Star Trek: Picard isn’t the first chance fans have had to visit the future of beloved captain Jean-Luc Picard — that happened in November when IDW launched the series’ comic book prequel, Star Trek: Picard - Countdown. And the three-issue series isn’t just a cash-in on the excitement surrounding the CBS All Access series. Co-written by the show’s supervising producer Kristen Beyer, it “counts” in terms of canon.
And this isn’t even the first time IDW has published material with direct input from the folks overseeing cinematic Trek. 2009’s Star Trek: Countdown was overseen by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, while Beyer, a supervising producer on Star Trek: Discovery, has worked on all of IDW’s Discover comics to date. This kind of cooperation from those directly in control of the source material allows IDW to go where no Star Trek comics have gone before — and, occasionally, where no other Star Trek spinoff material has had the chance to, either.
It’s taken a long time for Star Trek to have a comic book publisher worthy of the franchise. To figure out why, you have to look back at the rocky history of Star Trek comics.
Starting in 1967, Gold Key — an imprint of Western Publishing — began producing Star Trek comics in the wake of the successful first season of the Original Series. Unfortunately, the comics had only a passing resemblance to what fans loved about the TV show, as creators worked entirely from publicity photos and sparse descriptions they were given by Paramount, instead of actually watching the show itself.
Spock’s ears were absurdly tall, the bridge of the Enterprise looked like a weird pinball arcade, the crew’s uniforms were green, and none of the characters possessed their trademark personalities. Exploring a number of bizarre topics over the years, and featuring painted covers by George Wilson, the first decade of Star Trek was a delightful mess.
By 1979, however, the success of the Star Wars films convinced Paramount to license the series to Star Wars comic-publisher Marvel to promote the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Marvel’s series began in 1980, with Marv Wolfman (Teen Titans, Crisis on Infinite Earths, co-creator of Blade) and Dave Cockrum (Uncanny X-Men, Legion of Super-Heroes) creating a well-received adaptation of the film. But immediately afterwards, creators found themselves limited to concepts from The Motion Picture, with anything from the TV series officially off limits. The series lasted less than two years before a cancellation that felt more like a mercy killing.
Following the box office success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Paramount decided to try the whole comic thing again with Marvel’s primary competition, DC Comics. Freed of restrictions on what could be referenced, creators including Mike W. Barr (Batman and the Outsiders), Peter David (The Incredible Hulk, Aquaman, X-Factor), Diane Duane (the Young Wizards series) and Michael Jan Friedman (Darkstars, many many Star Trek novels) spent 145 issues, several annuals and a handful of special projects — including the very first Star Trek graphic novel — producing most vibrant Star Trek material comics had seen. (This era of Trek comics also saw the beginning of the continuing The Next Generation comics, including the first crossover between the original series and The Next Generation cast, which celebrated the franchise’s 25th anniversary.)
Even these comics weren’t without flaw, however; with little insight into what was coming in future movies, DC’s creators were forced to jump through hoops in order to connect the stories they were telling with what was going to happen in the next big screen release. Most infamous were the stories following Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
In the comics, Spock regained his memory and the crew returned to Starfleet and served honorably for years — until the opening of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home revealed that the characters had actually been living in exile on Vulcan. Comics Spock lost his memory again and the crew had to go AWOL in preparation for the next movie.
As DC found success with Original and TNG Trek, Paramount took advantage of the early ‘90s comic market by placing the rights to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with independent publisher Malibu, before Malibu was purchased by Marvel. Following that sale, Paramount awarded Marvel the rights to all Star Trek comics as part of an overall plan to launch a “Paramount Comics” line. (It barely happened, although there was a Mission: Impossible movie prequel featuring Rob Liefeld art.)
The second Marvel Star Trek era was nothing if not ambitious, with multiple series based on Deep Space Nine and Voyager, an “Early Voyages” series about Captain Pike and his crew from the show’s unaired pilot, and an anthology title offering tales from throughout the property’s timeline. Unfortunately, the quality of stories didn’t match the conceptual boldness, with lots of gritted teeth and garish coloring (hallmarks of 1990s comics) that felt at odds with Star Trek itself. Fans agreed, and the entire line ended within two years of launch.
That was the beginning of the end for Star Trek in comics, it seemed; DC regained the license in 1999, for three years of low-selling miniseries and graphic novels. But — ignoring another three years’ worth of little-seen “original English language manga” graphic novels from Tokyopop — that was it.
IDW got the Star Trek license in 2006, and when it started publishing a year later, it was obvious that the company had a different approach. There were no ongoings, but rather multiple miniseries that weren’t even bound to specific properties. For example, IDW’s second series retold episodes of the Original Series from the point of view of its Klingon antagonists.
It was an experimental approach that still kept an eye to what fans want to read, and it’s still the through-line of IDW’s Star Trek output to this day. Balancing what fans might expect — miniseries have appeared for nearly all of the TV series — with less obvious projects. Want to read Gary Seven’s adventures as teased in the 1960s TV show? IDW published it. A Starfleet Academy series that’s as much teen melodrama as it is sci-fi actioneering? Yes, IDW published that, too. A gender-swapped Enterprise crew led by Jane Tiberia Kirk? Of course IDW made that dream come true.
That’s to say nothing of the truly unexpected projects, whether it’s “What If?”-style stories in which the Borg destroyed Starfleet, a series set inside the morally ambiguous Mirror Universe, or crossovers with everything from Planet of the Apes to DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, (with Doctor Who and Transformers mash-ups somewhere in the mix as well).
All of this is delivered in a fashion that your favorite Star Trek captain — whether it’s Kirk, Sisko, or even the gone-too-soon Philippa Georgiou — would approve of. IDW’s books are filled with respect and devotion for the optimistic, empathetic heart of Star Trek, but perpetually willing to ditch the rules as soon as they get in the way of a good time. For IDW, Star Trek is about more than nostalgia or fan service; it’s about boldly going as much as possible.
With that kind of attitude, no wonder that those responsible for the TV shows and movies want to get IDW involved with the action as often as possible — and to get involved with IDW’s action as much as they can, as well.
Chloe Maveal is a freelance pop culture journalist in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in fandom culture, superheroes, and comics history. You can find her on twitter @PunkRokMomJeans, where she is probably cursing too much and yelling at nothing.