Tag Archives: Television

Review: AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS #1

AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS #1

When it comes to a comic book that is a big deal, it does not get much sweeter than AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS, based upon the critically-acclaimed novel and upcoming Starz television series by Neil Gaiman. Published by Dark Horse Comics, this comic is: story and words by Neil Gaiman; script and layouts by P. Craig Russel; and art by Scott Hampton. The premise: “Shadow Moon just got out of jail, only to discover his wife is dead. Defeated, broke, and uncertain as to where to go from here, he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who employs him to serve as his bodyguard—thrusting Shadow into a deadly world of the supernatural, where ghosts of the past come back from the dead, and a brewing war between old and new gods hits a boiling point.”

Page from AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS #1

Okay, you had me at the name, “Shadow Moon.” And a “Mister Wednesday” employs him to be his Shadow? And, meanwhile, there’s a war of the gods on the horizon?! Yikes, that covers all the bases! And it sounds like a story by Neil Gaiman that I want to be in on. So, I read and, yes, this comic book is a big deal. I never read the original novel and now I want to. It all starts with the little details back in prison as Shadow copes with his three years under bars for assault and robbery. It doesn’t matter what you did to get into prison, he concludes, all that matters is that you’re in.

Page from AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS #1

Gaiman follows a smooth realistic narrative that only begins to hint at the supernatural at just the right moments. There are little hints like an agitated fellow prisoner and a disturbing lucid nightmare. Scott Hampton’s artwork follows suit with a gritty matter-of-fact style. Everything moves at a steady pace, only hints to anything otherworldly, only hints to anything out of the norm. And then things abruptly, dramatically, change. Shadow Moon, the lucky guy with a second chance at life, is in over his head all over again.

Page from AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS #1

It’s hard not to have read some Neil Gaiman, especially if you closely follow comics. But, whether you are new or familiar with Gaiman, this is a series that should prove to be a treat for you. This first issue has been very careful to take its time with developing our main character, Shadow Moon, the ex-con about to face a colossal challenge. I’ll be back to see what unfolds. This can easily become your next favorite title.

AMERICAN GODS: SHADOWS #1 is available as of March 15th. For more details, visit Dark Horse Comics right here.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Dark Horse Comics, Neil Gaiman, Supernatural

VICE Releases the New VICE Guide to Comics, Horror Edition

Dick Briefer's FRANKENSTEIN

Dick Briefer’s FRANKENSTEIN

Just in time for Halloween, VICE’s art editor, Nick Gazin, shares his list of the top five scariest horror comics. With horror comics being dismissed by many as just a junk genre, there was a golden opportunity to fill that void and create great art using strange artistic styles. Nick provides a quick history lesson, and an unexpected treat among his choices. He also wears some big toothy fangs all for your enjoyment.

VICE Guide to Comics: The Top Five Scariest Horror Comics is right HERE.

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Filed under Comics, Frankenstein, Horror, VICE

Seattle Focus: MOHAI Presents TOYS of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s

MOHAI Presents TOYS of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Once a toy has become an artifact of childhood, it has reached a very special place. For the purposes of this exhibit, a look at American toys spanning three decades, the focus is upon the joy and comfort these toys provided. The context is both simple and complex as viewers are invited to study the various exhibits from their own personal point of view. Did you have a happy childhood? If not, maybe a toy helped you along the way? Sectioned off into three decades worth of childhoods, there is plenty to recollect and reassess.

Contemplating Toys and Childhood

Contemplating Toys and Childhood

“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is enjoying its West Coast premiere on display at MOHAI here in Seattle. Originating from the Minnesota History Center, this exhibit asks you to revisit many toys that, by today’s standards, would not be deemed suitable for children on many grounds, including common sense safety! Lawn darts, anyone?? Yep, we don’t see lawn darts sold in today’s toy market. They’re basically sharp steel projectiles. They’re not going to cut it, or rather, they ARE going to cut it! But, you see, lawn darts have a home here–on display only. Lawn darts are not subject to recall within the bounds of this exhibit. They are here to conjure up good lawn dart memories, for those who have them. And they’re also here as a subject for discussion. As much as this exhibit is a trip down memory lane, it also invites viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The Game of Cootie, originally launched in 1949

The Game of Cootie, originally launched in 1949

What are your thoughts on Barbie dolls or toy guns? You’ll find them here ready for your marvel or scrutiny. The point is that you’ll find all sorts of toys, whether or not they pass today’s safety or societal tests. The overwhelming nature of childhood memory takes over. Countless kids loved their toys and now we have the nostalgia for yesteryear and contemporary perspective to guide us. You’ll find a lot of kids attracted to the exhibits. You’ll see lots of families with their toddlers, too young to appreciate any nuances but ready to grab at anything not secured. And then there are the adults who grew up in these respective decades. For them, especially, the exhibit features living room re-creations for each decade on view. For these viewers, the couch is right there to sit and go back in time with, alone or perhaps to share with younger family members.

1960s Living Room Re-creation at MOHAI Toys exhibit

1960s Living Room Re-creation at MOHAI Toys exhibit

Toys are certainly not easy to pin down. Toys resist being dismissed even if the originals are stored away or thrown away. Toys come at you from every direction. At a certain age, they define your leisure, your means of escape. They can become your world, your identity. They’re based upon all you think you know about the world whether from books, movies, television, just about anything. What does a choice in a toy say about a child? What does a toy say about the adult who chose it for the child? The adult who created it? The manufacturer that produced it? The country that embraced it?

