Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Twilight Zone in Four Colors


A Look at The Twilight Zone Comic Books
         
From the inception of the original television show through today, The Twilight Zone has been adapted for radio, a theatrical movie, a theme park thrill ride, board games, toys, books, and countless novelty items. It has inspired documentary films on the lives of its principle creators and released on numerous high production home video packages from VHS tapes to Blu Ray discs. It has been endlessly imitated and parodied and has been the subject of untold number of nonfiction books, articles, and online resources. It should come as no surprise that The Twilight Zone has also been adapted multiple times into illustrated editions, as three series of monthly comic books (2 from now-defunct publishers) and as a line of graphic novels from a preeminent American college of art and design. Like the show itself, The Twilight Zone in comic book form appeared in three different incarnations, each a product of its own time, displaying its own trends, and each illustrating the versatility with which the fantasy show could lend itself to an alternate visual format.
            The landscape of the American comic book in in the early 1960s was one dominated by factors which occurred during the latter part of the previous decade. In the now famous hearings by a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, itself a product of the outcry of parents and religious organizations brought about by psychologist Fredric Wertham's highly questionable book, Seduction of the Innocent (which put forth the idea that comic books, especially horror and crime comic books, although all forms of comics outside of the most mundane were targets of Wertham's ire, were the root cause of the rising problem of juvenile delinquency in the country). William M. Gaines, publisher of E.C. Comics, purveyors of gruesome, yet beautifully rendered and surprisingly well written, horror, crime, and science fiction comics (a hugely successful line which included Tales From the Crypt, Crime SuspenStories, Weird Science, etc.), was made an example of by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver as a publisher, among others, who was contributing to the degeneracy of America's youth. For more information on this subject the reader is directed to The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008). 
            The pressure from the "moral majority" forced Gaines and other publishers of horror and crime comics (there were many which followed closely in Gaines's successful wake) to develop a self-policing agency among comic book publishers which became known as the Comics Code Authority. The subsequent policy formed by the Authority rendered it virtually impossible to publish a crime or horror comic book. It effectively banned any words or situations which depicted terror or violence. Without compliance to the code there would be no stamp of approval on the cover of a publisher's books. Without the stamp of approval on the books no distributor would touch them. Without a distributor, Gaines and other publishers could not get their books to the buying public. As a result, may publishers ended their crime and horror titles altogether or changed formats to suit the new rules imposed by the Authority. Some publishers, most notably Warren Publishing and Marvel Comics (under the Curtis label) would eschew the comic book format entirely and produce some of the finest material available to the adult comic book consumer beginning in the 1960s. These magazine-sized, black and white comics were not subject to the Comics Code and therefore operated virtually free of rules or restrictions. A few of the titles in this vein were Warren's Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, and Marvel's Bizarre Adventures, Vampire Tales, and Tomb of Dracula Magazine. Fortunately for William Gaines at E.C., who was forced to end nearly his entire line of titles, he had an ace in the hole with Mad, which soon changed to a magazine format on its way to becoming a cultural institution.  It would take over a decade for the comic book industry to again change and relax the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority.
            The reverberations of the Senate hearings were felt across the entire comic book industry. Even those publishers which did not specialize in horror or crime comics were so terribly afraid of not falling within the guidelines established by the Comics Code Authority (or, even worse, drawing the sort of negative attention which Gaines had at E.C.) that the industry saw a widespread "softening" of comic books in both subject matter and execution. Publishers were told that children were their target audience and most comic books were thereafter written and drawn safe enough for toddlers. Even Batman, the Dark Knight, perhaps the most mature and complex of the popular superheroes, was toned down, given an extended family of squeaky clean crime fighters including "Bat-Mite" and "Bat-Dog." Batman's iconic villain, the homicidal criminal mastermind known as The Joker, was relegated to playing a bumbling fool. A logical extension of this, or a solution to a situation if taken from the publishers’ perspective, was to begin licensing properties from television. All of this is to say that the publisher who would become the leading purveyor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror comic books did not submit their work to the Comics Code Authority. Western Publishing distribution channels were so well established that distributing a book without Code approval was not a problem for the publishing giant. 
            By the 1960s science fiction was well established on television, from the early serials (Buck Rogers, Space Patrol) to the early anthology shows specializing in fantasy and science fiction (Tales of Tomorrow, Science Fiction Theater). Every home in America equipped with a television could be invaded by aliens or travel back in time on a weekly basis. It wasn't long before comic book publishers began to consider science fiction programs to adapt for their line of books. The decade would see a boom in science fiction properties adapted for four colors from The Twilight Zone to The Outer Limits to Star Trek. The publisher who led the science fiction charge was Dell Comics.
            In 1960, about the time of production on the second season of the television series, Western Publishing acquired the rights from Rod Serling's Cayuga Productions to create a Twilight Zone comic book. The comic book was initially published under the Dell imprint (Western and Dell had worked closely since the 1930's) for Dell's Four Color series, a try-out series to gauge the potential of certain titles. The comic would not directly adapt the episodes of the show but would take an original format (though there are instances of the comic book loosely adapting original series episodes and reprinting Rod Serling's opening introductions from episodes of the show).   
          Four issues after The Twilight Zone comic began its run under the Dell imprint (two for Four Color, two as its own series), Dell and Western Publishing had a falling out and Western decided to continue most of the Dell titles (many which feature properties licensed to Western), as well as create new titles under their own imprint, Gold Key Comics. It is under the Gold Key imprint that The Twilight Zone remained for the bulk of its run. Gold Key Comics became a haven in the 1960's and into the 1980's for fantasy, science fiction, and horror properties with titles including Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery, Grimm's Ghost Stories, and The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor. Late in the run of The Twilight Zone comic, Western's comic book line added a new imprint, Whitman Comics, and many issues of The Twilight Zone comic were released under both labels in different distribution patterns.   

