You're traveling into another comic, a comic not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into what should be a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead—your next stop, my review for the Twilight Zone: Shadow and Substance.
If you’ve seen even a few episodes of the Twilight Zone you likely heard that above paragraph in the voice of Rod Sterling. Despite the reboots and current attempts at reinvention, the collective memory of the Twilight Zone is defined by that man in a suit. The one who looked straight at us, cigarette in one hand, and told us in his gravel voice what would unfold.
Rod Sterling, despite his narratorial charisma, was no actor. He was a writer and it was so appropriate that his real voice would be the one to guide us into a series so defined by his authorial one. After all, Sterling alone wrote 92 of the 156 episodes of the original Twilight Zone run.
Yet the public consciousness of what was the Twilight Zone always seemed to miss what made it work. They tend to focus on the twist endings and dramatic revelations, the stories of karmic comeuppance, and where people unceremonious get what they once wanted. These perceptions ignore what actually made the writing good—the variety of stories and genres where you get an in-depth visitation of raw human emotions and situations. A story about a small suburb that quickly devolves into an angry, vengeful mob, a story about an escaped Nazi revisiting a concentration camp and a story about the censorship and destruction of a library in an alternate fascist America. Each episode functioned like a thoughtful, powerful short story brought to life to the screen. Stories that touched on the dark corners our society willingly indulges and the vulnerable moments of a day-to-day life.
The Twilight Zone itself was only ever a presentation conceit rather than a thematic standard—a way to bring a variety of short stories under a unified genre umbrella and create something more swallowable for a general audience. Not the morals, not the twists, the Twilight Zone was a place for good, human genre stories.
In this way, the comic collection Twilight Zone: Shadow and Substance turns into a replication of what people think of when they think of the Twilight Zone. Three of the stories here are about characters that become displaced in time only to learn an ironic lesson. Others have unlikeable characters have something unfortunate happen to them leading to another ironic lesson. Another story follows people trapped in a science fiction people zoo. A man responsible for committing horrific acts of torture receives comeuppance from his past. The majority of the stories here play out like remixes of old episodes and plays towards the shallow conceptions of what a Twilight Zone story is.
They’re familiar but never quite work because ultimately you will never be as good at writing Rod Sterling story as Rod Sterling was himself. What made the Twilight Zone a gateway into different and exciting stories falls away because we know how each chapter here will play out. Too often the characters lean hard into unlikeability. Structurally so they can receive an ironic lesson, right? A person who hates social media finds themselves disconnected from humanity as they disconnect from the Internet. A person obsessed with the renaissance realizes how much better the present was after they fall through time. Yet that only makes them a chore to follow as their character never grow or expand past that into anything interesting.
The last two stories in this collection turn out to be the best as they step furthest away from the tropes tied to the series. “Initiation” follows two kids in 1959 as they tease a younger neighborhood boy desperate to join their clique. The story here doesn’t play into any supernatural or science fiction conceits and instead focuses on portraying how kids treat each other and how they tend to push away and hurt the ones who need help the most. It’s the most human story here and most engaging too as you learn piece by piece about the young kid's broken home and the escalating harshness of the older boys tasks.
The final story “The Comics Code” succeeds almost because it becomes a straight parody of the conceptualized Twilight Zone. A cruel and manipulative man seeks to serve himself only to accidentally enable an alien invasion. It’s cartoonish and plays into these karmic tropes while exploring new historical ground. While the Twilight Zone played with history, it never really touched on comics. So here it felt and inventive and fresh to see a comic book version of the Twilight Zone play with actual comic book history by taking us through the reactionary censorship of the industry by the Comics Code Authority. The names are changed but the strange reality of the truth plays in the comedic melodrama of this version of the story. They use the jokes people always make about the Twilight Zone but this time as actual jokes and it causes these issues to succeed as a comedy.
Yet these are only two hits out of eleven stories and as a whole the collection becomes exactly what we fear when it comes to licensed comics—a company’s grasp at trying to capitalize on something people love only creates a crude imitation of that thing, a homunculus with no soul.
They are forced to live in the shadow of that property—of Rod Sterling—and feeling trapped they attempt to imitate the form and shape of that shadow. Yet when they turn to a mirror, only then will they discover the shape of a shadow is not the shape of the man. Those then will find that their now blunt and crude reflection can only exist in the Twilight Zone.
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Twilight Zone: Shadow and Substance
Writer: Mark Rahner, Tom Peyer, John Layman
Artist: Edu Menna, Randy Valiente, Jose Malaga, Rod Rodolfo, Colton Worley
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Format: TPB; Print/Digital