Ever have one of those dream team-ups you never thought would happen in the comics world? What if Chris Claremont, fresh off his legendary run at Marvel on the X-Men franchise, was able to team up with legendary artist Adam Hughes when he was just starting out in the earliest days of his career?
Oh, and just to tease my young nerd self, what if that was a Star Trek comic?
My friends, that is the concept behind 1992’s Debt of Honor, a homunculus of things that just do not sound like they would quite work well together… and yet come off as one of the best comics the Star Trek franchise has ever known.
It’s no small secret that Chris Claremont is a Star Trek fan. His run with the X-Men is littered with pop culture references to the franchise, as well as overt references with the spacefaring species Shi’ar being the classic TOS series characters with funny hair-
Not to mention Claremont’s tendencies towards the purplest of prose, character banter, and character development, and you have someone who would have been prime for writing Star Trek.
If Marvel had the license.
Unfortunately, DC had taken the license to Star Trek in the early 80s, as Marvel’s own attempt at a Star Trek comic had crashed and burned. It seems no one wanted a comic based on the first movie, of all things.
Or it could have been the generically bad, almost Scooby Doo level of plots the book ran. It’s hard to say.
Still, 1983 gave fans a new Star Trek series based on the second movie and onward. With reliable creators like Mike Barr and Len Wein on the book, it was also really close to the characterization found in the ever-popular comics, even if the stories didn’t mesh in any way. However, comics are a weird landscape where you either work for Marvel, or for DC. Never both, and certainly not at the same time. Some tried, like John Byrne, only to be forced to choose between his excellent Fantastic Four run and the chance to tell the new origin for Superman and re-make a legend from the ground up.
After being shoved out of Marvel’s X-Men book by superstar artist Jim Lee performing a proverbial coup on the book shortly after the record-selling launch of the same book, Claremont was finally free to work on anything else. While he would go on to work with Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics in the early 90s before returning to Marvel, he would also find the time to put out a few issues of comics with DC while burned bridges were rebuilt. In fact, this was likely his first post-Marvel comic.
As for Adam Hughes, 1992 was very early into the man’s career. Now mostly known for excellently detailed comic art with beautiful buxom women and handsome strong men, he spent the late 80s and early 90s with smaller comic companies and indie comics. A few issues of Comico’s Maze Agency would get him some critical acclaim as the book he pencilled would win an Eisner nominee in 1989 for best new series, though it did not win. This would not be Hughes’s first DC work as he was also on Justice League of America’s at the time, but he still wasn’t a household name quite yet.
While I wasn’t able to find any interviews over Debt of Honor’s creation, the ultimate concept seems to have been taking the crew of the original Enterprise… and making them fight the Brood from the Marvel Universe.
The Brood started off as a numbers-filed-off bootleg of the Aliens from the titular movie franchise as a foe for the X-Men to fight. Xenomorphs who implant eggs into hosts, who are then taken over by the alien parasites rather than having them rip out of the host’s chest, was a way to work around the Comics Code Authority at the time. It also made them more of a tribute than a pop-culture rip-off, the same logic that gave us Sauron, the mutant were-Pteranodon when the CCA wouldn’t allow werewolves. The Brood were also small, scrappy, devious, and highly resilient to damage. However, I must admit it took me many years to realize this connection between X-Men and Star Trek. Growing up in the 90s meant older comics, like the 1982 Brood Saga storyline from Uncanny X-Men, were relegated to the back issue bin and the collector’s market. As such, it wasn’t until years later where Marvel would begin to take advantage of their back catalogue in such a way that connections could be made.
To make things even more interesting, DC had given Claremont and Hughes 96 pages in a deluxe format release to work with, rather than a 48 page annual or multi-part story. Debt of Honor would even garner a hardback release at the time, with an oversized paperback version coming out 6 months later. Alongside Hughes and Claremont would be artist Karl Story, colorist Tom McGraw, and Robert Pinaha… and they would all make this book worth every single page.
Much of the book is a series of flashbacks, set within a framing device happening just after the events of Star Trek IV: The One With the Whales. Captain Kirk is hanging out in the middle of the ocean with his most recent romantic entanglement, Doctor Gillian Taylor, a stowaway from the 1980s. And yet, the unflappable Captain Kirk is having a reoccurring dream that haunts him.
And it is a beautiful page, with everyone firing on full cylinders. Kirk is feeling guilt over his actions in Star Trek III, where his son was murdered, his ship was destroyed, and he even sacrificed his career… all to bring Spock back. It also brings back memories of other failures of his past, namely a story from his days as a lieutenant aboard the USS Farragut.
That’s the other clever thing Claremont does. Much like his time with Marvel, Claremont plucks at the strings of continuity to bring old characters and their histories back to the fore. Kirk’s time on the Farragut comes from the Original Series episode Obsession, in which we hear about his time as a tactical officer and how a space-gas-entity nearly killed the entire crew. We also hear about the following events now, under this creative team.
