An ongoing discussion of how the comics provide prequels, sequels, and tie-ins to the Star Trek episodes and films, soon to be a book from BearManor Media. Click here to view an archive of this article series.
105: IDW Publishing, 2013–2014
Every franchise has its controversies, and Star Trek is no exception—from the behind-the-scenes tension involving the interracial kiss in “Plato’s Stepchildren” to the cringey cultural depictions in “Code of Honor” and “Up the Long Ladder,” the tone-deaf sexism of “Turnabout Intruder” and “Angel One,” the transphobia of “Profit and Lace,” Harlan Ellison’s public anger over script changes made to “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the gratuitous nudity in Star Trek: Enterprise, and more. Each created a buzz among viewers and critics, though few have been as divisive a controversy—Khantroversy—as Star Trek Into Darkness.
The movie brought Khan Noonien Singh into the Kelvin timeline of J.J. Abrams’ films. The ex-dictator had been portrayed by Mexican-born Ricardo Montalbán in “Space Seed” and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (though the character was Sikh), and he was more recently played by Indian child actor Desmond Sivan in Strange New Worlds’ “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” When rumors surfaced that Khan would return, fan speculation ran rampant, with Nestor Carbonell, Benicio del Toro, Javier Bardem, and Antonio Banderas, all suggested for the role. Meanwhile, due to Khan’s Sikh descent, others pushed for the casting of Dev Patel, Naveen Andrews, Anil Kapoor, Sendhil Ramamurthy, and other Indian actors.
So when Benedict Cumberbatch was hired to play John Harrison, a Section 31 operative who was (not so) secretly Khan, many accused the film of whitewashing. Had the thespian simply portrayed Harrison instead of Khan—or had he been Khan’s second-in-command Joachim, given his more-than-slight resemblance to actor Judson Scott—the casting might have generated far less controversy. Cumberbatch’s performance was strong, but there was no getting around the fact that Khan had gone from being a Latino Sikh to a white-skinned Brit. Or was there?
Enter IDW. In 2013, the publisher unveiled a five-part tale from writer Mike Johnson titled Star Trek: Khan, illustrated by David Messina, Claudia Balboni, Marina Castelvetro, Luca Lamberti, and Giorgia Sposito, which ambitiously set out to explain the different appearances and accents from one timeline to the next. After all, Khan and his followers had launched into space almost 240 years before the Kelvin timeline had diverged from the prime one. So they should look the same in both realities, right? Well, yes—and, as shown in the comic, also no.
The Federation puts John Harrison on trial to determine the facts about his and Alexander Marcus’s crimes in the movie. This culminates in the terrorist explaining his altered appearance and voice, which we’ll get to shortly. Samuel T. Cogley (Jim Kirk’s lawyer in “Court Martial”) is the prosecuting attorney, and it’s fascinating that whereas the prime Cogley was a defense lawyer, this one is a prosecutor. Kirk and Spock receive most of the screen-time as his co-counselors, but it’s fun to see actor Elisha Cook’s likeness alongside those of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Tyler Perry’s Richard Barnett presides over the trial; the admiral frequently shows up in the comics, providing connective tissue between Johnson’s many Kelvin timeline tales.
Through Khan’s testimony, readers learn he’d once been a crippled child named Noonien Singh. The boy had been abducted by scientists who’d re-sequenced his DNA, then had trained his mind and body at one of several worldwide Augment schools, transforming him into a superior specimen (the Augment school, as it happens, is consistent with the Strange New Worlds episode). Eventually, these so-called “supermen” had slaughtered their creators and conquered the world, then they’d turned upon each other during the Eugenics Wars, as Machiavelian types invariably do.
In seizing control, Noonien had chosen a new name befitting his power: Khan, a title denoting a military leader or ruler in some Asian cultures. Balboni and Castelvetro capture this moment by fitting Khan with a white turban, with crimson flames filling the sky behind him—an effective callback to Marla McGivers’ red-tinted painting of Khan in “Space Seed.” Incidentally, if McGivers exists in this timeline, she’s better off since she never married Khan and thus was spared court martial, exile, and death by Ceti eel. Given McGiver’s tendency to breathlessly swoon over fascists, let’s hope she married a space-accountant unlikely to commandeer a starship.
The comic offers a believable reason for Khan’s people to flee Earth after successfully conquering the planet, which is ingenious in its simplicity: if they’d stayed, they would have all died. It seems humans had created a bioweapon specifically targeting Augment physiology, leaving them with no choice but to hastily board the SS Botany Bay and take their chances among the stars. Khan chose the ship’s name himself, in fact, symbolizing his people’s final stand on the shores of Australia.
