The recent passing of Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy has us looking back on the brief and curious run of Tekno Comix’s sci-fi series, Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals.
One of the biggest entertainment news items last week was that of beloved actor Leonard Nimoy passing away at the age of 83 from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nimoy, of course, was best known for playing Star Trek‘s Spock, the half-human, half-alien, logic-driven science officer of the starship Enterprise. The role earned Nimoy the adulation of fans the world over and made him a somewhat unlikely, unofficial ambassador for space exploration and what we now call the STEM fields, but the native of Boston was so much more than the actor who portrayed Spock: Nimoy was also an accomplished stage performer and voice talent, a photographer, a TV/film director, a published poet, a musician, and a student of Jewish mysticism. And while a relatively minor footnote in his eclectic career as an artist and entertainer, for a time in the mid-1990s, Nimoy was also involved in the comics industry as a creative consultant for Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the flagship title of Florida-based publisher Tekno Comix.
The “Tekno Comix” name may draw blank stares from today’s younger comics fans, but in 1995, Tekno Comix looked very much like a “can’t miss” prospect among the many new independent comics companies that popped up like so many mushrooms during the speculation-fueled 1990s comic boom. Established by Sci-Fi Channel founders Mitchell Rubinstein and Laurie Silvers, Tekno Comix had two things going for it that set it apart from many of the period’s start-ups: It had relatively secure financial backing as it was a division of Rubinstein and Silvers’ publicly-traded company BIG Entertainment, Inc.; and owing to Rubinstein and Silvers’ established entertainment industry connections, the company had unrivaled access to some of the biggest names in genre entertainment.
Those names included Nimoy, best-selling crime novelist Mickey Spillane, award-winning science-fiction anthologist and editor Martin H. Greenberg, heroic fantasy and historical fiction luminary John Jakes, comics wunderkind Neil Gaiman, as well as the estates of two recently-deceased giants in science-fiction: Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and science-fiction legend Isaac Asimov.
Tekno’s marketing strategy involved using these names prominently in the promotion and titling of its comics, while employing freelancers for the actual production. In some titles such as Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man, the eponymous celebrity was actually involved in the creative process, occasionally providing plot and creative direction by phone directly to the writer. On others, however, that involvement was dubious, ill-defined, or even posthumous. For instance, according to Isaac Asimov’s I-Bots writer Steven Grant, the comic was supposedly based on a single phrase—“robots as superheroes”—that the late author scribbled on a cocktail napkin, the rights to which had presumably been acquired by BIG Entertainment from his estate. (It’s worth noting here that both Asimov and Gene Roddenberry were members of the Sci-Fi Channel’s advisory board, although they were both long dead by the time Tekno Comix began operations.)
Nimoy’s creative involvement in Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals was somewhere between these two examples, based on the actor’s own accounts and the recollection of James Vance, writer on Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man and husband of the late Kate Worley, who was contracted to script the Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals comic and shepherd its development.
In an interview published in the backmatter section of Primortals #1, Nimoy revealed that the concept for the comic’s alien protagonists—descendants of prehistoric Earth creatures taken off-planet by spacefaring aliens that had been evolved to intelligence, and who were now “coming home” to Earth—was actually suggested by Asimov, but the most basic idea behind the book actually had its roots in the research Nimoy was doing for Star Trek IV (a.k.a., “the one with the whales”) and that it was originally intended for a science-fiction short story anthology he was planning with Asimov and veteran science-fiction anthology editor Martin H. Greenberg. When Greenberg was brought on to serve as Tekno Comix’s senior editor, he convinced Nimoy to bring the Primortals concept to the company for development as a comic book instead. Nimoy never did have any direct contact with the members of the Primortals‘ creative team during the development process, although according to an interview published in Starlog Platinum Edition #5 (January 1995), he was in daily communication with Silvers throughout the period, providing feedback on scripts and art.
Production of the actual comic was troubled from the get-go, however. Kate Worley, who signed on to the project thinking that it would be a chance to write “serious science-fiction” given the involvement of Asimov, Nimoy, and Greenberg, was horrified to see that concept art for the Primortals had them as musclebound anthropomorphic superheroes. In retrospect, it could very well have been the case that the incorporation of anthropomorphic animals was a core design directive for the property as envisioned by the suits at Tekno Comix—keep in mind, this was happening during a time when media execs were obsessed with finding the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—and that Worley’s hiring might have been because she fit the profile of an anthropomorphic animal comics specialist. Worley’s most popular comics works to date at that point were the erotic alternative comic Omaha the Cat Dancer and Walt Disney Publications’ Roger Rabbit series.
