Should Khan fans bother reading IDW’s Ruling in Hell series now?

Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban on the set of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban on the set of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images) /

Ruling in Hell was a comic book about Khan’s exile on Ceti Alpha V.

As Star Trek fans continue to wait for more details about writer-director Nicholas Meyer’s forthcoming Star Trek: Khan podcast, we can always look back to other licensed projects that tell us the tale of Khan Noonien Singh’s years on Ceti Alpha V. One of those tellings was Khan: Ruling in Hell, a four-issue comic book miniseries from IDW in 2010-2011.

Ruling in Hell was written by brothers Scott and David Tipton, who are still scripting IDW Star Trek comics, as recently as last year’s The Mirror War. Fabio Mantovani provided the art and colors for issues 3 and 4. Chira Cinabro handled coloring duties for the first two issues.

The miniseries efficiently chronicles the 15 years Khan and his fellow genetically engineered exiles, along with former Enterprise crewmember and Khan’s wife Marla McGivers, spent struggling to survive on Ceti Alpha V after Ceti Alpha VI exploded, turning their once-promising new world “into a barren sandheap” (as Khan tells Chekov and Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

The Tipton brothers did not base their story on the one Greg Cox told in his novel To Reign in Hell five years earlier. Nevertheless, Ruling in Hell largely follows the same beats. Khan, Marla, and the other Botany Bay survivors begin building a society, only for their neighboring world’s destruction to throw the project catastrophically off the rails. In time, Khan’s fledgling would-be empire fractures in a civil war. Marla and 19 other people perish from the icky, invasive Ceti eels, and Khan’s genuine admiration for the Starfleet captain who bested him turns into a long-simmering desire for wrathful vengeance.

Ruling in Hell feels more like a storytelling duty than a delight

Naturally, the Tiptons couldn’t contradict the canonical contours of Khan’s years on Ceti Alpha V, any more than Greg Cox could. But their attempt to fill in the gaps of Khan’s history emerges as largely dull and desultory. They don’t use what imaginative space they have to spin an exciting or intriguing story. (Indeed, they spend four full pages in the first issue recapping “Space Seed,” when surely any reader interested in Khan’s years on Ceti Alpha V needs no such review.)

Some of the action seems to happen only to put pieces of Star Trek II in place. Do we need to see Khan and his people pushing and sealing their cargo containers together, for example, since “[i]f the sandstorms worsen, this may be our only refuge”? And their explanation of why Khan wears a broken Starfleet emblem as a medallion is trivial and pedantic. To their credit, however, the creative team resists the temptation to offer yet another explanation of why Khan recognizes Chekov in Star Trek II or why Khan wears a black glove on his left hand only.

Marla McGivers does not fare as well in Ruling in Hell as she does in To Reign in Hell. The Tiptons and Mantovani treat her as nothing but a prop. They waste no time stripping her all but nude in the first issue, shedding her Starfleet uniform for the golden mesh the women of the Botany Bay wore in “Space Seed.” Then she receives no more attention until Khan’s enemies control her via a Ceti eel and use her in an attempt on Khan’s life. Cox’s plot included the same development, but he gave us ample opportunity to get to know Marla better before ending her life. (I wonder if the Khan podcast will similarly weaponize Marla against Khan. Nothing in Star Trek II suggests she must meet this fate. Surely dying by Ceti eel is a fate evil enough on its own.)

Ruling in Hell is generally a good-looking book. Mantovani accurately captures the likenesses of Ricardo Montalbán, Madlyn Rhue, and Judson Scott. (The Tiptons “retcon” Joachim to be Joachin from “Space Seed,” eliminating the need for the second generation of exiles that Cox introduced.) And his panels and pages depicting civil war in the violent sandstorms of a post-apocalyptic Ceti Alpha V make a dramatic action sequence.

But perhaps because it doesn’t provide enough immediate access to Khan’s thoughts and feelings, and absolutely none of Marla’s, Ruling in Hell feels stale and predictable. The characters seem like chess pieces the authors are manipulating, rather than real people responding to dire events and intense, existential pressures. It’s as though the creative team took more notice of the plot boundaries they had to obey than of the space left within them to play and create. The whole exercise feels obligatory—a duty, not a delight.

You can find copies of the individual issues and the collected graphic novel edition on the secondary market, and some sellers ask exorbitant prices. But Star Trek fans eager to know more about Khan in the years between “Space Seed” and Star Trek II would do better waiting for the Khan podcast, seeking out To Reign in Hell, or simply imagining their own version of events.

dark. Next. To Reign In Hell told the secret history of Khan on Ceti Alpha V