Hasslein Blog: Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone in About Three Decades


Hasslein Blog

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone in About Three Decades

By Rich Handley

Last December, IDW's Library of American Comics imprint released Star Trek: The Newspaper Strip, Vol. 1, the first of two hardcover books reprinting all 20 storylines of the L.A. Times Syndicate Trek strips that ran from 1979 to 1983 (which you can read more about at the Star Trek Comics Checklist). I wrote an introduction to that first book, and also helped editor Dean Mullaney compile a complete set of strips and proofed all of the pages, which proved to be a true labor of love (please pardon the cliché). This fall, the second volume is due to hit stores.

I'd previously written about these long-overlooked strips for an issue of Star Trek Communicator magazine, back in the late 1990s, following several years' worth of searching and researching. During the early 2000s, I attempted to get them reprinted, first at Pocket Books and later at Wildstorm Comics. Although editors John Ordover and Jeff Mariotte did their best to get Paramount to greenlight reprints, red tape and legal entanglements prevented the project from ever getting off the ground. A decade later, after IDW had already published a long line of Trek titles, I figured I'd try again. IDW's Chris Ryall liked the idea and passed me off to Dean at LOAC, and to my amazement, this time Paramount/CBS offered no obstructions. The reprints were finally a go!

Thomas Warkentin, in writing and illustrating the first eight storylines, demonstrated a keen eye for visuals and an equally strong grasp of Trek's premise, characters and philosophies. His attention to detail was impeccable, his renditions of the crew and technology spot-on, from both writing and art standpoints. From renegade Klingons to Harry Mudd to McCoy's ex-wife, Thomas built upon concepts and characters established in the original series, while creating quite a few cool new characters to boot.

Thanks to Warkentin's considerable talent, as well as a great deal of effort on Dean's part, the first hardcover—collecting all of Thomas' storylines, as well as two others by Sharman DiVono and Ron Harris—turned out amazing. Harris' style, though different from what came before, fit well alongside Warkentin's work. In fact, the artists assisted on each other's runs from time to time, and the results were pretty seamless. As such, that volume had a very consistent tone and quality.

Admittedly, that wasn't the case for the final ten stories, which varied greatly in pretty much every respect. Those new to the strips will find the second reprint book markedly different from the first in tone, style and quality. That's not to say that this batch of strips was inferior, or that fans will enjoy the book any less than they did the first one—on the contrary, several aspects of storylines 11 through 20 were quite fun. And although not always up to Warkentin's high standards, some of the artwork in volume two is quite good. However, with a revolving door of creative teams (after three more stories by DiVono and Harris, the remaining seven tales featured the work of three writers and five artists), maintaining quality control and consistency was no easy task.

I predict that stories #11 and 12, by Harris and DiVono, will rank among fans' favorites from this second collection. The 11th tale featured a machine intelligence called the Omnimind, which grew its numbers by assimilating biological life forms as cyborgs—a full decade before The Next Generation's introduction of the remarkably similar Borg. And in the 12th story, co-written by novelist Larry Niven, DiVono introduced the first licensed sequel to the animated series, bringing back Niven's Kzinti from the episode "Slaver Weapon" and his own Known Space novels.

DiVono and Harris ended their tenure following a brief—but fun—final tale involving Admiral Nogura's nephew. The next three storylines were the most inconsistent of the run, quality-wise, as artists Padraic Shigetani and Bob Myers (who illustrated tales written by Shigetani, Marty Pasko and Gerry Conway, respectively) had styles markedly different from those of their predecessors, and from each other. Whereas Warkentin and Harris both produced artwork decked out with detailed landscapes and ship interiors, Shigetani and Myers each took a minimalist approach, frequently utilizing "floating head" shots and vague or nonexistent backgrounds.

While I can find something to enjoy about all 20 storylines, I think it's fair to say that neither artist's work fared well compared to what Harris and Warkentin had turned in. Thankfully, the second book (and the series as a whole) quickly picked up its steam during the final four storylines, all written by Conway. The first was illustrated by Ernie Colón and Alfredo Alcala, two great talents in the comics world. Unfortunately, Colón quit before the story's completion, with Alcala brought in to finish the assignment, along with someone called Serc Soc (a pseudonym, though no one seems to recall who for). The change in style from one artist to the next is noticeable and somewhat jarring, but the story itself is actually quite fun.

The last chapters, all drawn by cartoonist Dick Kulpa, were thankfully a return to form. Kulpa's stylish, detailed artwork was similar to Warkentin's, while Conway's third and fourth scripts (involving a plague-infected McCoy, followed by Kirk resigning from Starfleet to pursue privateering work) were intelligent and displayed a great mix of humor, action and emotion. As for the final Conway/Kulpa collaboration, I hate to give it away for those who haven't yet read it, but it featured the Enterprise crew traveling back to 20th-century Earth in an alternate universe, to find that they were merely… {{{spoiler alert}}}… characters on a television show called Star Trek.

Someone recently asked me if the post-Warkentin stories were worth reading. My response (as I later related while speaking with Robert Greenberger for his Westfield Comics Blog) was a definite "yes." Despite my criticisms regarding some of the artwork, I love the L.A. Times strips in their entirety, warts and all—so you can imagine my geeky delight at being allowed, for both books, to name the storylines that until now had remained untitled.*

Although Warkentin is often cited as the best of the strips' creators, that's no reason to give up on the series upon reaching the end of his tenure. From the Omnimind to the Kzinti to James T. Kirk, space privateer, the second batch of strips had a lot to offer as well, particularly for those nostalgic for the franchise's early days, when all licensed spinoff writers had to go on were 79 episodes, 22 cartoons, and a film or two. Having seen how the second volume is laid out, I can firmly state that the strips have never looked better—Myers' and Shigetani's artwork is much improved, in fact, thanks to Dean's clean-up work.

Plus, those who pass on volume two will miss out on something extremely cool: newly unearthed strips never before presented in ANY format, as well as a very detailed guide to the entire series, written by yours truly. I can't say more about either at this juncture, but trust me—fans will be happy.

* Thomas Warkentin's widow, Rosie Ford, graciously provided the titles to his stories after consulting the original scripts. I named the untitled tales after his run.

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