The Dell comic was incorporated into an existing series (continuing from the Dell Four Color series) and therefore numbered in a preexisting pattern. The Dell comic lasted a mere two additional issues before the move to Gold Key Comics, in which the series began with a new issue #1 and ran to issue #91 with no change in numbering occurring with the move to/integration with the Whitman imprint.*
             The difference in design elements for each imprint can be seen in the production side of the books. Each issue featured between 2 -4 illustrated stories and incorporated short text stories (1 page, a feature required to maintain access to second class postage). The first eight issues of the Gold Key comic featured a pin-up reproduction of the front cover illustration on the back cover, sans logo and text. Artist George Wilson contributed many of the eye catching covers to the Gold Key comic. Other notable artists that worked on the book during its long run include a virtual who's who of exceptional comic book artists of the era: Reed Crandall, George Evans, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando, Alex Toth, Jerry Robinson, Mike Roy, Angelo Torres, Frank Miller (making his professional debut), Russ Jones, Bob Jenny, Mike Vosburg (who later created comic book covers for the Tales from the Crypt television show), Walter Simonson, and Alex Nino. Several stories in the issues of the early 1970s were contributed by writer/editor Len Wein, creator of Wolverine and (with artist Bernie Wrightson) Swamp Thing. The first incarnation of The Twilight Zone comic finally folded in June, 1979, 91 issues and 15 years of (almost) uninterrupted publication after the cessation of the show upon which it was based. The first series of Twilight Zone comic books have never been collected in a permanent, archival format, despite being part of a line of comics (Gold Key) which have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Many other contemporary properties, such as Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery and Star Trek, have been restored and reprinted in archival editions (by Dark Horse and IDW, respectively). 
            A brief graphic novel detour. 1979 saw the appearance of a little-known or remembered volume titled Stories from the Twilight Zone: A Skylark Illustrated Book. Published by Bantam Books, this volume featured comic book style adaptations of Rod Serling's prose stories collected in his 1960 book Stories from the Twilight Zone. The stories were adapted by Horace J. Elias and illustrated by Carl Pfeufer. 
            The Twilight Zone returned to monthly newsstands a little more than a decade later when the first issue of the second incarnation of the comic book was released, dated November, 1990. The new book was decidedly different than its predecessor. The second series of Twilight Zone comic books were a natural off shoot of another boom in science fiction and fantasy films and television programs adapted as comic books.          
             NOW Comics was founded in late 1985 by Anthony Caputo during a creator-led, industry wide movement toward independent publishing and creator owned properties. Though NOW began as a sole proprietorship, Caputo was soon bought out and the company began growing at an increasing rate, becoming one of the top five producers of comic books in America by 1990. Much of NOW's success came from their line of licensed properties, including titles such as The Real Ghostbusters, Fright Night, The Green Hornet, Married. . . with Children, The Original Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Mr. T and the T Force, Terminator: The Burning Earth, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.  
Is this cover appropriate for The Twilight Zone?
