who was a full-fledged regular cast member, even if only for part of the first season.