Atomic Disintegrator repeating cap pistol, introduced by Hubley in 1954

Atomic Disintegrator repeating cap pistol, introduced by Hubley in 1954

Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, introduced by Amsco Industries in 1958

Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, introduced by Amsco Industries in 1958

One of the best examples of how toys can make a difference is the American reaction to the Soviet’s being the first in space in 1957 with the Sputnik satellite. That little object in space caused shockwaves in the United States. Toy makers would definitively enter the Space Age and Space Race. Hubley’s 1954 Atomic Disintegrator, right out of science fiction, was all well and good. But now was the time to step up a focus on science and technology. Amsco Industries responded in 1958 with the Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, “designed by missile engineers, tested in Cape Canaveral.” And, as the display makes clear, kids ate it up! There’s this priceless quote from the exhibit:

“How did I get interested in science and make it my life’s work? Kids in the late ’50s and ’60s could get toys that complemented that interest. My friends and I loved my Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile: Mix up some baking soda and vinegar, put it into the missile, put it on the launch pad, and pull the string. That baby could really fly.”

–Mike Smith, b. 1952, meteorologist

It was fun, as a discerning adult, to wander back and forth between the three living room areas: the wonder and innocence in the 1950s; the keen interest in science and exploration in the 1960s; and a full circle escape to wonder and innocence in the 1970s. It seemed like, after having landed on the moon, and the rise of the Vietnam War, Americans were ready to refocus. Instead of looking to actual stars, Americans were ready to go see the new blockbuster hit, “Star Wars,” entertainment with its roots in 1930s pulp fiction. They were also ready to buy all the Star Wars toys.

Hey, that's Han Solo's Millennium Falcon!

Hey, that’s Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon!

I have fond memories of the ’70s as a kid. And I recall seeing “Star Wars” in 1977, at age 14, at our local movie theater at the mall. It would not have occurred to me to buy all the Star Wars figures, let alone a toy replica of the Millennium Falcon. But it was really nice to see the whole Star Wars set on display here at MOHAI. Any kid would have been thrilled to have owned them back then. But I’m sure that I owned a couple of figures. And I know that I went to see “Star Wars” more than once, despite the very long lines. I didn’t question any of it back then, although I was certainly old enough to do so. I was more than happy to accept it just as fun. I didn’t think about profit motives or the future of franchises or the American spirit. This brand new thing called “Star Wars” left you with a good feeling inside. And that’s the best thing any toy can offer.

TOYS at MOHAI!

TOYS at MOHAI!

“Toys from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” is on display at MOHAI through September 25th. For more details, visit MOHAI right here.

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Filed under 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Childhood, Children, Comics, Education, Family, History, MOHAI, pop culture, Sci-Fi, Science, Seattle, Toys

Interview: Jason V Brock on The Twilight Zone and The Group

George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Editor’s Note: If you are heading out to Comic-Con, and you wish to learn more about what we covered in this interview, go to a special panel, “Star Trek 50th Anniversary and George Clayton Johnson Tribute,” on Thursday, July 21st, 9:00 – 10:30 PM. Room: 9 upstairs inside San Diego Convention Center. Having written the first aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” George has secured his place within Star Trek as much as Twilight Zone.

Jason V Brock is a filmmaker, writer, editor, and artist. For this interview, I draw from Jason’s extensive knowledge of golden age television and pop culture. Among his work in film, he is known for his documentary on the writer Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), which is a rich source for our talk. At the same time, Brock’s academic work is just as compelling. I consider Jason a friend in the entertainment industry: we both share a certain sensibility. I hope you enjoy this concise version our geeking out on George Clayton Johnson and related things. We were both en route to a special tribute for screenwriter George Clayton Johnson that took place this February. So, it all makes sense.

In this interview, we’re chatting about that golden time in television that was “The Twilight Zone.” This is digging deeper into the background of the show and its key talent. For this talk, we’re focusing on George Clayton Johnson along with other members of what became known as “The Group,” which met from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Within that gathering of writers, the leader was Charles Beaumont. Some writers from The Group went on to write for The Twilight Zone.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jason, talk about Charles Beaumont, who remains something of a mystery: a great writer on the rise, dead at age 38. And then let’s shift to George, who also remains a mystery.

JASON V BROCK: There’s an interview with Charles Beaumont that was conducted by George Clayton Johnson. It was for a show called, “The Author and the Story.” And Beaumont recites from “My Fair Lady.” We include some of that in the documentary. If you can find that interview, it is well worth seeking out. Beaumont’s illness is a mystery. It does seem to come down to two possibilities: Alzheimer’s disease or Pick’s disease. I tend to think it was Pick’s disease as it fits in with what we know about Beaumont’s activity as he declined: slow and halting speech; a greater amount of impulsivity. What Beaumont’s friends believed was the main cause of Beaumont’s premature death was his routine use of Bromo-Seltzer, which had aluminum, a cause of dementia.

During this time that Beaumont was declining in health, he and George had a falling out. George was trying to figure out a new project. And they had a sort of disagreement. But, after a while, they mended fences. It was during that time that George discovered what was happening to Beaumont. Keep in mind that these were still young guys. The dementia started for Beaumont at around age 33.

