On the Very First Star Trek #1

Star Trek (Gold Key) #1 (July 1967)Star Trek has a long history in comics. In fact, the very first Star Trek comic book began in 1967, at the end of the original series’s very first season.

This first series was published by Gold Key, an imprint of Western Publishing founded only five years before, in 1962. Gold Key experimented with the comics format, initially using rectangular word balloons and thought bubbles, to give their comics a sleeker feeling for a new era. Although Gold Key abandoned this, it produced big black-and-white hardcover reprints and slimmer original hardcovers, aiming at the book and department store market in a manner that prefigured the rise of the graphic novel.

Perhaps aiming at this wider audience, the publisher was known for its remarkably array of licensed properties. It’s hard to imagine a better staple of child-oriented fare than characters licensed from Disney (Uncle Scrooge), Warner Bros. (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck), Hannah-Barbera (The Flintstones), and Universal (Woody Woodpecker). But Gold Key also published characters licensed from King Features Syndicate (like Flash Gordon and The Phantom) and plenty of titles drawn from TV, including The Three Stooges, My Favorite MartianRipley’s Believe It or Not, and even The Twilight Zone.

Yes, and also Star Trek.

Gold Key not only began Star Trek in 1967, when the TV show hadn’t even been on the air for a year. But Gold Key kept publishing Star Trek comics after the TV show was canceled in 1969. The comics series continued through the 1973-1974 Star Trek animated series, outlasting it too. Gold Key’s series finally came to an end in 1979 (#61, Mar 1979) — almost a decade after the original series had aired its final episode. The comic wasn’t cancelled due to low sales, but rather because Gold Key lost the Star Trek license to Marvel, on the eve of the first Star Trek movie (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which debuted on 7 Dec 1979).

In comparison, the first original Trek novel (Mack Reynolds’s Mission to Horatius, which featured illustrations by Sparky Moore) was published in 1968. It was the only such novel published while the original series was airing. The next (James Blish’s Spock Must Die!) didn’t appear until 1970. The next appeared in 1976, after the animated series was also off the air. Trek novels have been appearing regularly ever since, often enough to great attention and occasional acclaim.

But Trek comics? They were a part of Star Trek almost from the start.

Most Gold Key covers were painted, helping to make its comics visually distinctive next to the line art of other publishers’ covers. Instead, the first nine issues of Star Trek featured stylish photo-collage covers that were no less distinctive. Particularly successful was the multiple, differently colored Enterprises on the cover of issue #4 (June 1969), with text describing the story inside running across the cover along the same rising line as the ships. So too was the cover for issue #7 (Mar 1970), with a purple Spock gazing upward, while Kirk and Bones stare out from colored trapezoidal panels, joined between them by an orange line like some sort of mod, 1960s light fixture. Beginning with issue #10 (May 1971), Gold Key’s typical painted covers began, although with tiny photos of Kirk and Spock as a visual reminder of the original series (at least until #45, July 1977, when those too disappeared).

Star Trek (Gold Key) #4 (June 1969) Star Trek (Gold Key) #7 (Mar 1970)

In fact, almost everything about the series’s presentation was stylish. The comic didn’t use the original series’s on-screen logo — which wasn’t nearly so iconic then. Instead, the comic had its own version of the Star Trek logo — a jazzy, wild thing that seemed to pivot along a central line, defined by a tiny, silhouetted Enterprise’s route.

Rounding out the comic, in the early issues, was photographic material from the show. In the first issue, for example, the inside front cover presents an image of the Enterprise herself and brief text adapting (sacrilege!) the voice-over heard during the opening titles. It’s a particularly stylish way of recapping the series’s premise (fulfilling the same function Marvel later did with awkward boxes at the top of its comics’ first pages). The inside back cover presented a couple photos along with text about Kirk’s greatness and the crew’s loyalty to him, in the style of a movie photo book. (The text incorrectly states that the ship’s crew numbers into the “thousands.”) The back cover is a rather suggestive image of Kirk, framed on the top and bottom by stylish, angled color swaths.

Star Trek (Gold Key) #1 inside front cover Star Trek (Gold Key) #1 inside back cover Star Trek (Gold Key) #1 back cover

The Gold Key Star Trek stories had a unique format. Running 22-26 pages (a number that diminished over time), each story was broken into two parts (roughly of equal length). This break doesn’t add much, although occasionally it can feel like a representation of a commercial break, as if one is reading two acts out of a half-hour show (which is usually broken into three or even four acts, each separated by a commercial).

