Burning Dreams

While waiting for this Thursday’s premier of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I decided to spend some time with one of the novels featuring Captain Christopher Pike and the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the days before Captain James T. Kirk. Soon after I had watched the second season of Star Trek: Discovery season 2, which introduced Anson Mount as Captain Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One, and Ethan Peck as Spock, I dived in and read D.C. Fontana’s novel Vulcan’s Glory which is also set in this era along with reprints of Marvel Comics’ great series Star Trek: The Early Voyages. As you might imagine, Fontana’s novel focused on Spock and I picked her novel since she was so involved in Star Trek’s development and the development of Vulcan culture. I wasn’t disappointed and was treated to an enjoyable look at Spock’s early years aboard the Enterprise. For my recent read, I chose Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno which focused on Captain Pike.

Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno

Burning Dreams was released in 2006 as part of Star Trek’s 40th anniversary celebration and it’s a sweeping novel that covers much of Captain Pike’s life and career. In the two-part original series episode, “The Menagerie,” we learn Captain Pike was grievously wounded saving cadets during a training voyage. He becomes a quadriplegic who can no longer speak. Spock takes him to the planet Talos IV. The inhabitants there have phenomenal powers of illusion and can create an environment where Pike’s active mind can express itself. What’s more he has a companion, the survivor of an earlier crash named Vina, who was also seriously wounded and relies on illusion for a happier life than she would have in human society.

The novel opens in the 24th century. Several decades have passed since Captain Pike was left on Talos IV. Spock is an ambassador and he’s summoned to Talos IV. He remembers leaving the captain on the planet. We then shift to Pike’s point of view where he meets Vina again and begins telling his life story. We learn that Captain Pike’s family terraformed worlds for the Federation and we learn how he developed his love of horses. Once Pike is grown, we follow him on a transformative mission where he served as first officer under a hawkish Starfleet captain. Then we follow one of his adventures aboard the Enterprise. The novel tells us that Pike commanded the Enterprise for two separate five-year missions. The novel ends with Ambassador Spock reaching Talos IV, where he learns Captain Pike has died. Despite that sad, but expected news, we are treated to the kind hopeful ending the best Star Trek episodes excelled at.

Around the early 1980s, Gene Roddenberry and a few people in his inner circle went to some effort to define Star Trek’s “canon.” By that point, Paramount Studios had granted licenses to create tie-in media such as books and comics. Understandably, with an eye on the series’ future development, Roddenberry wanted to define the official continuity of the series and no one monitored the continuity of that tie-in media. That said, this process was taken to extremes. Whole series and movies were declared not part of the canon and I’ve seen fans get into intense arguments over what is and isn’t canonical Star Trek.

I’ve seen indications that the current Star Trek production team has a friendlier approach to the tie-in media and I’ve heard murmurings that they have tried to find ways to work in certain elements from the tie-in media that play well with the established continuity, but don’t over-constrain the current writing teams. Enough details about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds have appeared in the media to make it apparent that its story differs in some details from those presented by Margaret Wander Bonanno in her novel. Still, there are a few tantalizing hints that the series and novel may dovetail in some interesting ways.

In a world like Star Trek where they’ve established that multiple universes exist and they’ve even created new canonical universes through time travel stories, I find it hard to get too worked up about what is and isn’t part of the canon. I was glad to meet Margaret Wander Bonanno’s version of Captain Pike. It delighted me that she used aspects established in D.C. Fontana’s Vulcan’s Glory and the Marvel comic series. I would love it if elements from Burning Dreams appeared in the new TV series. If they don’t, I’m still glad to have spent some time with this novel’s version of Captain Pike. All I ask is that TV series tell a similarly compelling story.

Marvel Comics in Oz

While reading L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels, I discovered that Marvel Comics ran an Oz series from 2009 through 2012. Written by Eric Shanower with art by Skottie Young, the series adapted the first six Oz novels into comic format. Shanower is a long-time Oz fan and knows the books and characters well. He’s also an artist in his own right and I first discovered his work by finding his illustrations of Oz characters, which are strongly inspired by John R. Neill’s illustrations for the original novels.

