Thursday, January 14, 2016
Myriad Universes: Malibu Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Early Days
I freely admit I'm not a comics scholar so I could be wrong, but this has always struck me as a surprisingly and fascinatingly unorthodox partnership for a franchise as big as Star Trek. Except for the very earliest days of tie-in comics all the way back in the mid-1960s, Star Trek has thus far been very careful to only court the “Big Two” comics publishers, namely DC. And even then, Gold Key was not some random upstart imprint: Cheap as they might have been, they made their name on doing all the comic book tie-ins for all the big franchises of the day: Scooby-Doo, Looney Tunes, the Disney stuff that wasn't handled by the European division, and yes, Star Trek. That kind of thing was utterly Gold Key's wheelhouse. Malibu Comics, by severe contrast, was a small, rather fiercely independent imprint, and one that had cultivated an image of doing more idiosyncratic and experimental projects targeting a more niche audience.
It was Malibu, in fact, that published a lot of the US Manga Corps output, that being a handful of *super* hardcore American manga fans more or less led by Ben Dunn who made it their mission in life to translate and localize some of the more eccentric output of the Japanese comic industry for US audiences, or adapt some of the then-current anime hits to a manga style if adaptations did not already exist. Indeed, the most notable Malibu-published US Manga Corps project of this period was none other than Project A-ko, which we might take a look at next season if we have time, simply for the sheer charming ridiculousness that stems from reading Project A-ko as contemporary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But the mere existence of US Manga Corps under the banner of Malibu Comics reveals a lot about how truly strange this license really was: This is still before the 90s otaku boom in the United States led by the triple threat of Ranma 1/2, Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon (although that wave was on the verge of cresting in 1993, and indeed Project A-ko would be a part of that in 1994), so anime and manga fans would still have been seen as a pretty niche target demographic.
The only other big license Malibu had at the time was Street Fighter, and while yes, Street Fighter was massively popular in 1993, you have to remember that A. the video game industry was nowhere near the lumbering behemoth with feet of clay it is today so that doesn't carry quite the weight you might think it would and B. Street Fighter is still a quintessentially Japanese series. So giving Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to Malibu Comics, to sit alongside the video game tie-ins, creator-owned superheroes and friggin' Project A-ko (sorry, I will never get over how silly amazing that is) is a really unique and brazen lateral move that says something interesting. What it actually says is perhaps still a matter of debate though: Obviously Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was not a cult series because Star Trek is far from cult. Now that said, Paramount thinking Star Trek is cult will be the bullet that finally kills it, so maybe this is an early warning sign of this inevitable tragic fate. However if that were true, why didn't Paramount pull DC's license to publish Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation books and give them to Malibu too (apart from the obvious answer, which would be “money”)?
As it stands now, this move gets me interested about how Paramount views the artistic potential of indie labels, the respective positions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation in the public consciousness of Summer, 1993 and how sad it is that this means the two comic series will never be able to cross over...Although perhaps I should watch my words. After all, anything is possible.
Moving on to the series itself...Obviously I'm not going to go into everything right now. Malibu's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is going to be a regular fixture of the project until the end of our voyage and there are some exceptionally wonderful stories in this line. In fact, this series was my first serious exposure to the world of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and what caused me to go from a cautiously optimistic outside observer to a full-fledged fan. But that won't happen until next year: I didn't have the earliest issues in this line, only getting the chance to read them many years later when I was lucky enough to find a collection of mint Malibu Comics on eBay for a price that was, in hindsight afforded me through my later dalliances with the comics industry and the collector's market, a total steal. Even later, I of course got to read the whole line on Git Corps' complete Star Trek comic compilation DVD-ROM. But I still have my Malibu Deep Space Nine collection, as pristine as the day I got them. I also have my very own first issues of this series from back in the day: They are not as pristine as the day I got them. Like I said, I'm not a comics scholar.
