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Star Trek (Marvel Comics, 1979) #1-3 – The Motion Picture (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

What better way to announce the arrival of Star Trek at Marvel Comics than with an adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Initially published as a giant Marvel Super-Size issue, the adaptation was subsequently split across the opening three issues of Marvel’s ill-fated Star Trek monthly.

It is worth noting that the franchise’s initial association with Marvel was relatively brief, with the Star Trek monthly series only lasting eighteen issues from 1979 through to 1982. In 1982, the Star Trek comic book franchise moved to DC Comics, where it remained until the nineties. Things became a bit more complicated at that stage, but it was a long-term relationship.

Still, in 1979, Marvel became the second company to publish monthly comics based around the Star Trek license. However, they were a substantially more impressive operation than Gold Key Comics, the previous license-holder. For example, this adaptation of The Motion Picture comes from some very talented creators, and its publication was treated as something of an event.

The light at the end of the tunnel...

The light at the end of the tunnel…

The pedigree of the talent working on this adaptation is quite striking. Writer Marv Wolfman was among the most influential and impressive comic book creators of the seventies and eighties. At this point in his career, Wolfman was coming off a celebrated run on The Tomb of Dracula with artist Gene Colan; the title remains one of the best-loved horror comics ever published by Marvel. In the decade ahead, Wolfman would write the popular New Teen Titans series and the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover at DC comics; two massive iconic and important comics books.

The artwork on this adaptation comes from Dave Cockrum and Klaus Janson. Cockrum was finishing up his work with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men, a magazine that was a game-changer for monthly comic books. Klaus Janson is one of the most prolific and respected inkers working in the business. In short, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is being adapted by some very safe pairs of hands, and by some very talented creators.

Into the void...

Into the void…

It’s interesting how well The Motion Picture works in the comic book medium. Part of that is down to the fact that comics lend themselves to the same sort of pulpy pseudo-profundity that underpins the film. Comics have a delightfully over-the-top aesthetic that lends itself to stories about old NASA satellites embarking on a quest to find God. After all, Wolfman is able to bookend the adaptation with the old chestnut “And God said let there be light…”, a choice that is undoubtedly cliché and melodramatic, but one that seems in tune with the story it is adapting.

One of the problems with The Motion Picture as a film is a sense that it is taking itself far too seriously. Almost ashamed of the pulpy high adventure of the show, the movie feels like an attempt to adapt 2001: A Space Odyssey. So we get long lingering shots of special effects and kaleidoscopic imagery, all wrapped up in profound and weighty existential questions about the meaning of existence and life and the universe and everything.

One small step for man...

One small step for man…

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of weight and profundity, but The Motion Picture is essentially the story of a hyper-advanced piece of NASA hardware that lays siege to Earth. It can’t really support the same dramatic weight associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the film occasionally feels like it’s trying just a little bit too hard. It’s not having a lot of fun with the concept. In contrast, Wolfman seems perfectly in tune with the source material. He pitches The Motion Picture as an old-school science-fiction spectacle, with a healthy dose of wry awareness.

The pacing is a lot tighter here, as well. Although much of the dialogue is repeated verbatim from the script, Wolfman does shift the focus a bit. He knows what the emphasis of the script should be. V’ger is an absolutely absurd creation, and the real lure of The Motion Picture is seeing the Enterprise crew reuniting to save mankind. There are a number of ways in which the comic stresses this point.

A beacon...

A beacon…

The most obvious is the fact that there are no double-page spreads of V’ger itself. The comic doesn’t give V’ger scale. Even the introductory sequence is kept tight and controlled. In contrast, the launch of the Enterprise is given plenty of room. The Enterprise leaving Earth is treated as the big event of the story – the mystery of V’ger itself is secondary. It’s the plot that spurs the crew to action, rather than an end of itself.