Now, George will always remain a mystery. He was an enigmatic individual to be sure. A lot of people don’t know this but he was an underwear model for a time. He did whatever to make ends meet. He was, as he liked to say, “a dog without a collar.” He wanted to do things his way and succeed on his own terms. He was punk rock before that became a thing, and I admire that about him. He was a very intelligent person. He only had an eighth grade education. He was born in a barn in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He went through many phases. He was a beatnik and then became enthralled with hippiedom, and that aspect never left. He was a vegetarian. And he was involved with supporting the legalization of marijuana. Politically, he had more of a Libertarian ideal. He was also mercurial, open to new ideas, never crystallized in his mindset.

Ray Bradbury asked, “Who can explain the mystery of personality?” And I think George fits that perfectly. You could ask him one thing and he would answer back with the most unexpected things.

There was that aspect of overcoming the odds for George and his feeling a need to prove himself.

I look at The Group and think of it as the atom with Charles Beaumont as the nucleus. They’re all in different shells around Beaumont. The atom blew apart once the nucleus was gone. Everyone went in different directions. In the hierarchy, Beaumont was at the top. But, beyond that, in relation to success, was Richard Matheson in a role as mentor. Then there was Ackerman and Bradbury who were relatively older. What’s interesting is that Nolan and Johnson told me that they felt they were lowest on the totem pole in relation to the group. However, Nolan and Tomerlin were, in fact, closest to Beaumont. And then George was next to them.

George was more responsible. The three others did as they pleased. They would go to Monaco and crash a dinner for Princess Grace. They loved Grand Prix racing. They would run off and do all these things at the drop of a hat. Go hang out with Ian Fleming. George stayed home with his family. Richard Matheson stayed home with his family. George was one of the few who bought his house. He bought it early on and lived the rest of his life there. He hungered for that stability and security.

Considering those four core members, tell us more about John Tomerlin.

What’s interesting about him is that he was a catalyst for a number of things. He started in radio and that was his big love. He wasn’t really interested in television or film. The rest of the group dragged him into that. He was interested in competing and conquering. He was feisty. He became a bridge champion, and pilot. He was mostly in love with the Norman Corwin school of writing for radio. That’s like saying today that you’d like to write like the original Twilight Zone when we’re in the midst of Kardashian cult TV. It ain’t gonna happen!

Share with us more about other members of The Group. They seem to fade into the background and yet they’re all interesting in their own ways. There’s Chad Oliver, for instance, he seems pretty obscure but I come to find that he had his cult following.

Well, Chad Oliver really did enjoy science fiction. I don’t think that was where Beaumont’s heart was. It’s weird that Johnson and Nolan would think they were lowest on the totem pole since that was not true. After you move past the core, there are the top ten. Altogether, you could say there were thirty writers associated with The Group. If you’re thinking conceptually, outside of Bradbury, Beaumont was most influential closely followed by Richard Matheson. And then, after that, Nolan.

After that, it depends, as you give merit on a story by story basis. Stylistically, Beaumont was at the top. Followed by Nolan, and then Johnson. I would place Matheson at the bottom, as a stylist. His writing was very direct; he was not an atmospheric writer. His ideas and his characterizations are his strengths, and his novel way of looking at the universe. While Beaumont’s writing was more rich, a lot more substance to his delivery. Bill Nolan was a lot like that too, especially early in his career. Later in his career, his writing is more like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Hemingway. He started in the style of Bradbury, as did Beaumont. George also emulated Bradbury. And then they moved on. Bill did a lot of television with Dan Curtis. Mathewson wrote a tremendous amount for television and film, beginning with Roger Corman. His writing lent himself to screenplays. He wrote about a hundred short stories and then switched to novels.

Talk more about the dynamics of what was going on behind the scenes of The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury.

The Group would not have happened if not for Rod Serling. It was Serling who was the big shot in television. Ray Bradbury wanted to do that too. Serling came from the East Coast and steeped in great television, like Paddy Chayefsky. Bradbury has his side of the story of what caused the great rift between them–and we cover that in our documentary. I can see that it was jealously at play: Bradbury wanted what Serling had. But, The Twilight Zone, in fact, was always on precarious ground. Then there’s Night Gallery which left Serling without creative control which he regretted very much. Writers from The Twilight Zone went on to write for Star Trek and for Night Gallery. Nolan and Johnson both wrote a number of scripts for consideration on Star Trek. And, it was Johnson who wrote the first Star Trek episode aired, “The Man Trap.”

I can understand how Ray Bradbury would have felt that he could have done a better job than Rod Serling, even if that was not the case.

Bradbury would have directly said that. Serling got to the point too describing Bradbury’s style as best for the page and not the screen. Bradbury is more in line with Edgar Alan Poe. And that is more of an internal mode of writing. It is very difficult to transfer that onto a script. On the other hand, you can say Serling’s writing can be very talky. The modern equivalent to Serling would be Aaron Sorkin. Your mind is just snapping and crackling to that kind of writing. Serling was very much like that on his work for Playhouse 90.

Clusters of writers do crop up. You think of The Lost Generation Expats in Paris, The Lovecraft Circle, The Beats, The Group. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to form this bond online. You need that human connection.

Rod Serling is quite fascinating. And he did know what he was doing even if he had not been known for science fiction and fantasy prior to The Twilight Zone.

