Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Twilight Zone in Four Colors

A History of 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 been 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 then come as no surprise that The Twilight Zone has also been adapted multiple times in illustrated editions, as two series of monthly comic books 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 a visual literary format.
            The landscape of the comic book in American in the early 1960s was one dominated by factors which occurred during the previous decade. In the now famous hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, itself a product of the outcry of parents and religious organizations brought about by psychologist Fredric Wertham's ludicrous book, Seduction of the Innocent, which put forth the idea that comic books, especially horror and crime comic books, were the root cause of the rising problem of juvenile delinquency in the country. William M. Gaines, publisher of infamous E.C. Comics, purveyors of gruesome, yet incredibly rendered and surprisingly well written, horror, crime, and science fiction comics (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 rotting the minds of the day's youth.
            The pressure from the "moral majority" forced Gaines and other publishers of horror and crime comic books (there were many which followed closely in Gaines's wake, as Gaines's books sold millions on a much imitated but never duplicated formula) 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 as 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 and, as a result, either ended their questionable titles altogether or changed formats to either suit the new rules imposed by the Authority or escape it altogether. 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 of 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 classic titles in this vein were Creepy, Vampirella, 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, soon to also change 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 and continue into the greatest period of critical and commercial success the field has ever experienced.
            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 Avenger, perhaps the most mature and complex of 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 the Joker, was relegated to playing a bumbling fool, a situation with would have certainly been greeted with a knowing laugh from the character himself as he was now a walking punch line. A logical extension of this, or a solution if taken from the publishers’ viewpoint, was to begin licensing properties from television.
            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 Outer Limits to Star Trek. The one that started it all, however, was The Twilight Zone.
            In late 1960 Dell Comics, printed and distributed by Western Publishing, acquired the rights from Rod Serling's Cayuga Productions to create a Twilight Zone comic book. The comic book would not directly adapt the episodes of the show but would take an original material format (though there are instances of the comic book reprinting Rod Serling's opening introductions almost verbatim from episodes of the show).   
          Four issues after The Twilight Zone comic began its run under the Dell Comics imprint, Dell and Western Publishing had a falling out and Western decided to continue most of the Dell titles, as well as create new titles, under their own imprint, Gold Key Comics. It is under the Gold Key Comics imprint that The Twilight Zone remained for the bulk of its run. Gold Key Comics became a haven in the sixties 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 its run The Twilight Zone comic switched imprints again to the Whitman line of Western's comic books and the quality of the book suffered considerably thereafter. The publication schedule was shortened and sometimes erratic, and reprints (sometimes comprising full issues) became common. The Dell comic was incorporated into an existing series and therefore numbered in a preexisting pattern (1173, 1288, etc.). With the move to Gold Key, the series began marked issue #1 and ran to issue #92 with no change in numbering occurring with the move to 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 occasionally incorporated short-short text stories (1 page) as a buffer between illustrated stories. As a bonus, 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, 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 Bernie Wrightson) Swamp Thing. The first incarnation of The Twilight Zone comic finally folded in May, 1982, 94 issues and nearly 18 years of (almost) uninterrupted publication after the cessation of the show upon which it was based.
            The Twilight Zone returned to newsstands less 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 an industry wide movement to independent publishing and a rise in creator owned properties. Though NOW began as a sole proprietorship Caputo was soon bought out and the company began growing at an increased 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 franchised properties, producing titles such as The Real Ghostbusters, Fright Night, The Green Hornet, Married. . . with Children, The Original Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Mr. T and the Force, Terminator: The Burning Earth, and The Twilight Zone.  
            Much like the second incarnation of The Twilight Zone on television, for which the second series of comic books owes its genesis but not its continued identity, Rod Serling wasn’t anywhere to be found. Two covers were sometimes produced for one issue and covers were either drawn in a mature, hard science fiction style, often imitative of superior fantasy artists Richard Corben or Michael Whelan or as illustrations which, ironically, harkened back in style to the pre-60s science fiction and horror comics brought to its zenith by William Gaines and crew at E.C. When introductions were used they were iterated by a disembodied narrator unseen in the story. 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 Harlan Ellison's script "Crazy as a Soup Sandwich" illustrated by artist Neal Adams, who redefined Batman in look and style in the mid-1970s. Ellison, who acted as Creative Consultant for a portion of the second Twilight Zone television series, provides an incisive essay preceding the story proper detailing his experiences working on the show. The NOW series ceased publication in late 1993, an early casualty of the over-publication crash which negatively affected the entire comic book industry by the end of the decade.
            The third and final incarnation for The Twilight Zone in comic book format was a series of graphic novels produced in 2008 and 2009 by Walker & Company in conjunction with the Rod Serling Trust as overseen by Serling's widow, Carol. Eight graphic novels adapted eight Rod Serling-penned episodes from the original television show. All scripts were adapted by Marc Kneece and art duties were handled by the artists from the Savannah College of Art and Design including Dove McHargue, Rebekah Issacs, Robert Grabe, Rich Ellis, Anthony Spay, and Chris Lie. The episodes adapted are, in order of publication: "Walking Distance," "The After Hours," The Odyssey of Flight 33," The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," "The Midnight Sun," "Deaths-head Revisited," "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?," and "The Big Tall Wish." Though the volumes are handsomely designed, the quality of the productions leaves something to be desired. Yet, it is apparent that the creators are having a good time with the material and care about the storytelling legacy of Rod Serling. Each volume includes an introductory essay and a biographical essay on Rod Serling.
         It's unlikely that we have seen the end of The Twilight Zone in comic book form as the show has proven itself time and again to be imminently adaptable to a number of mediums. 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 wholly unique way.

--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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