George’s Run. by Henry Chamberlain. Rutgers University Press. 2023. 226 pp. $27.95.
Guest review by Paul Buhle
I leapt at the chance to write my foreword, what came to be called “A Historical Portal,” in Henry Chamberlain’s graphic novel, George’s Run. Now, with some time to reflect upon it, deeper and more personal observations come to me.
The Twilight Zone offered me proof positive—to this future editor/publisher of a little magazine dedicated to demonstrating the significance of popular culture—that a generation had been more than enriched by it. George Clayton Johnson, a writer for the show, as well as Star Trek, had a lot of insight to deliver, and Henry Chamberlain was the one to winnow it out and to illustrate it.
Astute critics of American cinema have often remarked that the Star Wars series of blockbuster movies, beginning in 1977, marked the return of films but also chunks of television shifting from serious social themes of the later 1950s to later 1970s, back to the Outer Space version of cowboys-and-Indians, with the “Indians” now aliens, some of them friendly (aka “on our side”) and others dangerously hostile. Many critics observed, after the 1999 Star Wars feature, The Phantom Menace, that “African Americanism,” aka Minstrelsy, had been transformed into amusing-looking aliens with humorous talk or behavior. The source of this gloomy transformation might be attributed to the world cinema market for action films or some other external cause, but it is hard to avoid the consequences for Hollywood-produced films as art or cultural/political statements. The social movements of the 1960s shook up Hollywood and created a socially critical audience whose favorite films came and went, in the following decade or so. M*A*S*H, their TV equivalent, was by the end of the century the most “re-run” of all shows and also held the most “peacenik” sentiments. It counted.
In this light, The Twilight Zone looms as a late, major statement of a different era. Rod Serling was a serious and important figure in US culture, a critic and artist who after trying various professions and skills, radio broadcaster to television writer, created the most important television drama in the era when television had a monopoly on media attention.
It was a moment when live television drama, vibrant and often socially critical despite the Blacklist and cultural cold war, hard shortly before reached its peak with a half-dozen theatrical-style shows, just as it poised to rushed production from New York to Hollywood. The Twilight Zone could not have worked as live drama, but it had the dramatic quality of what had gone before. Even in melodrama and seemingly far-fetched plots, the acting was serious. The show was showing something and saying something, working urgently to open up minds. At the right place and time, George Clayton Johnson found himself and helped make television and pop culture history.
George’s collaboration with Rod Serling occupies a central place in George’s Run. But the meeting of George Clayton Johnson with Ray Bradbury offers us something from the comic that retains all its meaning, six decades later. Bradbury (a museum bearing his name and artifacts, in my wife’s hometown of blue collar Waukegan, Illinois, opened last year) stands for a starkly different view of science fiction and its role in opening minds. His stories, adapted to EC Comics shortly before the massive wave of repression, offered readers a glimpse of the horrors ahead if the atomic/nuclear arms race were not halted but also a glimpse of aliens and civilizations that had something to teach the self-proud human race. Farenheit 451 along with a large handful of short stories best realized the social criticism made by a raft of science fiction writers, including some others who knew George well.
That George went onto Star Trek is logical, as part of the trajectory of a fantasy writer’s life. But there is much more. The world of fan publications and fan events can be traced back to networks of amateur (unpaid, mostly unpublished) writers who traded their own mimeographed newsletters as early as the 1920s. Sci-Fi fans gathered here, virtually, and then in person by the middle 1960s, trading publications directly, meeting and partying with authors as well as each other. “Trekkies,” a much-discussed phenomenon, led in time to comics events, later to Comic-Cons and all the regional events of today, sometimes grand but most often with self-publishers in the booths, chatting and selling copies to whoever the passers-by they could convince.
The subject of Star Trek itself remains, for many fans and scholars, important and bears symptoms of the richer mix of American popular culture emerging at the moment of its production. This brings us to the topic of the Other, a theme that endlessly drives discussion. Yes, Leonard Nimoy started in Yiddish theater; Spock is culturally Jewish without a doubt. And Uhuru is a staggeringly beautiful African American woman with all the sexualized implications, even if hardly acted out. And so on. But these, considered seriously, are minor notes. George Clayton Johnson’s scripts quietly urged viewers to ponder the fate of humanity within the cosmos, to get off the pedestal of human-centeredness and come to grips with terrestrial reality.
George’s Run bears all this meaning and so much more. But there is one more, albeit indirect, connection too delicious for me to leave out. Rod Serling called upon the blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson—before being purged from Hollywood, he had scripted the 1951 Oscar-winning A Place in the Sun—to help develop a crucial subplot that most viewers have taken in subconsciously. The humans are now allowed to speak. But when the human played by Rod Taylor asks to speak, the Chairman of the Tribunal interjects, “the exhibit is indeed a man, therefore it has no rights under ape law.” Those outside the definition of having the right to speak, cannot be allowed to speak, for fear that they will bring down the system. It was a plot that could easily have been taken out of Berthold Brecht’s Life of Gallileo, including the responsibility of the scientist to speak up against the threats facing society.
Such weighty considerations would have been thought, only a few decades ago, as being properly far beyond the scope of anything resembling comic art. Now, at last, we know better. Henry Chamberlain has given us a gift in George’s Run. Let us use it well.