Yes, he had always been reading in the field. He had always been interested in science fiction and fantasy, reading it since he was a boy. He just didn’t have an outlet for it yet. He wasn’t a prose writer, that wasn’t his form of writing. He started in radio, just like John Tomerlin. Serling started writing from his direct experience in the war. He was in the Pacific during World War II. I recommend a memoir by Anne Serling, “As I Knew Him,” about her father. It is very well written. She describes how her dad wrote initially in a diary form to help him overcome PTSD. This would lead him to radio and, with his clipped style of talking, he was a natural for it. Later, he wins a writing contest for television. The writer who came in second was Earl Hamner Jr., who would go on to write a number of Twilight Zone episodes.

Indulge me and go even further into the background of the writing for The Twilight Zone. For one thing, everyone involved was hip to Weird Fiction.

If you break it down, story by story, what these writers were most interested in was Magical Realism. They didn’t really call it that back then in the United States. Bradbury had that aspect. Serling definitely had it. When you start looking at other writers from The Group, John Tomerlin and Jerry Sohl were much more interested in serious and realistic stories. So, it comes down to Nolan, Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson.

They all loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. They all loved Hemingway. They could not help but admire Hemingway as he was the big force in writing at the time. Hemingway had that succinct style that fit right in with their interest in noir. They tapped into the Magical Realism in Faulkner. They all loved Poe. And they all loved Bradbury and wanted to follow in his footsteps and write for the pulps. Beaumont loved Lovecraft. He loved Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” Had Beaumont lived, he would have pursued more work with social commentary similar to Rod Serling. It’s very interesting as to how it all came together as it did. It is something I’d like to write about in the future.

Thank you, Jason. As always, a pleasure. I look forward to our next conversation.

Same here, Henry.

Keep up with Jason V Brock by visiting his website for his work and that of his wife, Sunni K Brock, right here.

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Filed under Charles Beaumont, Comic-Con, George Clayton Johnson, Hollywood, Interviews, Jason V. Brock, movies, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, William F. Nolan, writers, writing

Looking Beyond the Nixon Mask

Nixon and Trump masks from PureCostumes.com

Nixon and Trump masks from PureCostumes.com

I went to a costume party just the other night. This ain’t my first rodeo. I wore my first Nixon mask when I was sixteen. I loved how weird and recognizable it was, just like the real Nixon. I was a political junkie way back then. Nixon was already out of office and I just knew from my political Spidey sense that this mask was here to stay. It followed me around quite a bit in my youth from one party to the next. I didn’t take it to every party (I’m no Nixon fanatic!) but, if you wanted a cheap laugh, there it was. Better than a guerrilla mask, although that’s a cool choice too.

I maintain that Nixon will always be the one. Still, I wanted to see what I might have been missing out on. After some careful study, I kept finding creative and unexpected options at PureCostumes.com. Look around for yourself and you will find something for any age and any occasion. You never know, maybe a Sixties theme would be perfect. You can have someone at your party with a Nixon mask but you can also have hippie costumes too.

Go Go Girl and Hippie costumes from PureCostumes.com

Go Go Girl and Hippie costumes from PureCostumes.com

This is my most infamous Nixon mask experience–and then I’ll share with you what I recently did. This was some years ago. I was dating this girl who, early in our budding relationship, invited me to an office party. She worked at a prestigious law firm and they were having their annual winter holiday gathering. It wasn’t a costume party by any stretch of the imagination but I was still pushing limits and decided to try out some subversive humor. Right in the middle of a rather quite and staid event, I whipped out my Nixon mask. I put it on and did a quick skit. Looking back on it, I think it was only meant for an audience of two, maybe three people, but I may as well have been performing for everyone there as it seems all eyes and ears turned to me rather suddenly. People laughed. There were some cheers. I ended by raising both arms with the double peace sign salute.

Now, just the other night, we had a neighborhood block party. I had gotten to thinking it might be fun to wear a mask and do some comedy. Why not, right? But it wouldn’t be Nixon this time. Besides, the old Nixon mask I used to cherish was long gone. So, that’s what got me rethinking the whole mask and costume thing. I gave it some thought and I concluded that a Trump mask was in order. I got one from PureCostumes.com and it brought back memories from my ole Nixon years. It was fun and easy to get into character. And it all ended very well. The important thing in these situations is to remember that you’re wearing the mask and the mask in not wearing you. We all got our Trump fix and it is stored away for now until next time.

Wizard and Violet costumes from PureCostumes.com

Wizard and Violet costumes from PureCostumes.com

Maybe you want to be a wizard. Maybe your kid wants to be Violet from The Incredibles. Well, you see where I’m going with this. My eyes have been opened. I have many options and I can find them at PureCostumes.com. There are numerous reasons for masks and costumes, right? Who knows, you may find yourself starting a whole new tradition with a Trump or Hillary mask. You just never know.

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Filed under 1960s, Cosplay, Costumes, Donald Trump, politics, Purecostumes.com, Satire

Book Review: ‘All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories’ by George Clayton Johnson

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

“Maybe she is right. Maybe nobody is interested in another science fiction story about the paradoxical nature of time or the mystery of existence. Maybe all they want is a simple love story with a happy ending.

Fantasy and science fiction doesn’t really exist unless it has a reader.