Each story also began with a splash page, teasing what would happen later in the tale, before jumping backwards to show how this situation developed. Silver Age DC comics often used this same device, frequently using the opening splash page as a kind of second cover, teasing the drama that was to come. Technically, Gold Key Star Trek comics would abandon the splash page, since it broke that first page up into multiple panels — but these first pages, despite having multiple panels, continued to jump forward in time and tease the story to come until Gold Key’s final issue.

While this device is rooted in comic books, it has a special resonance with Star Trek, which sometimes featured teasers — the brief segment before the title sequence — that were quite shocking and seemed to radically upset the status quo. One example is “The Enterprise Incident” (which aired as episode two of season three), which opens with Kirk, appearing somewhat emotionally disturbed, ordering the ship into the Neutral Zone against Federation law, where the ship’s quickly surrounded by Romulan ships. True, such episodes don’t then flashback to reveal how they got into these extraordinary situations — instead, these details are provided through revelations as the story unfolds, without flashback. Nonetheless, the opening flash-forward page of Gold Key’s Trek comics can, at best, produce some of the same sense of dislocation for the audience that some classic Trek episodes did.

Early Trek stories, outside of the original series, are often fascinating for how different they are from the show — which wasn’t yet considered a beloved touchstone of American culture and certainly wasn’t available on demand for all to see at their convenience. Even the animated series — which was endorsed by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, starred almost the entire original cast as voice actors, and even featured some of the original series writers (such as D. C. Fontana) — took liberties, adding force field belts to avoid animating space suits, casually inserted a holodeck onto Kirk’s Enterprise, and featured an episode (“The Slaver Weapon,” by Larry Niven) that massively rewrote the galaxy’s entire history in ways that would (thankfully) never be mentioned again.

But then again, the original series didn’t see itself as sacred either. Roddenberry refused to pin down when the series was set, preferring to keep it ambiguous, and several inconsistent references resulted. There’s a lot of silliness too — and not just the god-like beings that pop up every few episodes, nor people after Spock’s brain. Indeed, one of the things that separates the original series from its later spin-offs — besides that almost every episode, with a musical signal, goes into hand-to-hand combat mode at some point — is the original series’s humor. Part of the show’s charm was that, for all its intelligence and philosophizing, it never took itself too seriously.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the first Trek comic series differed from the original series we remember (or think we do).

For one thing, the series’s first artist was the Italian artist Alberto Giolitti, who had never viewed the show and used publicity photos as reference. He didn’t have a photo for Scotty (played by James Doohan), so he essentially recast the role!

When artists had to invent a design for a car or a ship from scratch, knowing Star Trek was set in the future, they frequently designed sleek and futuristic vehicles — that often seemed powered by rockets. Such designs seemed to belong more to Gold Key’s Flash Gordon. Vehicle design on Star Trek, while often brilliant, also tended toward the boxy — because physical models of ships had to be glued together, often on the cheap, and filmed. Seeing a sleek hover-car that could be made of glass blows the whole aesthetic.

from Star Trek (Gold Key) #61

Harry Mudd's ship, from the Gold Key series's final issue.

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More importantly, the series often had a somewhat different tone than the original series, and that’s visible even in the first issue. Titled “The Planet of No Return” (although the cover promises “K-G, Planet of Death!”), the tale opens with a splash page, showing crew members battling “a — a giant cannibal plant!” before jumping backwards.

Typical of Gold Key stories, the first page is followed by a Captain’s Log, beginning the actual story. This first one’s a little different. In fact, it doesn’t seem to understand the premise of Star Trek. Kirk narrates that the ship is “carrying out exploration of Galaxy Alpha. So far we’ve seen no exploration of life anywhere in the galaxy…” Of course, the TV show was set in our galaxy (which obviously has plenty of life in it, so it can’t be Galaxy Alpha). Outside of occasional stories featuring highly-advanced civilizations, no one’s bouncing from galaxy to galaxy in the Star Trek universe — much less so casually exploring an entire one, seemingly alone, as this caption suggests. (Of course, plenty of comics writers have confused the galaxy for the universe, so the error’s hardly uni