1. Gold Key Comics (61 issues, 1967-79)
The first company to capture Kirk and crew on the comic page was Gold Key, an imprint created by Western Publishing when it switched from packaging content for Dell Comics to publishing its own titles. Though Gold Key Key produced some fondly remembered original titles (like Magnus, Robot Fighter), licensed characters were its bread and butter and its Star Trek comics shared space on spinner racks with adaptations of such TV shows as Adam-12, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and My Favorite Martian. The comic stories saw the crew boldly exploring new planets just like in the television series, with little in terms of character development or continuity, and the result is a fairly monotonous read if you tackle a stack of them at once. Alberto Giolitti, the main artist for the first half of the run, had never seen the show and relied on photographs to capture the actors’ likenesses; it showed. Al McWilliams, who illustrated most issues from 37 on, was an improvement, but he was given little to work with, with plots that never seemed to take the crew anywhere other than to the next dangerous planet with whack-a-doodle aliens or robots.
Recommended reading: Well, “recommended” might not be the right word… but for a sample, try 9’s “The Legacy of Lazarus,” in which the crew encounters a planet populated by famous figures from Earth’s history and a mysterious person plots to steal Spock’s brain. What, again…?
2. Marvel, Phase I (18 issues + 1 special, 1979-1982)
Gold Key lost several titles to other publishers over the years, and its emphasis on kid-oriented comics at a time when kids were finding other sources of amusement led to its eventual demise. With the new Star Trek movie generating buzz, Paramount went looking for another comic publisher to produce a tie-in series, and Marvel, publisher of a very successful Star Wars comic at the time, was the logical choice. The first Trek movie was adapted in the special, which was chopped up and reprinted in 1-3 of the regular series. This run was by far the poorest of all Trek adaptations, with surprisingly inferior art and scripts from some of Marvel’s biggest names. (It also wasn’t helped by the fact the Enterprise crew members were wearing the same blue pajamas that passed for Starfleet uniforms in the first movie.) Sales reflected the artists’ obvious lack of interest in the project and Paramount pulled the plug in early 1982, just a few months before Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit theatres and revitalized the franchise. D’oh!
Recommended reading: Yeah, let’s not even go there. But for a sense of the insanity in store, check out 11’s “…Like a Woman Scorned!”, which sees the Enterprise menaced by a Scottish witch and the Loch Ness Monster courtesy of one of Scotty’s old flames. Sure, why the hell not?
3. DC, Phase I (56 issues + various specials, 1984-1988)
Because no one held the Trek comic-book rights when Wrath of Khan came out in theatres, it’s the only Trek movie that didn’t inspire a comic book adaptation (at least, not until IDW Publishing rectified that in 2009). Search for Spock’s release in 1984 was a good time for a comic publisher to cash in on Trek-mania, and DC stepped up to the plate. Given the low quality of the two past Trek adaptations, DC’s creators didn’t have to try hard to produce better material… and for the most part they didn’t. It seemed as if getting the likenesses right and preserving the familiar character quirks was all anyone at Trek Central really asked for, and for the most part that’s what readers got. On the other hand, there was a sense of continuity in this series that was lacking in the previous two (Saavik, for instance, filled in as the Enterprise’s science officer while Spock was out of commission), and there were several attempts to bring back classic plots from the original series, like the Mirror Universe Saga (9-16) that brought the evil Enterprise crew from the “Mirror, Mirror” epsiode over into our universe. Another bonus: issues that finally put individual crew members in the spotlight, like the flashback to Uhura’s first mission after her assignment to the Enterprise, or the story of Scotty’s first great love. The writing improved significantly after Peter David signed on, with interstellar intrigue and crew spotlights sharing space with attempts on Kirk’s life and a telepathically induced stroll through Dante’s Inferno.
Recommended reading: David’s run from 48-56 is the best of the series, and anyone looking for the first story about how the Enterprise’s original five-year mission ended should check out the second annual. But for something a little more fun, check out prolific Trek author Diane Duane’s attempt at some comedy relief in 24-25, a howlingly funny tale that borrows a page from the classic The Mouse That Roared.