So I just wanted to take a little time to introduce you all to the line and summarise some of the earliest story arcs (basically the ones that ran during the second half of 1993). These are not the ones I'd call the shining jewels of the line, but the line starts remarkably strong all things considered: We have to keep in mind that at this point we're essentially in the same position as the first volume of DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation was, in that these are pretty much all being written either before the TV show premiered or very early on in the first season for the comic series to launch when it does, and with that in mind it's remarkable how fully-formed everything is. Mike W. Barr, who helms the monthly series for this leg of the journey, already has a great handle on the characters' voices, and everyone sounds immediately recognisable as themselves.
(Well, within some wiggle room. There's a part in the third issue, for example, where Odo has an exchange with Kira of the sort we might, coming from the TV series, expect to see him having with Quark instead. But it makes sense, fits the story, and I can hear the actors' delivery in the lines that are written, which is always what I look for in a successful adaptation of a live-action or animated production.)
On art duty, Gordon Purcell and Terry Pallot have chosen to go in a heavily grounded, lifelike direction, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. This stands in stark contrast to the frequently stylized, almost surreal four-colour look of Pablo Marcos and his colleagues on DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation. As beautiful and stunningly real as Pallot and Purcell (and those who will follow in the footsteps they lay down here) can make this series look, however, there are downsides as well as advantages to this approach: Namely, that Deep Space Nine has the potential to be even more mystical and surreal than The Next Generation, and this art style doesn't give that room to play here. Indeed, there will be moments in Malibu's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that will startlingly come across as almost photorealistic.
The line's very first story arc is called “Stowaway”. Comprising issues 1 and 2, this starts off as essentially a Jake and Nog Adventure, with the two kids sneaking away on a field trip and discovering an abandoned storage bay on the station. After accidentally spilling some superoxygenated solution on his shoes in Jadzia Dax's laboratory, Nog accidentally activates an aggressive strain of mold the Cardassians developed as a bioweapon that feeds on oxygen and produces toxic gas. As the mold spreads throughout the station like a Magic the Gathering spell, the crew institutes quarantine procedures and is forced to consider evacuation as they try and find a way to neutralize the threat. Meanwhile Captain Johnson of the USS Armstrong, a science vessel recently returned from an expedition into the Gamma Quardrant, is being less that forthcoming about the true nature of some artefacts his crew discovered working with a pre-eminent researcher.
This is a solid opener, a fun read and a great showcase for the crew all working together to solve a station-wide problem. It's ground the TV show has touched on, but the comics handles it better: The big thing that strikes me re-reading these issues how whip-smart and capable Jadzia Dax is depicted here. Way more than the TV show. She's always the one solving mysteries (though Doctor Bashir gets his share of science exposition too, which is appropriate) and frequently plays the role of Commander Sisko's “Number One”: Jadzia's always his confidant and advisor, more than she is on TV (their relationship is far more defined and intimate here, and in fact even serves as the lynchpin to a number of stories) and, just like Will Riker, she's always the one leading some action team out somewhere, usually with Bashir, Odo or Miles O'Brien in tow. There's a great scene in this story where Dax and Odo sneak aboard the Armstrong to trick Captain Johnson into showing his hand, and another where she and Chief O'Brien, in full Evo suits, storm the moldy corridors with spray backpacks full of fungicide.
(Speaking of Odo, the comics, having an infinite effects budget, can naturally show him transforming into way more and more creative things than the show can, and this is one of the great hallmarks of the Malibu line: Highlights in this story include a hawk and a kind of sentient tidal wave that he can use to move across the Promenade quickly to rescue trapped people in a hurry.)
Some of these stories are notable in how they anticipate actual episodes of the TV show. “Old Wounds” features Gul Trelar, the former commander of Deep Space 9 during the occupation (remember, this was before that was established as being Gul Dukat) who wants to return to his former post and homeworld of Bajor to die as part of a Cardassian ritual. Naturally, he made a number of enemies during his time, and one thing leads to another and Trelar ends up dead, and now it's up to the crew to figure out who. Kira, being Kira, ends up bungling her way into implicating herself, as she was apparently once almost executed by Trelar to set an example for the Bajoran populace to keep in line after a terrorist attack, even though she was innocent. Aside from that bit of foreshadowing (she's even shown in a flashback as part of a prisoner lineup with Odo as the investigating cop), there's also the matter of Lady Trelar who happens to be a Bajoran woman, and a young one at that, whom Kira also happens to know. This leads to obvious friction between the two, and this subplot is shockingly reminiscent of the much, much later Star Trek episode “Ties of Blood and Water”, except predictably a million times better. In the end, the murder mystery ends up having a clever sci-fi explanation, which always reminds me of “A Man Alone”. To the point, in fact, I sometimes get confused and conflate the plot points of both stories.