He has come to believe he will have a reader, so he has always tried to make his behavior justifiable, and as a consequence he spends a large part of his time explaining himself to an invisible judge he calls, “Your Honor,” becoming verbally adept at defending himself.”

— George Clayton Johnson, from “Every Other War”

I am really thrilled to own this book. It is a book that you, dear reader, will likely never own. It is hard to come by. Originally published by Subterranean Press in 1999, it has long since gone out of print. But prove me wrong. Seek it out! In fact, I do hope that will change some day. I strongly recommend that Subterranean Press or some other publisher, say Penguin Random House, create a new version of this 450-page collection.

Keep in mind that the author of this collection, “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories,” is George Clayton Johnson who wrote the first episode broadcast of the original Star Trek series. “The Man Trap” first aired on 8 September 1966. That first broadcast is what marks the 50th anniversary of what has become one of the most iconic television series in history. What was it about George Clayton Johnson that earned him that distinction? This was someone born into abject poverty at the start of the Great Depression, an 8th grade dropout, forced to leave home at age 15, and yet he would go on to great heights.

For those of you who faithfully keep up with my writing, you know that quite often the source of my various tangents goes back to my first meeting George Clayton Johnson some years back. When I found out about all the pop culture franchises he was a significant part of, then found out about his life, and then found myself charmed my the sheer decency of the man himself, I started seriously considering creating some sort of book about him. I was able to tell him about it as well as show him some of it before he passed away. He gave me his blessing. I told him, at the time, that I was still figuring out how to best present the issue of cannabis, as that was very important to him. He listened. He talked. He said to follow my passion. The meeting with him, in his home, in December of 2014, would be the last time I’d get to see him. I had gone to see him again, in December of 2015. I’d been invited and he still sounded hearty and joyful. But it was too late. He had been moved to hospice by then.

“I told you the other night how I’d re-read ‘All of Us Are Dying’ and how much I enjoyed it. When I came to the end of this story and read the last lines, I got goose flesh on my neck. What greater tribute can I offer you? Thanks for the neck bumps.”
–Ray Bradbury

George hung on until Christmas. George died on Christmas Day. His great mentor, Rod Serling, was born on Christmas Day. There certainly seemed to be some cosmic and poetic thing going on. And then you add George’s favorite subject, Mr. Death, the defying of death, the taunting of death. George, no doubt, left this world on his own terms. And here I am telling you yet again about what has become quite a subject for me: George and all things related to George. Yes, this is how creative people such as myself think. And, dear God, there will be a final resolution as I do intend to put the book out as soon as possible. It will be in a graphic novel format with plenty of room for the art and plenty of room for the text. They will need to trade places from time to time. Anyway, all this leads to my getting my hands on this particular book. I dare say, it is something of a Holy Grail for some geeks such as myself. My copy is a Publisher’s Copy and was from the library of writer Stanley Wiater. Stanley, if you wondered what became of your book, I’ve got it now, mate.

George Clayton Johnson with Robert Redford on the set of "Nothing in the Dark"

George Clayton Johnson with Robert Redford on the set of “Nothing in the Dark”

Each story in this book will tug at you. Take the story of two boys, George and Abraham. They just figured they’d make great friends, with great prospects, considering they each had the best of presidential first names. This was during the Great Depression when these two reveled in each other’s company. Neither of them had a cent between them. Then one day, they thought about how much they’d love to own a bicycle. If only they had a bike, the roads would be free for them to explore at will. They decide upon buying a beauty in flaming red enamel that they spot in a shop in town. The price of twenty-two dollars and ninety-five cents seems out of reach. But they find various odd jobs and their goal becomes attainable. They while away the time by mostly doing things that don’t cost them anything like listening to the radio perched on the windowsill of Abraham’s bedroom. George would be at that very same windowsill as he sits in vigil for his friend dying from scarlet fever. And so the friendship, the bicycle, that time and place make up this short story, “A Bicycle Like a Flame.” This is just one of the many gems to be found in “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories” by George Clayton Johnson.

"All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories" by George Clayton Johnson

“All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories” by George Clayton Johnson

Fans of the original television show, The Twilight Zone, will readily come to see which of these short stories in this collection would have made for another great teleplay by Johnson. But, as this book makes abundantly clear, you don’t need any prior Twilight Zone knowledge to enjoy Johnson’s work. How about “The Hornet,” a story of man versus insect with the insect seeking justice? Or perhaps “Dealer’s Choice,” a story about soldiers endlessly playing cards in order to avoid death? Or “The Freeway,” a story set in the future when cars mostly drive themselves and contribute to much less alert humans. Johnson wrote some of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes thanks to the show’s creator and main contributor, Rod Serling, taking a chance on him. Johnson’s first accepted story submission was “All of Us Are Dying.” Serling bought it and did the necessary reworking to have it better fit his vision, including changing the title to, “The Four of Us Are Dying.” Johnson always maintained that it was a great lesson in how to write for Serling. But, in the end, he liked his version best and thus the title to this collection. In both versions, it is essentially a shape-shifter story: a man who can change his face. In Serling’s version, there’s this specificity about the man attempting to exploit his gift. In Johnson’s version, the man is all the more vulnerable, not in control, and all the more universal.

