Obscurity of the Day: Star Trek

Armies of Trekkers worldwide waited with bated breath for the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979. Released a full decade after the end of the original television series, the project was bolstered in Hollywood by the phenomenal success of Star Wars, signalling that an SF film with a built-in fanbase could be a profit bonanza of huge proportions.

The first Star Trek film was released with all the fanfare of the Second Coming, which it practically was to its legions of fans. Every imaginable marketing gimmick was put in play, including a newspaper comic strip series that debuted the week before the film’s release.

Titled simply Star Trek, the daily and Sunday strip distributed by the LA Times Syndicate began on December 2 1979 and was at first written and drawn by Thomas Warkentin with a considerable amount of both credited and uncredited assistance. The pressure to produce a strip about the Star Trek franchise was enormous, and Warkentin really worked hard to rise to the challenge. Though the art was uneven, at least most of the character faces were all eminently recognizable, which is half the battle in these features. The stories were rather ridiculously simple, but what can one expect from three panels a day, with all plot points regurgitated on Sundays.

Unfortunately the Star Trek comic strip came about at a bad time which only stacked the deck against it. The Star Wars strip had debuted earlier in the year, as had the new series of Buck Rogers. The market being glutted (if three strips can be considered a glut), Star Trek attracted few newspaper editors. With a small client list, and thus small profits, the strip soon took to looking cobbled together, very much in the same way as the ill-fated Dallas strip, which shared many of the Star Trek strip’s creative team. 

Warkentin’s run on the strip extended a little less than a year and a half, ending April 1981. Among the art assists he received were from Ron Harris, who received sporadic credit as early as August 1980, Mark Rice (credited in July 1980), Dan Spiegle, Duke Riley, Kurt Warkentin, and someone named Yang. Art Lortie says that Yang was an office boy who occasionally got a credit for inking backgrounds and lettering. Warkentin often failed to sign the strip during his tenure, leading me to assume that there were plenty of uncredited assists as well.One uncredited writing assist was from Tom Durkin, a copy editor at the LA Times.

Warkentin was replaced by the team of writer Sharman DiVono and artist Ron Harris, which also lasted a little under a year and a half, ending September 1982. Harris did a better job with the art than Warkentin and company, and DiVono was a more accomplished writer, so the strip looks and reads better during this period though it continues to be uneven. Harris called for art assists from Tom Warkentin, Paul Chadwick, Terry Robinson, Alan Munro and Laurie Newell during his stint, and DiVono snagged famed SF author Larry Niven to help with the writing on her last story.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was considered a major flop, artistically if not at the box office, and the comic strip series was really limping along by 1982. However, the second Trek film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was released in June 1982 to critical and fan accolades, giving the strip a second chance to become a hot property.

Unfortunately the strip went into a tailspin. In September 1982 comic book writer Marty Pasko and artist Padraic Shigetani took over, and the Sunday was cancelled on October 24. The writing by Pasko was passable, but the Shigetani art was, frankly, painful to look at. Pasko and Shigetani bailed on February 12 1983, to be replaced by another comic book writer, Gerry Conway. Shigetani was replaced by LA Times staffer Bob Myers (my notes have him assisting Shigetani, but I gather I have that wrong) . I’ve only seen a single example of Myers’ art, which looks to be passable but uninspired. Then excellent comic book artist Ernie Colon came on board May 9 for one story. Colon may be great, but his, er, exotic interpretation of the Star Trek universe was way too oddball for newspapers. Colon received art assists from Alfredo Alcala and someone named Serc Soc (?). The final cartoonist on the strip was Dick Kulpa, starting July 4 1983. Kulpa can do appealing work, but he was hopelessly over his head on this material. In my opinion, though, the Shigetani run had long ago blown any chances the Trek strip might have had for a revival. The strip ended on December 3 1983.

Much of my information on the Star Trek strip comes from Rich Handley, with a lot of additional information from the Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which has a wealth of material on the Star Trek strip

Obscurity of the Day: The Seabees

From the bunker archives of Cole Johnson comes this wartime panel called The Seabees, ripe for being covered here on Memorial Day. The panel was done by someone who went by the name of Hoke for the Honolulu Advertiser. If this feature runs true to form for this sort of thing, I expect Hoke was a serviceman stationed in Hawaii. In fact I bet he was a Seabee. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he was Glenn Hoke. Hey, Alex Jay ain’t the only one who can track people down!

