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Friday, July 22, 2016

Cover Story - Top 15 Star Trek Covers

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So, today’s the day, the release of Star Trek Beyond.  I’ll have already seen it by the time this article goes up but for now consider me psyched, especially because a lot of people I trust are telling me it’s great.  For now, though, I thought we’d celebrate Star Trek one more time before the new film’s release as, after all, this is the 50th anniversary of the series; that’s worth doing something special.  

So, I dug through dozens of old issues to bring you the top 15 Star Trek covers from across the multitude of Trek comics that have been published over the years.  For this list, I’m sticking to covers featuring the original series crew, but there’s still a lot to get to so, let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 15 Star Trek comic covers. 

Well, this is an amazing start, coming from the DC Comics run that emerged from the success of the Original Series movie run.  That’s why the costumes on hand for this one are most similar to the red uniforms that premiered in Wrath of Khan and ended up defining the visual flair of this era of Trek.  Same thing with the Phaser design for Spock, which broad flat barrel is emblematic of this era, adopting a more mechanical look than the TOS phasers or the softer, less gun oriented design of TNG.

A cool element of this cover is the way it works to find similarities between the comics medium and the lexicon of Star Trek, in this case, diving into the common ground of evil duplicates.  Star Trek and DC Comics both came up with the idea of an evil mirror-verse around the same time in the ‘60s so giving us a hideous monster version of Spock.  Spock was the original series most popular and merchandisable member so having weird stuff like this go down with him was pretty common. 

Even though the physicality of the heroes here is a little suspect, especially regarding the way the shadows are cast, I love the way the energy blast is visualized.  What’s more, the monster design on Thing-Spock is superb, with those giant hand claws as a particular stand out.  I don’t know what it is about giant claws, but they’re always so creepy.

This cover goes all the way back to the Gold Key Comics era of Star Trek, a now defunct publisher from the ‘60s.  This book was published during the same era as the original series, hence the era-appropriate pictures of Kirk and Spock in the top corner along with that mocking 20 cents sticker.  

Additionally, that’s why the costumes are drawn from the TOS era but also why the design of the cover is much more in line with literary illustrations.  Specifically, the color blending on hand makes the color look a lot more painted than inked, which was common with a lot of pulp magazines through the ‘50s. 

A for the content this kind of stuff was extremely common to the original series era of Trek.  The thing people forget about Trek of the ‘60s is that this was a time when the aesthetic definitions of sci-fi were still very free flowing.  Nowadays we have stuff like Star Wars to set hard and firm definitions on what constitutes science fiction stories, but back then you could throw in Roman gladiators, gangsters, lizard men, and even Abe Lincoln, and it still counted as sci-fi.  

In this case, we’ve got the most adorably well-wrapped group of mummies I’ve ever seen.  I especially like that one in the back who’s just giving it to some poor red shirt.  No idea why Spock is wearing a red shirt today, though, maybe he just wanted to taunt fate.  

For those not in the know, that character alongside Spock in this amazing cover is Saavik, a Vulcan cadet who first appeared in Wrath of Khan.  If you weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to realize how much Wrath of Khan pretty much saved Star Trek.  

It was a massive hit for the franchise exactly when they needed it most, especially in the wake of The Motion Picture’s tepid response.  It was that success that launched this whole line of comics as it proved there was still interest in the franchise and that it could be merchandised to a new generation. 

As for this cover, this is a superb example of detail without clutter, possibly the most well-realized image I’ve ever showcased here.  The design is a perfect foreground background split, with Spock and Saavik as our foremost visuals punctuated by their red uniforms and position and the focal point of the image.  

However, the background is still incredibly well realized.  Nothing is phoned in or reliant on block colors to make it interesting, everything from the fire to the wreckage to the control panel is full realized and detailed.  It’s a complete whole and ends up just incredibly evocative and warmly memorable as a result. 

And a tie for the number 12 spot that also gives us our first look at the Marvel Star Trek comics.  Since they’re the new one of this run let’s start with Marvel; their line of Trek books started in the wake of The Motion Picture, which is why, if you squint, you can make out the cerulean uniforms that informed that film.  It had lasted for a time before DC took over the license when Wrath of Khan proved a major hit.  