As this book demonstrates, Johnson’s overriding plan was simply to create the best work. In later years, he went on to create more inventive work with the same care and precision as when he first started out. There’s the short story “Thorndyke,” for example. A couple argue at a party. It is a male and female. The female has been badgering the male all night. She wants to know why he won’t sleep with any of the other females. Thorndyke insists that he isn’t interested. Finally, at his wife’s insistence, he goes to see a psychiatrist about his disorder. It is determined that Thorndyke has a severe case of manogomy. And, as it turns out, these characters are actually rabbits. Thorndyke is the rebel seeking to remain faithful to his wife.

Check out the amazing cover art by Burt Shonberg, 1957.

Check out the amazing cover art by Burt Shonberg, 1957.

Wow, what do you think of the book’s cover art? That’s by Burt Shonberg, 1957. George would have been around 28 years-old when that portrait of Frankenstein playing a saxophone was first created. George and Burt and Doug Myres (the Gateway Singers) together ran a little shack of a cafe on Laguna Beach called Café Frankenstein from 1958–59. Burt created various Frankenstein art for the cafe. Apparently, he always favored a Frankenstein motif and, in his own way, so did George.

The most unusual work in this collection is “The Edge of the World,” a screenplay commissioned by Sid and Marty Croft for quite a quirky movie. It is an ambitious and colorful romp of a tale with Christopher Columbus transported to modern day New York City. What a movie this could have been! It’s fun to read such a sprawling and loose work. Johnson manages to get Columbus down into the bowels of the NYC subway system where he makes friends with a tough motorcyclist named, Cheyenne. The two get along and share a joint. This is significant subtext as it brings in references to Johnson’s home state and his lifelong support for cannabis. It also cues the reader to the building conflict, and irony, of Columbus interacting with Native Americans.

Like a rocket, Johnson’s career blasted off with his co-writing the novel that was the basis for the Rat Pack classic movie, “Ocean’s Eleven.” Johnson was only 30 years-old in 1959, when he became part of the TZ writing team. By the mid-1970s, he had written for the original Star Trek TV series and co-written the novel, “Logan’s Run,” the basis of the blockbuster 1976 movie, the most lavish sci-fi film of its day, only to be surpassed the following year by “Star Wars.” Johnson kept on writing. He even created a show ahead of its time, “A Man’s World,” where women are in charge and maintain a male figurehead for appearance’s sake. While Johnson’s show was rejected, a similar show would subsequently get the green light, “Charlie’s Angels.”

“George Clayton Johnson continues to write what he believes in regardless of the marketplace. He is the real deal. He is what other writers mean when they point to someone and say that he is a writer. He is a fellow traveler in search of the Greater Truth, of a kind of unified field theory for the human condition. For this is the true subject of his writing and the abiding core that gives it such weight and strength.
–From the Afterword by Dennis Etchison

The case of George Clayton Johnson is unique in that this was a writer who was most concerned with quality and originality. His worst enemy, Johnson was prone to say, was a meddling producer eager to copy the latest hit show. Johnson was attracted to a challenge, something unusual. A perfect example is his flash forward narrative for an episode of “Kung Fu.” Instead of a conventional flash back, the main character to this story is dependent upon something happening in his future. It is this desire to strive for the most inventive, and most immersive, storytelling that is a hallmark of Johnson’s work. This brings me back to the above quote. For those who knew George Clayton Johnson, they know he was quite a jovial and energetic defender of his work, and deservedly so.

Reading "All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories"

Reading “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories”

You can always look up video of Johnson’s work for Star Trek, Ocean’s Eleven, Logan’s Run, and, of course, The Twilight Zone. Here is a quote from “Kick the Can,” one of the most iconic TZ episodes and one of the four that was later to be showcased in 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” directed by Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller.

“Maybe, the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe, it’s a way of looking at things – a way of thinking.”
–From “Kick the Can” (Episode aired 9 February 1962)

As Johnson describes in his short autobiographical novel, “Every Other War,” he had been struggling to sell short stories he knew in his heart would find a buyer–and yet did not. That includes the above mentioned, “A Bicycle Like a Flame.” Things looked very bleak at the time. “Kick the Can” was still in its early drafts. It would prove to be one of Johnson’s best works.

What I want to leave you with, the goal of my own book on George, is to celebrate an individual who fought for the integrity of his work and went the extra mile to be insightful, poetic, and heroic. Take a look at his teleplay for Route 66 and you see an unusual story of playing the game of life. Take a look at his teleplay for The Law and Mr. Jones and you find an offbeat path to seeking justice.

Boil it all down, and George’s favorite among his work is his Twilight Zone teleplay, “Nothing in the Dark.” And his favorite lines are delivered by Robert Redford with all the grace one could ever hope for.

“You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.”
–From “Nothing in the Dark” (Episode aired 5 January 1962)

George was definitely attracted to the theme of death. It was H.P. Lovecraft who famously said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Death is the ultimate unknown. Lights out. What now? It’s the only game in life where, in the end, you’re guaranteed not to come out alive. It’s just a question of what you do while you’re around. George lived his life to the fullest. He won.

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Filed under Dennis Etchison, George Clayton Johnson, Native Americans, pop culture, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Star Trek, Television, The Twilight Zone, Wyoming

Book Review: ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ by Bob Proehl

"A Hundred Thousand Worlds" by Bob Proehl

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds” by Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl is in touch with the natural, yet complex, details of a mother and son relationship. In Proehl’s debut novel, he has Valerie Torrey face the bittersweet transition of her son, Alex, leaving behind childhood and quite literally having to say goodbye to his mom. It’s complicated but, in this case, inevitable.