Skottie Young started at Marvel drawing such titles as Spider-Man: Legend of the Spider Clan, Human Torch, and Venom. He was soon tapped to take on the Oz series. I have to admit, when I first encountered these adaptations the art almost kept me from diving in. It was a little more stylized and, well, cartoonish than my taste in comic book art. However, the more I looked at the art, the more I was reminded of the surreal illustrations Tim Burton drew while imagining The Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s something about the illustrations that’s warm and loving, but just a little creepy, which actually suits the material nicely. I warmed to Young’s style even more after watching a video where he told how Oz helped him find his preferred artistic style. I really love his take on Dorothy, the Wizard, and the Tin Woodsman, along with characters like General Jinjur and Professor H.M. Wogglebug T.E. from the later books. He also does real justice to scary characters like the Wicked Witch of the West and Road to Oz’s terrifying Scoodlers.

The comics are almost word-for-word adaptations of the novels, which means the adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has many notable differences from the famous MGM movie. That said, I noticed that Eric Shanower didn’t slavishly adapt the Oz novels when writing these comics. In his adaptation of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Shanower actually corrects a logic problem in the novel. Where L. Frank Baum gave us a deus ex machina ending, Shanower tweaks the resolution slightly and foreshadows it giving us some plot tension along the way. Yes, Shanower changes Baum, but he shows us how someone who knows and loves an author’s work can make it better. I suspect Baum would have approved.

After reading the six adapted novels, my primary complaint is that they didn’t continue to adapt the rest of Baum’s canon. Still, if you’re looking for a way to quickly see what the larger Oz universe has to offer, the Marvel Oz comics are a good place to jump in. They helped to refresh my memory of the first three novels, which I’d read several years ago. I then had fun seeing Shanower and Skottie’s adaptation of the three novels that began my current journey through Baum’s fantasy series. In 2020, Marvel brought the series out in three digest-sized volumes under the title Oz: The Complete Collection. Copies were available at both my local comic store and my local Barnes and Noble.

Squirrel Girl

A number of my birthday and Christmas presents in 2018 revolved around one of my favorite comic books, Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. For those who haven’t encountered the character, she’s a college-age woman with a big bushy tail, can speak to squirrels, and has the proportional strength of a squirrel. Her alter ego is Doreen Green, a university computer science student.

What first attracted me to the comic were the covers. Instead of the usual muscle-bound or hyper-sexualized heroes, the covers featured this rather ordinary looking girl with a squirrel-ear headband and a big tail. There was action in the covers, but it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It made me want to learn more. I dived in and quickly discovered that the writing delivered on the promise of the covers.

What makes Squirrel Girl interesting is that she’s not your garden variety hero with a dark origin trying to fight or solve mysteries in an increasingly grim reality. She often looks for solutions that work best for everyone involved. She tries to get to the root of why bad guys are doing bad things and helps them solve that problem. The result is that she tends to make more friends than enemies. Of course, some bad guys don’t want their problems solved. In that case, Squirrel Girl has no problem kicking their butts, often with the help of an army of New York City squirrels, but also with her college roommate Nancy and fellow superheroes Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk. And let’s not forget Brain Drain, a disembodied brain transplanted into a robot body who quotes existentialist literature and is always there to help our heroes.

As it turns out, the artist whose work captured my attention is Erica Henderson. When I see an artist whose work grabs my attention, I like to learn more about where their work has appeared. As I followed up on her other work, it suddenly dawned on me that Erica was the daughter of long-time Tales of the Talisman contributor C.J. Henderson and, in fact, I had published some of Erica’s art in volume II, issue 3 of the magazine! If you’d like a copy, back issues are available at: http://talesofthetalisman.com/bookstore-v2.html

As for the presents themselves, among them were the graphic novels that I showed up at the top of the post. Not only did I get books but my youngest daughter designed and sewed a Squirrel Girl plush for me. Now one of my favorite features of the comic book is the letters section. You see, not only does Doreen Green try to make friends, but the letters are positive and fun as well, especially when they encourage young fans in their creativity. When Verity made me the plush, I had to take a photo and send it in. As it turns out, they just published the photo and my letter in issue number 40. That was a real delight.

If you’re a comic book fan looking for something that’s light but thoughtful, fun but intelligent, I highly recommend checking out Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.