With STAR TREK returning to the theatres this year, I just can’t resist the temptation to step into the ol’ Wayback Machine and take a look at the first-ever STAR TREK comics, those glorious goofy classics from Gold Key.
First, a word about Gold Key, if I may. A publisher we’ve not discussed much in these parts, Gold Key is probably best known to readers of my generation as the company that published most of the non-superhero fare back in the 1970s. Everything from the PINK PANTHER to BUGS BUNNY to UNCLE SCROOGE to LITTLE LULU bore that familiar Gold Key logo in the upper left corner.
Gold Key was actually an imprint of the much larger Western Publishing, the publisher who created all the content for Dell Comics’ line of books from the 40s until the early 60s. In 1962, Western elected to sever its relationship with Dell and actually publish and distribute their comics to newsstands themselves: hence, the creation of Gold Key. In the late ’70s, Gold Key’s name was changed to “Whitman,” the imprint Western had previously used for coloring books. The company’s most famous publishing innovation was those polybags of three comics they sold at department stores and discount sellers like K-Mart and Pic N Save, sometimes even with comics repurchased from Marvel and DC, with the Whitman logo freshly stuck on the cover.
Eventually, sales would continue to drop, and Whitman would get out of the comics business altogether by the mid 1980s.
Back in Gold Key’s heyday in the mid-to-late ’60s, the publisher supplemented its burgeoning funny-animal line with a large supply of licensed adventure comics. Everything from THE AVENGERS to THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. to THE TWILIGHT ZONE to I SPY saw print as a Gold Key comic, including, starting in 1967, STAR TREK.
The thing was, apparently, the artists on this book, some very talented folks living in Italy, had never actually seen the show, at least when the comics book series started. Not only that, it seems like the writers had never seen the show, either, as when the book began its run in July 1967, some very un-STAR TREK-like things are going on. Now don’t get me wrong: as the series went on, both the writing and the art improved drastically, to such a degree that within a few years, Gold Key was producing some of the best Star Trek comics ever published, stories that very much retained the flavor of the original series without relying on endless sequels to existing episodes. However, some of the stuff in this first issue is just so egregious that I can’t resist having some fun with it here. But bear in mind, things do get much better, as we’ll see down the road.
Let’s take a look at the opening splash from the first issue of Gold Key’s STAR TREK, “The Planet of No Return.” Gold Key offered no creator credits on their comics, so the writer’s name is unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) lost to the ages. As for the art, much of the Gold Key run was illustrated by Alberto Giolitti, although this first issue doesn’t quite look like his work, and has been alternately credited to Nevio Zaccara. So there you go. Anyway, here’s the splash:
What do you notice? Well, for one thing, who the hell are these people? The guy on the right kind of looks like McCoy if you squint hard enough. Otherwise, it’s a mystery. As for the outfits, well, they look more like custodians than Starfleet officers. It is nice to know that Federation-mandated uniforms for women include a lovely red knit cap.
Things begin to look a little more familiar as the story begins, with Spock and an oddly green-shirted McCoy making plans for an exploration party to a newly discovered planet. However, thanks to the Enterprise passing through a mysterious “space fog,” microscopic space spores permeate the ship and infect a couple of guinea pigs, transforming them into, as McCoy puts it, “giant hostile trees!”
A volley of phaser fire makes short work of the creatures, and Spock studies them while Kirk and McCoy head down to the planet, along with Janice Rand and a couple of crewmen, who, despite not wearing the traditional red shirts, have “redshirt” written all over them. As the jumpsuited, backpacked quintet explore the planet, crewman Hunt inhales a big lungful of that same mysterious mist, suddenly transforming him into a plant creature as well.
Before they can react, a giant “cannibal plant” inhales a prodigious breath, sucking the weapons out of their hands and pulling them toward its gaping maw, prompting Captain Kirk to utter his famous catch-phrase: “Howling Comets!”
Luckily for Kirk and company, the transformed Hunt retains enough of his humanity to rip the cannibal plant from the ground by its roots, killing it, before he himself dies of exhaustion. Back on the Enterprise, Spock takes the news of Hunt’s demise rather well, remarking that “Hunt was a great spaceman. We’ll miss him!”
A great spaceman. Oookay.
Throwing caution to the winds, Kirk elects to stay on the surface and explore further, discovering a whole community of bipedal plant dudes. Before they can get any closer, the vegetation all around them springs to life, chasing the quartet into the safety of a nearby cavern, where Dr. McCoy implores Kirk to return to the ship:
“This incredible nation of vegetation.” All of a sudden, Dr. McCoy is channeling Don King. Anyway, Kirk agrees, but before they can beam up, a vine slithers into the cave and snatches away Janice Rand, depositing her into what Kirk and company deduce is some kind of cattle pen, with Janice about to be led to slaughter with all of the other lower animals, fed to the giant trees for sustenance.
Their own “blast guns” ineffective against the thorny fence surrounding the cattle pen, Kirk calls on Spock to fire a “laser beam destruct ray” on the fence, requiring pinpoint accuracy on Spock’s part, or else Janice could be incinerated along with the fence. Naturally, Spock is right on target, but check out the brutality of the blast, focusing on the “anguished cries” of the plant creatures.
Sure, they kidnapped Janice Rand, but this still seems a bit harsh. So the crew manages to get Janice out of there, and Kirk (apparently talking into his tricorder, by the way) gives the order for Spock to beam them back up, adding “Giant trees are trying to germinate us! Hurry!”
Spock gets them back in the nick of time, remarking “Th-thank a thousand star heavens! They made it!”
Spock’s a regular Sammy Sensitive in this issue. Kirk’s ready to make like a tree and leave, but Spock has other ideas. Clearly something must be done about this planet full of sentient life that was just sitting there minding its own business. What’s the solution? Why, naturally, carpet bombing.
Yes, it’s death from above courtesy of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as it torches the planet and all of its leafy green inhabitants from (very) low orbit. I guess that whole Prime Directive thing is really more of a guideline than a rule. Spock’s really into it, too:
Wow. Don’t get on his bad side. I guess he’s still broken up about the death of his buddy the great spaceman.
The funny thing is, this isn’t a bad story at all. It’s just not a Star Trek story. It actually kinda feels like the folks at Gold Key had this sci-fi script lying around for use in one of their science-fiction anthology books, and hurriedly adapted it to their new license to get some product on the racks double-quick.
The good news was, as we’ll see next week, their learning curve was pretty steep, and even the bad stories to come were still some fun books. After all, how often do you get to see Mr. Spock performing voodoo? Come on back next time and check it out.