Alex Torrey is a nine-year-old boy who hasn’t seen his dad, Andrew, in six years. In Alex’s world, his dad is three things: an actor in Los Angeles; a movie star he can see on TV; and, just for fun, the character he plays, a time traveling secret agent. It was Valerie who made the reckless decision to kidnap her son and raise him in New York. Now, Val seems to want to make things right by reuniting Alex with Andrew. Throw in an assortment of superheroes, monsters, and robots, and you have the engaging debut novel by Bob Proehl, “A Hundred Thousand Worlds,” published by Viking.

This story hangs together very well on the tiny frame of nine-year-old Alex, who is at that magical age of still being very much a child and yet capable of profound observation. He is a character type that has been brilliantly employed in some great fiction from such diverse writers as Günter Grass, John Irving, and Jonathan Safran Foer. So, Proehl has created his very own charming and sad little imp. Alex questions everything. He has certain rituals he follows to help him find answers like reversing the letters to various names hoping to tap into some hidden meaning. It makes no sense to an adult but follows kid logic. From this heartbreaking innocence we can compare our own journey to self-discovery.

Valerie met Andrew while the two were starring in the hit sci-fi series, “Anomaly.” The mystery is what triggered Valerie to run away with Alex to New York. Proehl sets in motion a clever device to get Valerie, Andrew, and Alex reunited. Six years of separation from his father has taken its toll on Alex, a situation crying out for resolution. Valerie leverages her pop culture status and picks up some appearances on the comic book convention circuit, enough to cover her expenses on her odyssey with Alex, from New York back to Los Angeles. Along the way, we get plenty of jokey references to the comic book industry, many which will be appreciated by diehard fans.

Proehl’s work is ambitious as he juggles numerous pop culture references while developing something deeper. He does a wonderful job of straddling the lighthearted accessibility of a young adult novel with the richer field of literary fiction. Valerie, for example, is quite compelling as a flawed character. Andrew has made some obvious bad choices but Valerie has much to work out like her smothering overprotective nature.

Proehl knows how to satirize pop culture quite well. It is remarkable that he also knows how to evoke the qualities that attract us to mass entertainment. Nothing is ever so simple, not a divorce, not a child, not even a comic book.

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds Hardcover” is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, available as of June 28, 2016. For more details, visit Penguin Random House right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Comic-Con, Comics, pop culture, Superheroes

Essays: When You Need Help

Bryan Cranston, as Dalton Trumbo writing in bathtub

Bryan Cranston, as Dalton Trumbo writing in bathtub

Dalton Trumbo was a very prolific writer. Even during the time he was black-listed during the Red Scare, he steadily kept on creating screenplays. His one weakness was writer’s block. He solved that my relaxing in a warm bath–with a typewriter. Yep, he wrote his best work while siting in his bathtub. We all do what we need to do.

Some of us out there would never dare ask for any kind of help when working on a writing project. And, sure, most of the time, most folks can handle something like an essay–but not always. There are a number of things that can help and I’ve tried them all at different times. Let’s see, the first thing is to have a clear mind that allows you to focus. But if various factors start to close in on you, and you have a looming deadline, then keep in mind that, all is not lost. You can always find essay writing help.

Now, in college, I thought of myself as a perfectionist but, at such a young age, I was still battling a really bad case of procrastination. Lucky, for me, way back then, I had Barbara, a friend I could rely upon to help me out of a tight spot. In fact, she was my best friend in all the world. We’d go out. We’d kiss. She’d tease. But, basically, we were just friends. In the same spirit as our relationship, she wouldn’t come right out and write my whole paper for me, even though I sometimes begged her to. But, rubbing my back, and reassuring me with hugs, she would provide the necessary hints to get me going. And that always did the trick. She got me going really well with jokes, puns, even acting out passages I should dictate. She never charged a fee, of course. But I would easily have paid for her services. One of the best helping sessions, perhaps the most inspired, was Barbara’s doing a sort of charades to “Beowulf.” Yes, all those years ago, before the internet, and before that venerable classic had yet to be turned into a movie. It was such thick reading, I never dreamed it was possible to turn it into a movie!

Inspiration can never be rushed. It’s like they say, a watched pot never boils. But, once you relax, that’s when the creative juices start flowing. It’s as simple as three B’s: in Bed, on the Bus, or in the Bath. Those are three places that you find yourself off guard and ideas bubble up to the surface. I recall another story from my early years. I had a little studio apartment. I had undressed and was just about to jump into the shower when inspiration hit me. I had been feverishly trying to figure out the ending to a short story and, right then and there, I had it. I had the whole ending just dangling in front of me. I knew I could either think about it in the shower or I could rush to my typewriter. I chose to just sit down naked and start typing. It was actually pretty liberating. And, in no time at all, I had my story set down on paper! And there was a bonus to all this. The doorbell rang and I remember, just like an impulsive youth, I ran up and answered it without covering up a stitch. I had a very good guess as to who was at my door. It was my old pal, Barbara. She had never quite seen me in all my glory. I guess she was impressed. I know that we dated seriously for a while after that.