4. DC, Phase II (TOS: 80 issues, 6 annuals, various specials and graphic novels; TNG: 80 issues, 6 annuals, various specials, 1989-1996)
DC ended its first Trek series in the fall of 1988, then started anew (after the requisite licensing re-negotiations with Paramount) just under a year later, following the release of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. It was a good time to be in the Trek business; the franchise was gearing up for its 25th anniversary and TNG, after a halting first season, was starting to hit its stride. DC released its ongoing TOS and TNG series at the same time; Peter David continued scripting TOS while Michael Jan Friedman (no stranger to the Trek ‘verse, with dozens of novels to his credit) tackled TNG. Things start out fine with both titles, and if there’s any fault to be found in them it’s that the captains tended to get centre stage at the expense of the rest of their crews (this was especially the case for the first dozen issues of TOS, which led up to a story arc in which Kirk was put on trial, an attempt to hold him accountable for some of his questionable decisions during the original series). While his dialogue wasn’t as sharp as David’s, Friedman showed a good understanding of TNG’s tone and characterization, and fans of either TOS or TNG are well-served by pretty much any of the stories in both series’ 80-issue run.
Recommended reading: For the TOS series, the already mentioned “Trial of James T. Kirk” story arc comes to mind; for TNG, check out 20-24, in which some crew members are lost in space and believed dead, and 47-50, a follow-up to “The Best of Both Worlds” that finds the Enterprise in an alternate dimension where Picard was never rescued from the Borg and his crew are among the few living beings left to challenge the all-consuming race.
5. Malibu Comics (32 issues, 2 annuals, various specials and mini-series, 1993-95)
Founded in 1986, Malibu was one of the bigger small publishers during the early 1990s, and it was best known for both its tightly connected Ultraverse line of superhero books and its many movie/TV/video game tie-ins. In the summer of 1993, it acquired the rights to publish books based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which premiered in January of that year. Why DC passed on the chance to add another Trek series to its stable — or why, for that matter, Paramount took a chance on a much smaller publisher at a time when it was hard to sort the reliable publishers from the other guys — is a a good question, but it must have seemed like a good business decision at the time. Like many other series from the ’90s, Malibu’s Deep Space Nine offered up several marketing gimmicks, including holographic and foil-embossed covers, to encourage collectors to stock up and completists to buy multiple copies of each issue; we know how that turned out. Gimmickry aside, the stories maintained a baseline consistency that fans of the show ought to appreciate, and all cast members were given equal opportunity to be in the spotlight.
Recommended reading: The four-issue Hearts and Minds mini-series is heads and shoulders above any of the stories in the regular series, with Klingons, Cardassians and Romulans all over the place. Even Morn gets in on the action. Morn!
6. Marvel, Phase II (93 issues spanning several series, annuals and specials, 1996-98)
Marvel re-entered the Trek universe by acquiring Malibu Comics in November 1994, around the time the North American comic industry was imploding and taking most small publishers down with it. Shortly after Malibu lost the Trek license, Marvel and Paramount co-launched a slew of Trek titles in the fall of 1996, just in time to mark the franchise’s 30th anniversary. Things didn’t get off to a great start; to the dismay of Trek purists, the first issue to appear under the new Marvel/Paramount imprint featured a highly illogical team-up between the TOS crew and the ’90s-era X-Men team. Things got better, though. Along with series and specials starring crew crew members from all four Trek series, Marvel also published Starfleet Academy, an ongoing series about the adventures of DS9’s Nog and his fellow cadets at Starfleet Academy. Anyone expecting heart-pounding tales about study groups and final exams will be disappointed, as the motley group of young go-getters find themselves embroiled in all kinds of interstellar hi-jinks (“The Jem’Hadar are invading Talos IV! Captain Pike, help us!”). Sadly, Marvel’s financial difficulties in the late ’90s resulted in them losing the Trek license, an act that happened so quickly it left several storylines dangling in midair.
Recommended reading: “An Infinite Jest” in Star Trek Unlimited 7 teams up TNG’s Q and TOS’s Trelane for a tale that should entertain those who enjoy debating which is the better Enterprise captain, while the Mirror, Mirror one-shot reveals what happened to the mirror-universe Enterprise crew immediately following events in the classic TOS “Mirror, Mirror” episode. But for sheer corporate chutzpah, it’s hard to top the two X-Men crossover issues, which must be seen to be believed.