As for this cover, it’s delightful.  The “giant monster attacks the Enterprise” set-up wasn’t that common for the original series, mainly owing to budgetary limitations of the time, but that’s what comics are for.  I like that the giant monster is like an evil, toothy worm, that’s particularly creepy to me.  Also, that character logo in the bottom left with the speech balloons is about as classic comic cover as you can get.

DC’s take on this same idea is a lot sleeker and more modern, with the inter-title of the storyline being the sole punctuation on the page.  The Design of the Enterprise is a lot different too, with this look at the ship sporting a slim, chrome white design compared to the multi-light look of Marvel’s ship.  

What sells this one for me though I the monster design.  There’s something about the very Phoenix inspired look of this spectral bird that’s deeply evocative, and the fact that this is a sequel story to an old original series episode certainly helps. 

Yep, Christmas issue, because of course there’s Christmas in space in the distant future where almost all religion has been abandoned; why wouldn’t there be?  This is another follow-up to an old episode, or rather a continuation of an old episode character in the form of Harry Mudd.  

He’s the fat, Dirk Dastardly looking the dude in the bottom right dressed like Admiral Crunch for no apparent reason.  He popped up some times in the original series as a space scalawag and scoundrel causing trouble for the Enterprise team.  I have no idea how he got the magic of Christmas, but that does seem like something he’d do.

Actually, despite the obvious holiday parallels I’m not totally sure, that’s the point of this issue.  There were Trek holiday comics and even a Halloween episode of the original series, but this might just be a shrinking story.  

Like, aside from the toy soldiers the rest of the visual like the crayons and jester puppet seem to imply getting shrunk in a child’s bedroom rather than being attack by the unbridled magic of the holiday season.  Either way, it certainly makes you sit up and take notice.

Back to the Marvel covers for this one and, as you can hopefully see, the cerulean uniforms are even more pronounced in this cover.  I don’t know why the uniforms were so heavily redesigned for Star Trek The Motion Picture but they’re honestly some of the lesser uniforms Trek has featured, with the weird color scheme and loose fitting colors being an awkward fit for the material.  As for this cover, it’s not as technically proficient as a lot of the DC ones, but it’s certainly out there in the actual content. 

I haven’t read this issue, so I have no idea what this little gnome is doing or why there’s a giant bat coming at him (seriously, the bat is visibly bigger than Kirk’s head, or maybe that’s a foreshortening flub), but this is pretty great.  While the original Trek show general averted overt fantasy elements the animated show that popped up in the ‘70s ended up totally embracing them, with episodes about Quetzalcoatl and Satan.  

I like to think that kind of shenanigans is what this cover is trying to reference, even though the face work on Spock and Kirk is lackluster.  Seriously, if you didn’t know that was Kirk on the right thanks to the dialogue you’d totally think he was just some anonymous crewmen. 

Well, this is certainly different, and not just for the obvious reasons.  So, the situation is another follow-up to the original series, though in this case it also ties into the animated series making it a double whammy of Trek goodness.  

That giant stone donut Kirk and Klingons are standing in front of is the Guardian on the Edge of Forever, a massive alien structure on some anonymous planet that allows people to travel into the past.  The Guardian is a sentient time portal with a mind of its own and even the ability to speak to visitors.  It was first featured in the original series episode ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ and then again in the animated episode ‘Yesteryear.’

Despite being one of the coolest Trek concepts the Guardian rarely shows up in modern Trek canon.  It’s one of those cool original series ideas like the Doomsday Machine or Jack the Ripper entity that a lot of modern Trek has bizarrely turned its back on so I’m super glad to see its return.  

Presumably, this particular story is tied to temporal meddling, hence why Kirk is chilling with these Klingon bastards, even though these designs are some of the better renderings of the Klingons.  It is a shame they’re wielding swords instead of bat’leths, but there’s probably a temporal explanation for that. 

Oh, my god, that pun is terrific, and a superbly crafted cover to go with it too.  So if you’re not familiar with this particular joke, one of the reoccurring phrases that became emblematic of Star Trek as a whole but the original series especially was “He’s dead Jim.”  