Wolfman is one of the strongest character-based storytellers working at Marvel in the seventies; second only to Chris Claremont, to whom he would frequently be compared while writing New Teen Titans in the eighties. The plotting of this adaptation is secondary to the character beats. Consider Spock’s return to the Enterprise. We get a nice scene of Spock interacting with his old crew mates, but he doesn’t share the reason for his return. Kirk deals with that in clumsy exposition in the following scene. “Mr. Spock, you reported that you felt strong emanations as if from a group of minds. Could you make out any plan?”

Station-keeping...

Station-keeping…

Indeed, Spock’s journey is primarily defined in terms of Spock himself, rather than V’ger. Explaining his fascination with the entity, Spock states that V’ger “… is [his] only hope of accomplishing what the masters could not” and purging himself of all emotion. McCoy is more horrified by the idea that Spock wants to become less emotional than he is by Spock’s fascination with the creature.

“My God, Spock, even if you achieve perfect logic, you’ll pay a price,” he protests. “It’s given your planet peace, but no art, no music, no poetry…” Of course, that doesn’t quite fit with Vulcan culture as established in the franchise, both before and after the film in question, nor is it an entirely reasonable argument, but it makes it clear that Wolfman sees the drama of The Motion Picture as rooted in the characters more than the alien entity of the week.

Again with the Klingons!

Again with the Klingons!

Similarly, the plot is anchored on Kirk himself, with a strong fixation on Kirk’s emotional attachment to the Enterprise. (Ironically enough, this element is downplayed in Roddenberry’s own novelisation of the film.) Wolfman indulges in some gloriously purple prose that manages to convey Kirk’s sense of longing for the ship. “Then, all at once, Kirk sees it, and a thousand unnameable emotions swell up within him,” we’re told. “The awe, the wonder, the romance, the obsession fill his heart once again.”

Later, Wolfman narrates, “Amidst a hundred separate orders, Kirk breathes deeply, relishing this long-awaited moment. This is where he was meant to be… this what he was meant to do!” While The Motion Picture is very much a romance about the limitless wonder of outer space, Wolfman’s adaptation is very much about the romance of the human condition – the joy of these characters reunited again, as they were meant to be.

Down the wormhole...

Down the wormhole…

It also helps that Wolfman’s script is a good deal pacier than the film itself. Not only are we spared pages of long tracking shots or exposition, Wolfman has a wonderful sense of where to cut a scene. Locations shift rapidly during the comic, with Wolfman stripping out a lot of the extraneous material in order to condense the film into three issues. This does mean losing some of the scope of Robert Wise’s vision, but the result is a version of The Motion Picture that feels a lot tighter and more enjoyable.

The adaptation of The Motion Picture is a highly enjoyable piece of work, and a demonstration of just how effective Star Trek comics can be. It’s a much leaner version of the source material, but it’s also completely unashamed of its own pulpy qualities. That is quite endearing.

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2 Responses

  1. I am a long-time fan of both Dave Cockrum and Klaus Janson, but I do not think their styles were necessarily a good match for one another. Cockrum, who was a HUGE fan of Star Trek, was initially very much looking forward to drawing this series, but then he became disappointed & unhappy with Janson’s inking. As Cockrum himself commented on the Nightscrawlers message board back in 2006:

    “I don’t want to say anything against Klaus Janson’s work, because I admire him tremendously–but having said that, I agree that he’s not compatible with every penciler. He doesn’t work well with me, nor John Buscema, either. At the time, I asked for a different inker, but the editor couldn’t see that there was anything wrong and refused to change.”

    Someone such as Bob Wiacek, Bob McLeod, Josef Rubinstein, or Terry Austin would have been a much better fit for Cockrum on the Star Trek comic book, at least in my opinion.

    • I kinda liked Janson’s heavy inking, if only because it made it feel like a pulpy comic book, which I think worked well for The Motion Picture. This is probably my favourite version of the story. That said, I think you’re right that it’s probably not a good long-term fit for Cockrum’s style.

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