Writer's Log #1: Mike Johnson Takes You Behind The Panels of IDW's Khan Comics
Welcome to the inaugural “Writer’s Log,” a behind-the-panels look at the creation of IDW Publishing’s new STAR TREK comics! I’m Mike Johnson, writer of the ongoing STAR TREK series and the new STAR TREK: KHAN mini-series. In each log entry we will dive into a number of panels taken from the newest issue and discuss the development of the story from inspiration to finished product.
This entry focuses on STAR TREK: KHAN #1, the first chapter in the five-issue origin story of the legendary villain. (Alert: spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS or read KHAN #1!)
The initial motivation for creating a KHAN series was the same shared by the ongoing comics series: to expand the new universe created by the recent STAR TREK movies and go beyond the screen to bring fans new adventures. Overseeing the comics is STAR TREK writer-producer Roberto Orci, who has always pushed for the comics to “go boldly” (heh heh) and investigate any and all corners of the new and unpredictable timeline created by the 2009 film. Bob’s involvement means that we can tie the comics into the world of the films in a way that’s rare for other licensed properties.
In the case of Khan, there simply wasn’t enough time in a single movie (which has its own story to tell encompassing many characters) to delve as deeply into Khan’s background the way we can in the comics. Just like the NERO mini-series following the 2009 movie, the KHAN series will expand on elements we saw onscreen while introducing fans to new characters and taking them new places.
So in the words of the late, great Christopher Pike, let’s punch it!
PAGE 1, PANEL 3:
We open at the trial of Khan after the events of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Although the purpose of this KHAN series is to show his past, we wanted to tie into the events of INTO DARKNESS in a clear way, and give Kirk and Spock some face time. Khan’s trial, and their participation in it, felt like a natural way to frame the entire series. We will check back in with the trial as the series continues.
Die-hard Trekkies will recognize Starfleet lawyer Samuel T. Cogley in this panel, who appeared in the marvelous THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode “Court Martial.” Cogley’s appearance here was suggested by John Van Citters of CBS Consumer Products, and brought to life by the great David Messina, artist on both 2009’s “Countdown” and 2013’s “Countdown to Darkness.” Whenever we can, we like to insert characters and places into the new comics that are callbacks to the original timeline. Part of the fun of having an alternate timeline is seeing how familiar things have changed (or haven’t) in this reality.
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Khan rejecting the authority of the court was Bob Orci’s idea. In his view Khan would be openly contemptuous of the Federation court. Why should he feel subject to an authority that did not even exist when he took off in the Botany Bay? In his mind, it’s the Federation that should be on trial.
Note also that he calls himself simply “Khan” here. Not “Khan Noonien Singh.” We are taking a cue from the movie, when he reveals his identity to Kirk and Spock, and from Khan’s original introduction in “Space Seed.” When he introduces himself, he only needs one word.
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We start the flashbacks in the slums of New Dehli. Going from the shiny clean future of a Federation courtroom to the dirty streets of the twentieth century was a way to make a dramatic visual break from the TREK we have seen so far in the new movies.
Throughout these early flashbacks Khan is called “Noonien” in the scripts, to reflect that he is still on his journey to becoming the man we meet in the future. By starting in the early 1970’s, with Noonien already a young boy, we place his origin firmly in the Cold War period. This felt appropriate given that the paranoia of the time would certainly prompt the kind of “arms race” that resulted in the Augment program, and it’s not long after the original STAR TREK series itself was created, which examined Cold War issues in a fictional way in many episodes.
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Here we meet Dr. Heisen, the creator of the Augment program. We wanted to give the program a face and a name, rather than leave it an anonymous entity. The reference to eugenics in this scene is deliberate, an echo of the Nazis’ obsession with genetic perfection and the evil that drove their experiments. In the case of the Augment program, that evil is cloaked in talk of the profits that can follow from “progress.”
Heisen plays another important role: that of a parental figure to Noonien. He rescues the boy from a life of poverty, but Noonien eventually comes to realize the depths of Heisen’s manipulation. As (lethally) resentful Noonien becomes, we’ll see that if Noonien learned anything from Heisen it is that superior intelligence and careful planning can change the world.
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We don’t usually get so bloody in the STAR TREK comics, but one of our points of emphasis in this origin story is to show the savagery that Khan describes so memorably to Spock in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (… how can you be expected to break bone?”). From these first scenes of him as a boy it’s apparent that as much as Khan was “made” by the Augment program, there is something innately dangerous about him. When it comes to villains these days there’s often an explanation given for their barbarity that causes us to sympathize with them. But in Khan’s case – for all the noble grace he will exhibit later as an adult – there is something dark and threatening at his core.
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My favorite panel in the issue. The brilliant Claudia Balboni is our artist for all of the flashback scenes, and here she perfectly captures Khan’s intensity even at a young age. There is a hint of Ricardo Montalban’s features that Claudia is able to add to this portrait, foreshadowing the man he will become. (Yeah, yeah, he grows up to be Benedict Cumberbatch, right? Stay tuned!)
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Noonien in the infirmary. The framing of this panel is a visual echo of Khan sitting in bed in the Enterprise infirmary in “Space Seed,” accessing the ship’s schematics on the computer.
We intentionally left the location of the Augment school vague (we’ll see the location of all the schools in the opening pages of Issue #2), but it made sense that it would be somewhere remote, away from the prying eyes of locals.
These panels introduce another aspect of Khan’s character: his unrelenting determination. It’s one thing to possess incredible intelligence and unmatched physical capability, but in Khan those attributes are combined with an indomitable spirit. Call it drive, ambition, or a simple innate need to survive (as seen most emphatically in THE WRATH OF KHAN); whatever you call it, it is what separates Khan from his fellow Augments and makes him a leader.
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For all of his ferocity, another key to Khan’s character is his penchant for civility, even when that civility masks terrifying intentions. Within minutes of first meeting him in “Space Seed,” he’s holding a scalpel to Bones’ throat, but shortly thereafter he’s impressing the crew with his considerable charisma. It is Khan’s ability to slip between these radically different personas that makes him so interesting…
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… and so deadly, as we end this first chapter in Khan’s life with his murder of Heisen. This is a deliberate echo of the manner in which he dispatches Marcus in INTO DARKNESS. As this series progresses, we will see that Heisen and Marcus played similar – and nefarious – roles in the man Khan would become.
TO BE CONTINUED…
I hope you enjoyed this first “Writer’s Log!” There will be more to come as STAR TREK: KHAN unfolds, as well as a look at the creation of “The Khitomer Conflict” currently taking place in the ongoing STAR TREK series.
Live long and prosper!
KHAN #1 is available now. It runs 32 pages and costs $3.99. For additional details, contact your local comic book retailer or visit www.comicshoplocator.com to find a store near you. And keep an eye on StarTrek.com for both further Mike Johnson/KHAN guest blogs and news about IDW's upcoming Star Trek comic books.