There was also the complication that Worley’s script for the first issue was anonymously and extensively re-written, something that did not sit well at all with the writer (this would not be the only case of a freelancer being mistakenly credited for an anonymously re-written Tekno Comix publication). Vance also began to suspect that Tekno’s editors were not issuing editorial guidance on their own, but were actually serving as mouthpieces for Tekno executives and marketing personnel. Worse, word had come back that Nimoy, like Worley, hated the designs for the Primortals. Tekno Comix management, by now in full damage control mode, immediately took Worley off the book and brought on veteran fantasy author Lawrence Watt-Evans as an interim scripter before eventually settling on editor Christopher Mills as the title’s regular writer in time for the third issue.
Mills, who stayed on the original series for another nine issues, describes the time he spent working for Tekno Comix as “bizarre,” although he cites his stint on Primortals as “one good thing” to come out of the whole experience. The writer change apparently mollified Nimoy, who would go on to promote the comic at conventions and in Tekno Comix-sponsored online Q&A’s for what turned out to be a fairly short two-year publication run.
The available preorder data shows that Primortals had a solid if somewhat unremarkable performance in the direct market, at least early on. The first Mills-scripted issue was in 53rd place on the Diamond preorder chart for January 1995, ahead of DC’s Superboy #13 (55th), Image Comics’ The Savage Dragon #17 (57th), and Marvel’s Spider-Man #29 (60th). A two-issue Primortals spin-off miniseries, Primortals: Origins, hit stores in the summer. Primortals preorders would drastically plummet before the year was out, however. By October 1995, Primortals #12, Mills’ final issue on the original series, was ranked all the way down at 132nd place on the Diamond preorder chart, which is actually an inflated measure of its relative performance—by then Marvel had switched distributors and its titles no longer figured in Diamond’s official rankings.
It would be unfair to suggest that Primortals‘ rapid sales decline and eventual cancellation after just 15 issues was solely linked to its quality, although the comic’s mixed critical reception obviously didn’t help and a quick glance through the issues I read back in the day—Primortals back-issues were a ubiquitous presence in Manila second-hand bookstore chain Book Sale all throughout the late 1990s—doesn’t stir up any recollections of particularly memorable stories or art. The comics bubble was about ready to burst just as Tekno Comix started publishing in 1995. Marvel Comics would declare bankruptcy a year later and bring the market crashing down with it. Tekno would close its doors in early 1996, only to relaunch later in the year under the name of its parent company BIG Entertainment. A second Primortals series began shipping in the summer, scripted primarily by former Swamp Thing writer Doug Wheeler, but this volume ended publication after just nine issues (a “#0” issue as well as eight regular issues) and an “interactive graphic novel” in CD-ROM format, but that was pretty much it for the Primortals, although a prose novel written by Steve Perry did see print in 1998.
A quick Google search turns up the information that BIG Entertainment now operates as the Hollywood Media Corporation, and that it is still headed by Laurie Silvers. Interestingly enough, one of its subsidiaries goes by the name Tekno Books, although whether the company still retains the publication rights to Primortals or if it’s reverted to Nimoy’s estate, I can only guess.
In the years since Tekno Comix’s rise-and-fall, a number of comics companies have tried to use a similar celebrity-branding strategy for its publications, with the first example to come to mind being Virgin Comics. Founded in 2006 by a group that counted billionaire and Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson, New Age tycoon Deepak Chopra, and Bollywood filmmaker Shekhar Kapur among its members, Virgin Comics came out with titles such as John Woo’s Seven Brothers, Guy Ritchie’s Gamekeeper, Jenna Jameson’s Shadow Hunter, and Weston Cage & Nicolas Cage’s Voodoo Child as part of its “Director’s Cut” and “Virgin Voices” comics and graphic novels. As with Tekno’s comics from a decade prior, the actual scripting was handled by comics veterans—among the freelancers contracted to write Virgin’s comics were Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, Andy Diggle, and Christina Z—with the celebrities being given the rather vague credit of “creators.” And in an uncanny case of history repeating itself, Virgin Comics, despite the considerable resources of its backers and founders, also shut down after two years. (The company reemerged as Liquid Comics in late 2008 and continues to exist to this day, albeit with a significantly lower profile than its predecessor.)
There’s a lesson to be learned here, one about how comics made by committee, deliberately designed from the outset to be marketing tools for some larger entertainment concern, are burdened by numerous creative issues, among them tensions between creative and corporate, conflicting or confused goals, and in general, the “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem. There’s certainly significant anecdotal evidence to support this observation if we look back not just on the failures of Tekno and Virgin’s “celebrity-created” comics, but also on the controversies that have surrounded “graphic novel-to-movie” publishers like Platinum Studios and Radical Publishing. That’s something today’s comics creators should be mindful of, as comics become increasingly fashionable as source material for translation to television, film, and video games.