            Similar to the second incarnation of The Twilight Zone on television, for which the second series of comic books owes its genesis but not its sustained creative identity, Rod Serling wasn’t to be found. Whereas Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine struck a perfect balance between coverage of the original series (and other classic science fiction and fantasy properties) and the more idiosyncratic styles of the 1980s, the NOW comic eschewed any connection to classic science fiction and fantasy to capitalize on the affront of graphic, mature fantasy content. Multiple covers were sometimes produced for a single issue and these covers were either drawn in a mature, hard science fiction style, or as illustrations which, ironically, conjured the style of the pre-1960s science fiction and horror comics which brought along the creation of the Comics Code. 
       When story introductions were utilized, they were delivered by a disembodied narrator. As was the publishing trend in comic books at the time, special issues were frequent and included a double-sized "science fiction" issue, a 3-D issue, an "all computer" issue, and a double sized annual issue. The most notable issue is the landmark series debut issue featuring award-winning speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison's script "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich," illustrated by artist Neal Adams. Ellison, who acted as Creative Consultant for a time on the 1980s The Twilight Zone television series, provides an incisive essay preceding the story detailing his experiences working on the show. The NOW series ceased publication in August, 1993, an early casualty of the over-publication crash which negatively affected the entire comic book industry by the middle of the decade. Like many of the NOW titles, The Twilight Zone series has never been reprinted in a collected edition. 
            A second graphic novel detour. Rod Serling's scripts for The Twilight Zone were adapted into a series of graphic novels produced in 2008 and 2009 by Walker & Company in conjunction with the Rod Serling Trust overseen by Serling's widow, Carol Serling. Serling's scripts were adapted by art instructor Marc Kneece and art duties were handled by the student-artists from the Savannah College of Art and Design, including Dove McHargue, Rebekah Isaacs, Robert Grabe, Rich Ellis, Anthony Spay, and Chris Lie. Though the volumes are handsomely designed, the quality of execution leaves something to be desired. Yet, it is apparent that the creators are having a good time with the material and care deeply about the storytelling legacy of Rod Serling. Each volume includes an introductory essay and a biographical essay on Rod Serling.
The third and, so far, final incarnation of The Twilight Zone in comic book form arrived in December, 2013 with The Twilight Zone issue #1 from Dynamite Entertainment. Like Gold Key and NOW, Dynamite is an independent publisher that specializes in producing comic books from licensed properties. Dynamite introduced a long-form series written by J. Michael Straczynski, who contributed significantly to the 1980s Twilight Zone television series as a scriptwriter. The main series continued for twelve issues, until February, 2015. A second series, Shadow and Substance, appeared for four issues in 2015 and another, The Twilight Zone: The Shadow (a crossover series with the famous pulp fiction hero) appeared in 2016. Like the NOW series, Dynamite released a number of single issue specials, including a 2014 Annual, The Twilight Zone: Lost Tales, and The Twilight Zone: 1959. These one-shot issues are more in-line with the anthology format of the previous comic series. The series appears to have concluded with the publication of The Twilight Zone: 1959 in 2016. 
         It's unlikely we have seen the end of The Twilight Zone in comic book form. It is a tribute to the creators of the show (the writers, the directors, the actors, the artists) that each new generation rediscovers the show and re-imagines it in an interesting and unique way.