The Seabees were the construction crews of the U.S. Navy (CB = Construction Battalion). These guys consistently did miraculous things in the South Pacific during World War II, engaging in building projects under fire, carving airstrips and roads out of deep jungle … an amazing group. Watch the John Wayne flick The Fighting Seabees for an entertaining movie about their exploits.

Cole’s run of the Honolulu Advertiser is fragmentary, so all we know until my next trip to the Library of Congress (which is comin’ soon — I’m so excited!) is that The Seabees ran from mid-February at least through March 1945. I don’t imagine it would have been much longer than that since a Seabee,  whether moonlighting as a cartoonist or just chasing wahines, wasn’t apt to have the luxury of hanging around Waikiki beach long. The panel ran not quite every day according to Cole.

Obscurity of the Day: Pranks of the Fourpaws

Need to get rid of those pesky bears that are always sneaking into your kitchen? Then look no further than Pranks of the Fourpaws for helpful hints. This series from the Chicago Tribune Sunday section featured animals of various species drawn by the sure and wonderful hand of W.L. Wells (see another of his series here). Not so sure or wonderful are the accompanying verses by one Clarence Patrick McDonald, who apparently could do better. A few of his poems about sports had some popularity, and he produced several books of inspirational verse.

Pranks of the Fourpaws ran in the Trib from December 20 1908 to February 28 1909.

Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans!

Obscurity of the Day: Mayme the Manicurist

Mayme the Manicurist is one of those features that I have to wrestle with. Is it an illustrated column (not eligible for my guide) or is it a cartoon panel that goes a little heavy on the text (welcomed)? I think in this case it was the jaunty, sassy text blocks that won me over.

I’m willing to bet that Mayme is the only cartoon series ever on the subject of palm-reading. While that pseudo-scientific silliness was the bread and butter of the feature, sometimes the feature veered off into reading body language, handwriting analysis and other subjects. It was all quite cute and entertaining and rarely took itself too seriously, a big plus for this oddball niche feature.

Fun it might have been, but it certainly didn’t catch on. The daily panel ran in the New York Daily News, and there was a syndication attempt but I’ve never seen it elsewhere. All my samples are from 1930, and so was the syndication listing in E&P. I don’t have definite start and end dates. The art was signed by Glen Ketchum, who doesn’t have any other credits that I know of. He may have also been the writer, but there was no official byline on the feature.

The feature vacillated between the 2-column format shown above, which includes a large cartoon, and a 1-column format in which the cartoon is not nearly so prominent.

Obscurity of the Day: King Jake

In October 1907 Hearst star cartoonist Fred Opper, or his editor, decided that it was time to put that irascible mule Maud out to pasture for awhile (well, not quite — she continued to make semi-regular guest appearances in Opper’s Happy Hooligan). Opper was then faced with creating a new Sunday funnies feature to appear in the space usually reserved for And Her Name Was Maud. His first attempt was King Jake, a formulaic tale of a dour king and his new jester, Sam Tub. Most of the strips in the series follow the bare-bones plot seen above — Sam peppers the king with jokes to no avail, but then a little unintentional physical comedy has the king ROFLing.

King Jake ran in the Hearst Sunday sections of October 20 1907 to January 12 1908.

Obscurity of the Day, Again: Colonel Daffy-Dil Nutty

Cole Johnson comes to the rescue of this brain-dead comic strip guy by pointing out that Colonel Daffy-Dil Nutty, the obscurity I (badly) covered on Friday, owes nothing at all to Foxy Grandpa (other than the age of the star), but is instead a pretty shameless copy of the wordplay from Tom “TAD” Dorgan’s feature, Daffydils. You’d think the title just MIGHT have been a clue to me. Oy. 

Cole sends these two examples, both from October 1912, that, although unsigned, are almost certainly the work of Foster Follett. Panel five of the second example is, for me, the clincher on that artist ID. The sample I showed on Friday is by a different anonymous cartoonist.

Herriman Saturday

January 27 and 28 1908 –Herriman is off and running with a new series, Today in Sports. Because it is sports editorializing it doesn’t qualify for my index (which specifically excludes series of a purely editorial nature), so I’m very glad to be able to share the find here. We’ll be seeing quite a few more episodes of this series in upcoming Herriman Saturdays — and also a new series I bet you’ve never seen that does qualify for my index.

January 28 1908 — The Belasco’s latest production is Commencement Days, starring most of the usual suspects. Although the play got a good review from the Examiner, it seems not to have caught on big, and I find no reference of it being staged after 1909.