JMS Enters the TWILIGHT ZONE, a Child & Adult Dream Come True
There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.
Those are Rod Serling's immortal words, an introduction emblazoned upon the minds of science fiction fans from at least three generations. While it has had some television revivals, this time around The Twilight Zone returns via comic books thanks to Dynamite Entertainment.
Coming in December 2013, The Twilight Zone comes from writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Guiu Vilanova with covers from Francesco Francavilla. Straczynski, commonly referred to by his initials as simply JMS, has a history with the franchise that crosses from boyhood fandom to writing a revival for TV in the 1980s and now launching this comic book version.
For more on the series, including how storyarcs will play out, the similarities to writing television episodes, and even why JMS keeps responding to the siren call of comic books, we spoke with the writer. Let's all enter The Twilight Zone (and have that doo be doo doo music in our heads the rest of the day).
Newsarama: Joe, please start off by telling us a bit about what The Twilight Zone means to you, and how it has influenced you as a writer.
J. Michael Straczynski: As a geeky kid science fiction fan (as opposed to a geeky adult science fiction fan) I grew up reading the classics: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Simak... all these writers who had amazing ideas about technology and the future, but which were sometimes a bit dry when it came to fully fleshed-out characters. So for me, The Twilight Zone was my introduction to unapologetically humanist science fiction and fantasy. The stories were less about hard SF, flashy hardware and special effects and more about what Faulkner described as "the human heart in conflict with itself." It spun my head around and allowed me to see SF and fantasy stories in a way I had never understood before.
They also taught me the importance of finding the right word rather than settling for the word on the shelf next to the right word. Serling's precision of writing dazzled me. As a teenager in that long pre-internet darkness, I'd sit in front of the TV with a tape recorder and a notepad, hurriedly capturing bits of dialogue in order to study them later. I'd unlock the prose for hours, trying to figure out how he managed to get this effect from this precise combination of words. It was like having the best and most frustrating teacher in the world, because when the writing sucks, it's easy to see why; but when something really works it's hard to figure how and why because the methodology is almost invisible.
Nrama: How does your approach change when writing a comic about the Twilight Zone versus a TV episode?
JMS: I think it can't really change too much or you risk becoming false to what the Zone represents: fantastical stories about characters, often running from or to something who are caught in situations they cannot understand or explain to others, the resolution of which will ultimately come down to who they are at their core.
Nrama: Will your stories here be self-contained "episodic" issues, or areyou going to be setting up story arcs?
JMS: In trying to transplant one form into the other, I opted to go for 3-4 issue arcs in order to encompass the amount of time Serling spent with his characters in those original half-hour episodes. Some online nutjobs out there chose deliberately to misstate that as me saying you can't do short fantastical stories in one issue or less, which is not just ridiculous, it actually creates an entirely new form of stupid, since I've written done-in-ones and other shorter forms. It's about page count. A half-hour original Zone episode allowed you to spend a lot of time with those characters and slowly develop the situation in which they find themselves; if you want to replicate that experience, that gradual development, you need the pages to do it. Hence, 3-4 issue arcs which, in the aggregate, are about equal to one half-hour TV script.
The cool thing about the Dynamite books is that I'm layering these arcs in such a way that they seem like three individual stories that happen to be taking place at the same time. Then, slowly, gradually, they begin to interweave in ways that create a much larger narrative. It's kind of an experiment in form, but Serling was always big on experimentation in the Zone, so I think he would approve.
Nrama: What's the essential, the elevator pitch if you will, for a Twilight Zone story?
JMS: It has to be something built around a character flaw or development that is enhanced, exacerbated or attacked. So when I wrote "The Mind of Simon Foster" for the 88 Zone series, the "elevator pitch" would've been: A desperate man in need of money begins selling his memories at a futuristic pawn shop, realizes in time what he's giving up, and decides to get it back... only to find some things can never quite be put back to rights again.
Nrama: Do you look at The Twilight Zone more like your creator-owned works, in so much as you can really be creating a world and characters here, or more like your corporate superhero work, where it is clearly understood you're playing in someone else's toy box?
JMS: I think it's a bit of both. On the one hand, you're telling your own story. But on the other hand, you have to be respectful toward, and mindful of the playground you're stomping around in. There's a certain attitude that goes into telling a Zone story that has to be maintained if you're going to be true to that universe. There can't be a careless word anywhere in there; it's got to be tight and well crafted and have a moral point of view at the center of it while not being preachy. In the end there has to be a sense of hope about the world, even if some characters rightly suffer for their actions within that world. Writing nihilistic stories is easy; being hopeful without being corny is tough.
Nrama: What can you tell us about this first storyand your lead character Trevor Richmond? Why the economic slant to your first story here?
JMS: Serling always looked to be current with the times. He wrote about what was going on politically and socially, though sometimes couching it in fantastic terms. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" is a direct shot across the bow of McCarthyism, as "The Obsolete Man" is a poke in the eye aimed at fascism. Wall Street bandits have become the new aristocracy, exempt from the same penalties faced by the rest of us. Steal twenty bucks of comics from a store? Go to jail. Steal billions and leave taxpayers to pick up the tab? Get a raise. So yeah, I wanted to deal with that element in the first arc. The second two take stranger turns.
Nrama: You've been steadily increasingyour comic book work recently, while also doing a good amount of film and TV work – why do comics remain a medium that you like to tell stories in?
JMS: Short but true answer: I love it. I grew up on comics, and love the form as a writer and a reader. I put the same effort into writing a comics script that I put into writing a big-budget feature, knowing the financials of the former are a fraction of the latter, but that's not the point, it's all about writing for the sheer joy of the form. Some choosing to reinterpret that negatively say, "So it's your hobby." No! Collecting vintage rocket ships is my hobby. Writing comics is what I love; it's the dearest thing to my heart. Always has been, always will be.
Nrama: What else is coming up that you'd like to mention/talk about a bit (free plug time!)?
JMS: Coming into 2014 is going to be an amazing year. I realized that starting in February, when we launch the four-issue miniseries The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, for several months I'm going to be having six titles per month hitting the stands, which is an insane amount of work, all of it fun.
That will drop down again as we finish the initial runs on Al, Sidekick and Ten Grand, at which time I'll be deep in production on Sense8, the Netflix series I'm writing, producing and – for a good chunk of it – directing with the Wachowskis.
Around the same time we start shooting, Summer 2014, as we finish Protectors Inc., we'll be re-launching Dream Police, The Book of Lost Souls and beginning the six issue run of Alone with Bill Sinkiewicz. Then in Winter '14 I finally start prep for the movie I'll be directing in Germany. It's gonna be a crazy, wonderful roller coaster ride.