It was most associated with the ship’s Doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, mainly because DeForest Kelley was a lovable codger who said it with the most endearing conviction imaginable.  The joke of this cover is that it swap he for you’re, change the subject of the remark to the person most often to here it: Captain Kirk. 

It’s a great little in-joke for the franchise that would be cool on its own but back sup a terrific cover.  The minimalist design of here is outstanding, with the black background fitting the somber nature of the event but Jim’s giant floating ghost putting something of a clown nose on it.  

I’m not terribly sure about the foreshortening here, like how Spock and Jim seem to be the same height even though Kirk is lying down, but I’m willing to forgive that for reasons of ghost Kirk.  I like the idea that in the Star Trek universe turning into a ghost means your lower half turns into a cloud; that’s some classic ghost stuff right there.

I’m not sure how this particular cover is meant to fit into the continuity of the comics, but it’s damn evocative regardless.  This is still in the DC comics line, which should mean Kirk is older and dressed in the red dress uniform, so my best bet is that this is a flashback issue.  

If that is the case, it’s a pretty poor match for the “final mission” inter-title, but it’s all superfluous because this cover is awesome.  I’m wary of Trek artwork that works the Star Fleet insignia into the visual design but in this case, it makes sense and fits with the shipwrecked vibe of the cover. 

This kind of thing was a pretty common occurrence in the original series, with characters ending up lost on some random planet with no means of communication pretty much every other episode.  

This cover takes that premise and doubles down on the castaway visual metaphors while also stripping the set-up of any of the whimsy or outlandishness that tended to accompany this kind of scenario.  It’s a harsh cover down to its most basic elements and one that centrally aims to subvert the classic tropes of Trek, right down to Kirk’s torn shirt. 

Fun fact for all the Next Generation fans reading this; before that show’s season 1 finale, this is what the Romulans looked like in the post-TOS canon.  Yeah, if you’re a more casual Trek fan, the series transition from cult TV show to blockbuster film series brought with a seriously enhanced budget that allowed Roddenberry and fellow creators to realize a much more alien design for their various races.  

That’s why the Klingons gained the head ridges and heavy metal costumes in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  However, earlier make-up constraints had kept the original series from ever really showcasing the Romulans, so they didn’t premiere in the 1980s film series, staying absent from the franchise till the TNG era where they didn’t look anything like this. 

Overall, these are honestly the best visually designs for both the Klingons and Romulans.  On the Klingon side, you’ve got the same clothing aesthetic that worked so well throughout the TNG/DS9/VOY era, but the copper coloring makes them more distinct and less overtly evil.  

For the Romulans, I like the more armored look, and the green and yellow color scheme is much more visually striking than their weird gray shoulder pads look from TNG.  Also, the guy in the center of this comic is supposed to be Kirk, just thought I’d say that in case his weird and hideous visage rendered him unrecognizable. 

From a really poor rendering of actor likeness to a perfect one, this is a quintessential cover to epitomizing the Star Trek of the ‘80s.  Partially, the visual design and color use is spot on, with Sulu, Spock, and McCoy all rendered perfectly here and the red costumes looking the best they ever have.  

What sells it as a representation of the ‘80s film series, though, is the tone and emphasis.  The thing people forget about the 1980s series is that it’s the point where Trek transition from pulp sci-fi to space opera, with an emphasis on the operatic. 

There had always been a flare for over the top dramatics in the original series, but the new films put the drama of the characters, their ideology, and their personal struggle front and center.  Big, dramatic character emotions and moments are the lifeblood of the original film series, that’s why Kirk’s cry of “Khan!” is the epitome of that moment in Trek history.  

This cover is such a perfect visualization of that idea, drawing on styles of gothic horror and romance and mixing it with a scarred and shattered landscape that reflects the characters and situation perfectly.  It’s a beautiful cohesion of visual metaphor and literal reality. 

Okay, I don’t have anything to confirm this, but I’m fairly certain the creepy giant blue dude on this cover is Charlie X, partially because he looks like him and partially because Charlie was exactly the kind of an omnipotent jerk to start throwing the Enterprise crew around like playthings.  