7. WildStorm Comics (29 issues, 1999-2001)
The same industry turmoil that saw Malibu bought up by Marvel also sent WildStorm, one of the founding studios behind Image Comics, into DC’s corporate arms in 1999, right before the smaller publisher snatched up the Trek licensing rights. Unlike previous publishers, WildStorm decided not to push ahead with any ongoing series and instead offered up a number of one-shots and mini-series, a move that allowed the company more flexibility in bringing different creators and concepts together. Poor sales led to WildStorm scaling back production plans in 2001 and its contract with Paramount wasn’t renewed. In total, WildStorm published 29 Trek comics, including two hardcover graphic novels and three collections of their one-shots and mini-series; it was also the first to publish a comic based on Star Trek: New Frontier, a series of novels by Peter David that followed the adventures of a brand-new starship crew that was exploring an unknown sector of space.
Recommended reading: Given WildStorm’s approach to publishing its Trek books, finding good stories and art together is a hit-and-miss affair. Most books are entertaining enough, though the already mentioned New Frontier book features a little more overwrought philosophizing than necessary, and the mediocre art in TNG: The Gorn Crisis makes it hard to justify the hardcover’s $29.95 price tag. For a better example of good artwork, VOY: Avalon Rising provides some lovely tableaux, while the four-issue TNG: Perchance to Dream offers a well-paced adventure with a smidgen of social commentary.
8. Tokyopop (four anthologies, 2006-2009)
Founded in Los Angeles in 1997, Tokyopop was one of the biggest manga publishers based outside Japan, and as such it helped popularize manga and anime among Western readers throughout the 2000s. Given the large number of fans of both Trek and manga, it’s no surprise the company came out with a TOS manga anthology in 2006 to commemorate the show’s 40th anniversary; two more TOS books and a TNG edition followed in subsequent years. The company’s 2011 shutdown of its North American publishing operations (a German office still produces German-language publications) makes a fifth anthology unlikely… but you never know.
Recommended reading: It’s hard to recommend one book over another, as each volume contains several stories that vary greatly in quality. Also, I find manga is one of those things you’re either into or you aren’t… but if you’re someone who doesn’t mind a bit of manga with your Trek, there are a few stories worth checking out. Wil Wheaton’s “Art of War” in the third volume (Uchu), about Kirk and a Klingon commander forced to cooperate in a perilous situation, feels like it could play as one of the better TOS television scripts. Similarly, Diane Duane’s “Sensation” in the TNG anthology offers up a solid mystery that stays true to the best of the TNG series.
9. IDW Publishing (approx. 120 issues to date, 2006-present)
And that brings us to IDW, the current keeper of the Trek comic flame. IDW acquired its license to publish Trek in the fall of 2006 and began publishing comics cover-dated January 2007, tying them in with the franchise’s 40th anniversary. Like Gold Key, IDW found success in publishing books based on popular media properties, like CSI, Transformers and G.I. Joe, so it’s not surprising to see them in the Trek business as well. Unlike Gold Key, though, IDW’s Trek books have the advantage of being created by people with an obvious knowledge of the Trek universe, and the stories they tell are definitely not intended for juvenile minds. IDW also took a page from WildStorm’s playbook and focuses mostly on one-shots and mini-series, though it’s coming out with an ongoing series based on characters from the 2009 Star Trek movie… and also a crossover between Star Trek and DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which should prove to be almost as interesting as the Trek/X-Men collaborations. Or, as Spock and/or Brainiac 5 might say, “Fascinating.”
Recommended reading: I haven’t made my way through all of IDW’s offerings yet, but I have to give them props for coming up with intriguing angles on well-established characters, like Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor, a mini-series that sees everyone’s favorite country doctor saving lives far from the Enterprise sickbay. Mirror Images, detailing how the mirror-universe Kirk first gained command, looks promising, too. One series I can recommend: Countdown, the unofficial prequel to the 2009 Trek film that sheds some light on Nero’s history, and why he’s so hellbent on revenge against Spock and the Federation. A shame they couldn’t shoehorn these details into the movie; it would have made a lot more sense to those of us who wondered why Romulan mining ships would pack that much firepower.