Among the Augments is a man called John Ericssen, one of several names Khan had been called in the early stages of the episode’s development, before writers Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber settled on Khan Noonien Singh. Two others are Asahf Ferris and Bernard Maltuvis, infamous tyrants mentioned in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Their first names here are consistent with David A. Goodman’s book Star Trek: Federation—The First 150 Years, whereas in Christopher L. Bennett’s novels A Choice of Futures and Tower of Babel, Maltuvis is Saurian, not human.
Khan maintains prosperous and peaceful order by eliminating poverty and disease in his kingdom, which jibes with “Space Seed” (Into Darkness inaccurately claimed he’d sought the genocide of those he’d deemed non-superior, which was not the case in the 1960s episode). In contrast, Maltuvis and Ferris commit brutal atrocities—hence, Kirk’s comparison to Adolf Hitler, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” The other Augments from “Space Seed” and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Joaquin, Joachim, Kati, Rodriguez, Otto, Ling, and McPherson) are absent, as are Sawyer and Tamas from IDW’s Khan: Ruling in Hell, but one notable Augment who does appear is Malik.
That name might ring a bell, as a Malik had been among Arik Soong’s creations in Star Trek: Enterprise’s “Borderland,” “Cold Station 12,” and “The Augments” trilogy. The character is drawn to resemble actor Alec Newman, so the callback is not accidental. They can’t be the same man since Enterprise’s Malik didn’t exist until 2134, but perhaps the embryos Soong stole were cloned from Khan’s supermen. In any case, the connection is cemented by the fact that the facility in which Marcus stores Khan’s frozen family is called Arrick Robotics, an apparent misspelling of the geneticist’s first name.
As for that Montalbán-to-Cumberbatch explanation, Khan testifies that after Section 31 had found the Botany Bay, Marcus had seized the opportunity to harness the Augment’s superior intellect to create weapons capable of destroying the Klingon Empire and other enemies. That naturally posed a challenge, since those on Earth might have recognized an infamous historical dictator strolling down the street, and it was highly unlikely Khan would have agreed to such an arrangement anyway.
To that end, Section 31 had surgically altered his appearance and vocal chords, then had brainwashed him into forgetting who he was. Calling him John Harrison, the admiral had put Khan to work creating new innovations, such as his personal transporter in the film. Harrison had also detonated multiple mining sites on Praxis (here spelled “Praxxis”), thus causing a chain reaction that destroyed the moon and crippled the Klingons’ war efforts. Since that means this universe’s Praxis explodes 34 years earlier than in the prime reality’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the future ramifications could rival the far-reaching ripples caused by Nero’s incursion.
For a time, Marcus’s plan had worked, but he and Section 31 had sealed their fate the moment they’d opened the Botany Bay’s cryogenic capsules, for once Harrison had regained his memories, he began plotting his revenge. This makes sense, considering the blood of Khan’s people, according to Into Darkness, allows them to heal from pretty much anything (other than Ceti eels, I guess). Apparently, that includes cranial tampering—which Marcus learned the hard way by movie’s end, when Harrison tampered with the admiral’s cranium with brutal finality.
The trial concludes with a guilty verdict, and Khan is reunited with his people in cold storage—which is exactly what the tyrant had wanted all along. Despite claiming to be a superior man, Khan is defeated in all three of his onscreen appearances. Yet even when Khan loses, he wins. In “Space Seed,” he is handed a world of his own to rule. In The Wrath of Khan, he hurts his nemesis Kirk by causing Spock’s death. And here, in the wake of Into Darkness, he rejoins his popsicle family. Kirk may have laughed at the superior intellect, but it seems Khan always has the last laugh.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and next week we’ll examine John Byrne’s Star Trek: New Visions, which proved that old adage’s wisdom. If you’re familiar with the Star Trek Fotonovels, you won’t want to miss it.
Looking for more information about Star Trek comics? Check out these resources:
- My ongoing column for Titan Books’ Star Trek Explorer magazine
- The Complete Star Trek Comics Index, curated by yours truly
- The Star Trek Comics Checklist, by Mark Martinez
- The Wixiban Star Trek Collectables Portal, by Colin Merry
- New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, by Joseph F. Berenato (Sequart, 2014)
- Star Trek: A Comics History, by Alan J. Porter (Hermes Press, 2009)
- The Star Trek Comics Weekly page on Facebook
Rich Handley has written, co-written, co-edited, or contributed to dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Planet of the Apes, Watchmen, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Stargate, Dark Shadows, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Red Dwarf, Blade Runner, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman, the Joker, classic monsters, and more. He has also been a magazine writer and editor for nearly three decades. Rich edited Eaglemoss’s Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection, and he currently writes articles for Titan’s Star Trek Explorer magazine, as well as books for an as-yet-unannounced role-playing game. Learn more about Rich and his work at richhandley.com.