Issues 4 and 5 are a two-part story entitled “Emancipation”. On an expedition to the Gamma Quadrant, Dax and Bashir come across a huge, sprawling starship whose crew brings them aboard begging for asylum. As they escort their new friends back to Deep Space 9 and get acquainted, the crew soon finds they've been followed by a second ship of similar design, whose captain informs us that the first ship is in fact a slave ship commandeered by its “cargo”, and thus demands their immediate return, citing the Prime Directive. As far as Prime Directive stories (not to mention “let's see what's come through the wormhole!” stories) go this one is OK: Commander Sisko gets out of choosing a side by citing the Prime Directive back at the slave owners by refusing to prevent the inevitable slave revolt. It's a bit like what Captain Picard did in “Symbiosis” and while it's not *really* satisfying, it goes about as well as these kinds of stories can be expected to go. It's way more engaging than and far preferable to “Captive Pursuit” at the very least. The artwork is lovely and there's a cool action/thriller scene during the cliffhanger where bash bros. Dax and O'Brien race to prevent a terrorist from blowing up the wormhole, which is probably the best Dax/O'Brien scene to date.
Issue 6 is a collection of three short stories. The first, “Field Trip”, is a fairly standard, if mildly annoying, story about Keiko's students (namely Jake and Nog) saving the day after a field trip on a Runabout into the Gamma Quadrant goes wrong and Commander Sisko and Jadzia Dax are knocked out. The kids have to pilot the ship back to Deep Space 9 with a fried navigation system. It does have Ben and Jadzia sharing a bed together though, so there's that (no, it's not what you think). “Program 359” has Dax and Bashir getting worried about Commander Sisko's recent moody and distant behaviour, in particular his spending all of his off-time in the holosuites. Doctor Bashir, citing concern for a commanding officer who might be medically compromised and Jadzia, citing the fact she's Jadzia, decide to investigate the programme for themselves. It turns out Commander Sisko has been perpetually reliving the final moments of the USS Saratoga at Wolf 359, trying to figure out if there was anything he could have done differently that would have saved Jennifer's life. Consoling himself with the fact there was nothing he personally could have done, this helps him move beyond his grief. Although there's a solid exchange at the end where Jadzia calls Ben out for trying to work through these issues alone in a holosuite instead of coming to her, this one's a bit too “Hollow Pursuits” for me.
The standout of this issue for me is “Pickpocket”, by prolific writer of Star Trek and other media tie-in books John Vornholt. It's a slow day at Quark's, and Doctor Bashir asks the barkeep why the place is so deserted. Quark clues him in that there's a pickpocket running around the Promenade, and it's eating into business. Although Quark is confidant that Odo would have caught the thief in a heartbeat, he's away at a security conference right now so there's not much Quark can do. Julian, sensing another opportunity to play hero, offers his help in tracking down the pickpocket, so he and Quark hatch a plan with Morn and some of the other regulars to lure the pickpocket out into the open where they can hopefully catch them in the act. It's such an incredibly low-key and charming little story, and that's why it's so memorable for me. This is the kind of story that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is basically built to tell, but it's also the kind of story you'd simply never get away with telling on TV specifically because the stakes are so low. It takes a comic book line to actually pull it off, particularly a comic book line eager to take risks on structural experiments like this.
And that's the story of Malibu's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in a nutshell. This is a line uniquely positioned to do things with Star Trek no one else would dare to do not just because they're squeamish, but because it would be a physical impossibility to do them with the aggressiveness, zeal and consummate craftsmanship Malibu Comics is capable of delivering. And it's this potent combination that will ultimately give birth to what could be the greatest Star Trek stories of all.