Still recovering from the disaster, the Farragut is running on emergency power near the Romulan Neutral Zone, with Kirk running repairs on the ship’s sensors. The first officer brings a fellow survivor, a Vulcan engineer named T’Cel, to assist. The two prove to be a great team, making repairs that should take an entire overhaul at a major starbase take… well, less time than two people hammering away at scrap metal would. The two grow remarkably close, and as the young Kirk laments how he feels the Farragut’s current situation is entirely his fault…
…the ship is ripped open as something impacts the hull. To the credit of Hughes and Claremont, these creatures only bear a vague resemblance to the Brood or Xenomorphs that inspired them. Instead, looking like a demented crawdad, they spew orange fluid all over the systems, capturing people and theoretically killing them. With the ship being overrun from the engineering section forward, the commander chooses to eject the saucer from the engineering section of the Farragut, and detonate the warp core. As you might guess, Kirk and T’Cel are the ones who need to eject the saucer to save the ship.
Another fun note: This was a planned feature for the Enterprise from the beginning, but budgets never allowed it to happen. Again, Claremont reaches into random trivia to make some cool scenes.
Unfortunately, Kirk is wounded heavily while saving T’Cel from one of those creatures. The two are left behind in the engineering section, and T’Cel refuses to leave Kirk behind. Instead, she drags his body to an escape pod, and the two barely escape unscathed. T’Cel and Kirk make it to an abandoned outpost, but T’Cel leaves Kirk behind to drag off a Romulan patrol… and goes missing. When recovered, Kirk’s testimony isn’t believed by Starfleet, and they instead choose to simply… steer clear of the area.
As the story unfolds, we cut back and forth between the past and present. A flashback to just after The Doomsday Machine reveals that T’Cel survived her encounter with the Romulans, and has also defected to their side to become commander of a starship.
As the Enterprise-A leaves spacedock for a “simple shakedown,” the book takes a page or two to note that their shakedown cruise to the moon is anything but. Leaving behind a decoy buoy, the Enterprise streaks away into deep space, after Captain Kirk. As the ship does, Spock remembers the time that they encountered T’Cel and those creatures once more, during the time just after The Motion Picture.
As Kirk nears the Romulan Neutral Zone in the present day, he’s shocked to find the Enterprise waiting for him. As it turns out, the crew already knew what Kirk was planning, and chose to simply help Kirk out on his quest to end the threat of those creatures once and for all. Not only has T’Cel shown up with her own Romulan warbird, but an Original Series Klingon character named Kor has also appeared with his own vessel filled with warriors. Can these three crews come together to find out the truth of the creatures, or even stop their newest incursion?
I mean, this takes place just after the fourth of seven movies featuring Kirk, and was written in 1992, so most likely.
Boiling it down to basics, the plot seems incredibly generic. Kirk keeps encountering these aliens who took his friend, his ship, and also keep taking innocent lives, so he’s got to stop them? Several episodes have done similar, and it’s not entirely unfamiliar ground. The same goes for these unnamed aliens, who only receive the nickname of “Critters” from Doctor McCoy and receive no official name… ever. Even the star-crossed semi-romance between Kirk and T’Cel is familiar ground for Cold War era stories, and for Star Trek.
But in the execution, and the mixing of the flavors of Claremont and Hughes, this comic becomes the best piece of comic food you can imagine.
Chris Claremont is well known for cramming as much prose and dialogue as he can onto the page. By giving him larger than normal pages and an increased page count, Claremont writes like a man possessed. Rather than just focus on the now and the mystery of the creatures, we have pages of Kirk and T’Cel bonding over the repairs on the Farragut. The readers are treated to a fifth of the book being dedicated to character development and bonding between the three crews. Claremontian accents pepper the dialogue of Scotty and McCoy, making the book feel that much closer to being a lost adventure rather than a graphic novel. Minor characters from the show dip in and out, with minor characters like Jamie Finney becoming relatively major players for the story. Amusingly, in an effort to make a strong female character to add to the cast, Jamie Finney becomes Chris Claremont’s Kate Pryde: a waif of a girl who has a strong backbone of steel and refuses to take crap from anyone.
Tell me Kate wouldn’t do this.
And speaking of women, Adam Hughes is a delight in this book as well. Not only do returning characters look like their actors, but the original characters made just for this story feel like they’re part of the canon. For example, Romulans didn’t appear during the awkward era of pajama Starfleet costumes, but the heavily 80s inspired flowing robes T’Cel sports feels perfectly like what the movie staff would have cooked up at the time. And just like how his characters are incredibly detailed, the backgrounds and starships look just as at-home as the characters do running through them.
Bonus credit also goes to the rest of the staff. Tto Karl Story, for keeping up with Hughes’ work and only enhancing the end result. To Tom McCraw, for providing colors that look right from each era of the franchise, and keeping everyone looking picture-perfect. To Robert Pinaha, for somehow making sure all of Claremont’s insane prose and dialogue output can fit onto the page. All the love and effort still couldn’t make those beige pajama costumes from The Motion Picture look cool, though. I don’t think anyone can, frankly.
A digital version was made available with Amazon earlier this year, and IDW will be putting out a paperback re-release in October 2020. This is one of those books you need to pick up, be it as a fan of Claremont’s X-Men, a fan of Adam Hughes’ lovely ladies and dashing dudes, or even just as a fan of Star Trek. Like peanut butter and chocolate, this was one mixing of flavors that feels fated to be.