Seriously, the original series was rife with omnipotent beings that would make the crew dance for them, usually to force Kirk or whomever to logic their way out of the situation.  That’s part of why this cover works so well as a blend of ‘80s Trek and ‘60s Trek. 

The visual design of this scene is horrific, the crew scurrying about in the clutches of some leering mad God, some of them visibly falling to their hideous doom, it’s a more aware visual of what happened all the time in the original series.  

I think that some of these crewmen are meant to be actual bridge crew officers rather than just anonymous red shirts, but the faces are far too small to tell.  Even still, it’s a pretty great use of Star Trek’s limitless potential to feature a cover that would usually play as a metaphor but here make it entirely literal.

This is the second comic I’ve come across to feature the Enterprise meeting Satan and third appearance in Star Trek overall.  Seriously, how can you not love this cover, it’s the most overt Satan imaginable looming over the Enterprise in the depths of space.  My big question is how did Satan get into the vastness of space, followed quickly by how did he get so huge?  

Seriously, there’s a planet under his forearm that’s smaller than his fist, implying he’s about ½ the size of the solar system.  Maybe that’s meant to be perspective, but it’s not very clear if that’s the case. Also, it’s Satan so he can probably warp gravity however he pleases.

Despite the weird goofiness of the Prince of Darkness just floating in space waiting to pose in bizarre manners nearby the Enterprise (seriously, what’s he doing with his hands?) this does fit some of the core themes of the '60s and ‘70s Trek.  In the original series, the crew faced down a bizarre, monstrous entity that possessed men and claimed to be behind the Jack the Ripper killings while in the animated series the team met Satan and fought the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, as mentioned earlier.  

All of these encounters were part of the running theme of science and logic trumping superstition and fear so I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out this bad boy was just a hologram.  Still, he could just be the real Satan, and this is the issue where McCoy finally sells his soul (of course it’d be him.)

See, told you McCoy would be the one to sell his soul, and now here he is banished to some harsh alien moon, at least I assume it’s the moon otherwise that looming planet is infinitely too close for legitimate survival.  

I really wonder how Bones is surviving on this planet gave he doesn’t have any environmental gear, but maybe there’s an atmosphere here sustained by the jagged gray wastes.  This is another great example of what I was talking about earlier with how well it epitomizes the character focus and operatic tones of the 1980s Star Trek era. 

The central visual here is defined by our empathy and knowledge of the character rather than the insanity of the visual if this weren't McCoy being abandoned by the Enterprise it’d be strange and maybe even inspiring rather than cold and somber.  I like the inter-title set-up here, which feels very retro in its design.  

That much text formatted in that manner on a cover or poster image was the thing to do back when.  Incidentally, inter-titles, I’m pretty sure McCoy looks so unhappy is because he’s been left stranded on a barren planet by his friends and comrades, that’s enough to make anyone grumpy, and he’s already pretty grumpy as is.

Damn I love this cover.  Seriously, no snark, this is the best vision of 1980s Trek and the idea of converting the mythos from pulpy low-budget TV show to blockbuster space drama.  There’s just something perfect about the structure and color of this imagery; it’s beautifully hopeless in its way.  

The visual design of the crew defending their tattered flag on this tiny, rocky hill is iconic in its right, but the addition of the shady silhouette color design creates a visage of anonymity that’s deeply striking.  It’s a clever use of the audience’s awareness to make a point: we know who all these people are, their intricate stories and life experiences, we care, but to someone who didn’t know they’d look anonymous, everymen without a face or a life. 

The cresting Enterprise overhead is another great addition, emphasizing the closeness and power of the ship while the inter-titles highlight its complete helplessness here.  I mean, it’s the “Last Stand,” those don’t usually come with last minute reprieves.  That promise of death and inevitability is another major strength of the cover as it reflects those same themes from the films of the time.  

This was an era dominated by the grim reality of death, the encroaching fears of irrelevance and the unstoppable march of time, of a universe that was changing and not necessarily for the better, this cover captures all of that and more in a single, beautiful image. 

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