*Issue #92 of the Gold Key/Whitman series was released nearly a year after the series proper ended and was a reprint issue with an alternate cover scheme and so is not considered as a new issue.


The Twilight Zone comic book checklist:

1.) Dell Four Color Comics #1173, 1288
2.) The Twilight Zone (Dell Comics), 2 issues
3.) The Twilight Zone (Gold Key/Whitman) 91 issues (#1-91), November, 1962-June, 1979. Issue #92 is a reprint, variant cover issue. 
4.) Mystery Comics Digest (Gold Key reprint series) #3,6,9,12,15,18,21,24
5.) Dan Curtis Giveaway Comics #3 (Gold Key, 1974; These comics were mini-comics designed as bubble gum premiums).
      6.) The Twilight Zone (Gold Key, 1976; mini-comic, sold in packs)
      7.) Stories from The Twilight Zone: A Skylark Illustrated Book by Rod Serling, stories adapted by Horace J. Elias and illustrated by Carl Pfeufer (Bantam Books, 1979)
      8.) The Twilight Zone (NOW Comics) Series 1: Nov, 1990 (1 issue; reprinted Oct, 1991), Series 2: 11 issues (Nov, 1991-Sept, 1992), Series 3: 4 issues (May-August, 1993). One shots (all 1993): Annual, Science Fiction Special, 3-D special. 
      9.) The Twilight Zone graphic novels (Walker & Co.); 1. "Walking Distance" 2. "The After Hours" 3. The Odyssey of Flight 33 4. The Monsters are Due on Maple Street 5. The Midnight Sun 6. Deaths-head Revisited 7. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? 8. The Big, Tall Wish
      10.) The Twilight Zone (Dynamite Entertainment) Series 1: 12 issues (Dec, 2013-Feb, 2015; collected in 3 volumes as The Way Out (#1-5), The Way In (#4-8), The Way Back (#9-12)), Series 2: Shadow and Sustance, 4 issues (2015), Series 3: The Twilight Zone: The Shadow, 4 issues (2016). One-shots: 2014 Annual, The Twilight Zone: Lost Tales (2004), The Twilight Zone: 1959 (2016)


--Jordan Prejean

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this interesting overview! I would like to see more detail on the first series. Those covers really bring back memories. I still find them tugging at my heart, resulting in that jolt in my brain that says "I want them!" I have to tamp that down. Sadly, the insides of those comics never seemed to live up to the covers.

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  2. I'm still digging through every comic shop I visit attempting to find all the old issues but those suckers are surprisingly difficult to find. If you're looking for more detail consider visiting the Grand Comics Database at www.comics.org. There is a plentiful cover gallery and issue details. Those covers were certainly great and the insides weren't always so bad. Toward the end it got thin but the book had some really great artists working on it in the early days and into the 70s.

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  3. Great series will have to look for the comic book versions especially the 2008-09 series. Great to see they were concentrating on the old episode. Night Gallery was not quite as good. Thanks for sharing have they done The Living Doll in comic book form or the one with the masks.

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  4. If you're looking for "Living Doll" or "The Masks" in comic book form, you'll have to look to the first comic book series from Gold Key. Though they never "officially" adapted existing episodes, several of the illustrated stories liberally borrowed from the show. For "Living Doll," check out issue #33's "The Killer Doll." For "The Masks," check out two different variations of a similar theme, "The Death Mask" in issue #22 and "The Faces" in issue #24. Unfortunately, no publisher has seen fit to collect the Gold Key series into archival hardcovers like other Gold Key properties such as Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery or The Occult Files of Doktor Spector, so you'll have to seek out the original single issues.

    The NOW Comics series did not illustrate adaptations of original series episodes.

    The 2008-2009 series never got around to illustrating "The Masks" although that would have been an excellent choice. "Living Doll" was written by Charles Beaumont and Jerry Sohl and as the Walker series of graphic novels only adapted Rod Serling written episodes, it was not an option to be adapted.

    Hope this helps. Thanks for checking in and hope to see you again.

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