Thank you, Doug Drexler, for trying to save the Gold Key comics

Doug Drexler tells a great story about the Gold Key Star Trek comics. The man who would go on to become a noted makeup artist, scenic artist, illustrator, and visual effects expert on TNG, Voyager, DS9, Enterprise and five Trek films was working at the Federation Trading Post in the mid-70s. The New York store was a mecca for Trekkies in the early days of fandom. It printed its own posters, made uniforms, and sold outfits to Saturday Night Live for its Star Trek spoof.

Drexler talked about Gold Key on The Inglorious Treksperts podcast:

The Gold Key guys came strutting in one day. They were only across the street from us, and they were coming in to be big shots. About a half hour before they came in, we were using them as an example of how wrong [Star Trek products] could go. So they came in and said, “We do the Gold Key comics!” and we burst out laughing. We couldn’t help it. We told them, as gently as we could, what was wrong with their comics.

Gold Key published 61 Star Trek comics between 1967 and 1979, although a few were reprints. They are highly prized now for their kitsch value but, as Drexler said, there was a lot wrong with the books. The plots were silly, the characters were nothing like what we saw on TV, and the details were always incorrect; flames squirted from the shuttle deck and the nacelles, the look of the bridge and the transporter room were just made up, Scotty was often drawn as a tall blond guy, and his name was misspelled as Slott on the cover of issue 55. It is said that the two artists who drew the early issues both lived in Italy and had never seen the show.

Back in the ‘70s, though, there was almost no Star Trek merchandise, so the comics were popular, and collecting comics is a lot of fun. I was actually sorry when I completed my collection.

I have always been interested in the story behind these books, so I was pleased when well-known comic writer Len Wein was scheduled to appear in Toronto for a convention in 2009. Wein wrote eight issues for Gold Key and I could finally ask someone about those days. I had him autograph The Legacy of Lazarus (#9) and The Enterprise Mutiny (#14).

Sadly, though, he didn’t have a lot to say about his time at Gold Key. Perhaps he didn’t enjoy those years; he went on to bigger things, including co-creating Swamp Thing at DC and reviving the X-Men franchise at Marvel. I walked away from his table not knowing any more than when I arrived.

Wein died in 2017 and, while Swamp Thing is definitely the height of his career, his Star Trek work wasn’t bad. Issue 9 is about a planet full of androids made in the images of Earth celebrities, and 14 is a good story about a Klingon plot to replace Kirk with a lookalike operative. A clever Spock foils the plot, but the end is marred slightly by a repeat of the scene in Whom Gods Destroy in which Spock is holding a phaser on two identical Kirks. The obvious solution is to stun them both but, as in the episode, Spock guesses which is real and shoots the other one.

A few years after Wein’s work, Drexler’s criticism caused the Gold Key guys to basically say “Oh yea, you think you can do better?” And yes, he did. Drexler wrote down some ideas and ended up with a story consultant credit on two issues.

This Tree Bears Bitter Fruit, #47, is an interesting story about energy beings who destroy matter for food. There is a mysterious old man who controls the beings, but his plot line is dropped following a convoluted fight between Kirk and the energy beings. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but it doesn’t really have to. It’s fun. And the artwork and characterization are far more accurate than in the early days. There are also nice callbacks to the Organians and The Lights of Zetar, and a recreation of the salad scene from The Corbomite Maneuver. Those came from Drexler.

But even he could only do so much: Scotty is shown seated at the transporter console, a surprised Kirk exclaims “Great galaxies!” and the tricorders are huge and bright pink.

Issue 48, Murder on the Enterprise, is a fairly standard whodunit but it’s entertaining. Drexler salts the story liberally with references for fans. Kirk mentions his time as a lieutenant on the Farragut (Obsession), Spock says a scientist made his reputation studying the silicone-based life on Janus IV (The Devil in the Dark), one person is “hungry as a sehlat” (Journey to Babel and Yesteryear) and there is even a quick mention of the halo fish seen in the animated episode The Terratin Incident.

Although he only worked directly on two issues, Drexler’s involvement greatly improved what followed. Before him, issue 46 opens with the crew dreading the jump to warp drive, as traveling faster than light is a “wrenching, dizzying, blinding” experience that Scott describes as entering “the mouth of hell.” This is laughably inconsistent with the TV show.  

After Drexler’s involvement, the comics looked and sounded more like Star Trek, with accurate artwork and less outlandish stories. Issue 49, for example, is a mostly thoughtful sequel to Metamorphosis which even includes a recap of the episode. Again, Drexler’s influence didn’t fix everything: for some reason, Zefram Cochrane is drawn as an older man with theatrically swept-back hair.

The Gold Key comics were never great Star Trek, but they got markedly better after Doug Drexler worked with the publishers. For that, Doug, Trek fans thank you.

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