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Book Review: ‘Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures’

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Fasten your seat belts, you can expect a wild ride starting this September and rolling on to the following September as Star Trek fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of the original “Star Trek” television series. The first episode broadcast was on September 8, 1966. It was “The Man Trap,” written by George Clayton Johnson, known for his iconic episodes on “The Twilight Zone.” If you are looking for a true guidebook not only to the Star Trek phenomena, but also to a deeper understanding of the dynamics to the show, then you’ll want to seek out “Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures,” published by Rowman & Littlefield, edited by Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode.

“Wagon Train,” first aired in 1957, became such a hit on TV that it symbolized the popular Western of the small screen. By 1962, NBC, sensitive to new trends, cancelled the show, still number one in the Nielsen ratings. Gene Roddenberry, a promising new writer, pitched the future to NBC: “Star Trek, a Wagon Train to the stars!” Old frontier meets new frontier! Space cowboys! The Final Frontier! It was the space age ahead: JFK’s promise of a man on the moon before the end of the decade! And so NBC could hardly resist, although Star Trek would endure a bumpy existence during its three season run.

Only in retrospect, would Star Trek gain the recognition it richly deserved. Douglas Brode kicks off the recurring themes in the book in the introduction. Brode dissects the creative connective tissue running throughout Star Trek: 1956’s sci-fi classic movie, “Forbidden Planet” and its connection to The Twilight Zone and so on. Star Trek is forever appealing because of its idealism and optimism. That is clearly demonstrated in this insightful collection of essays. The Wild West gives way to the Space Age while, at the same time, the old frontier is consistently subverted, deconstructed, and used as metaphor.

"Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures," published by Rowman & Littlefield, edited by Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode

“Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures,” published by Rowman & Littlefield, edited by Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode

In H. Bruce Fanklin’s essay, “Of Television in the 1960s,” we follow the evolution of Star Trek’s reaction to the Vietnam War. In two episodes, there are stories that suggest the war could be a necessary evil. However, once the war proves futile, there are two episodes that suggest the fatal consequences of a quagmire. An emboldened anti-war sentiment is clear in the episode, “The Omega Glory” (March 1, 1968). Kirk and his crew observe a planet that has been ravaged by war between the Kohms and the Yangs. Closer observation reveals that the Yangs, now reduced to savages, are actually Yanks, from a parallel Earth, losers in a war with no victors.

In John Wills’s essay, “Wagon Trains to the Stars,” we focus on the fantasy of the Hollywood Western in contrast to reality. In the episode, “Spectre of the Gun” (October 25, 1968), Kirk and his crew will only survive a reenactment of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral once they accept it is artifice. In the episode, “The Paradise Syndrome” (October 4, 1968), we see the problems with stereotypes inherent in the standard Western fantasy. All things considered, one has to wonder if NBC would have gone along with the more ambitious and unconventional content on the show had it known that when the first pitch was made that Star Trek was to be a “Wagon Train to the stars.”

As I say, Star Trek is hitting the Big 5-0. You can expect more about Star Trek coming to you from various directions. CBS is launching a totally new Star Trek television series in January 2017! There will be numerous seminars and celebrations in 2016 and 2017. For example, CBS Consumer Products announced a global Star Trek speaker series in celebration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary, Trek Talks. Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle has an exhibit, “Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds,” on the Star Trek phenomenon, its enduring impact on our culture, and how Star Trek has inspired people to imagine, explore, and create.

“Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures,” is a 236-page hardcover published by Rowman & Littlefield. For more details, go here.

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Filed under Experience Music Project, Gene Roddenberry, George Clayton Johnson, Rowman & Littlefield, Sci-Fi, science fiction, Star Trek, Television, Westerns

DVD Review: TRUE DETECTIVE, Season One

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson

Nic Pizzolatto, the showrunner for HBO’s “True Detective,” deserves credit for creating and writing a genuinely entertaining show. There was a certain amount of controversy over Pizzolatto borrowing from other writers, notably cult favorite Thomas Ligotti. At this point, that literary baggage is part of the show. This is not what Nic Pizzolatto would prefer given his backtracking on any connection to Thomas Ligotti to where you wonder if he’d like to claim to have never heard of Ligotti. At first, he readily acknowledged the Ligotti influence. Later, he disavowed it.

But Pizzolatto did more than know about Thomas Ligotti. Pizzolatto enbued one of his main characters, the otherworldly Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) with a Ligottian charm and turn of phrase. The Rust Cohle character says: “I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat … Force a life into this thresher.” While Thomas Ligotti, in “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race,” refers to people being “stolen from nonexistence,” and says “we are meat.” I’ll tell you something, it all works on this show but you really have to thank Matthew McConaughey’s stellar performance for sealing the deal.

Anyway, at this point, Ligotti is as much as part of the first season of “True Detective” as Matthew McConaughey is a part of the first season of “True Detective.” There is no other way. To be honest, it was the best, and only, way that I got through my binge-viewing of all eight episodes. I kept looking forward to what else Pizzolatto would do with his Tarantino-like borrowing from various sources. If he’s going to do it, then he needs to own it, so to speak, and not backtrack. That said, this pastiche technique is intriguing. What may be less intriguing is how much this series resembles any other police procedural. Pizzolatto does save us from something too obvious by giving us a couple of quirky leads in this decidedly character-driven drama. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are the dream team and they do not disappoint. I especially like how Harrelson’s character Marty Hart, a no-nonsense detective, is not going to put up with another of his partner’s nihilistic soliloquies. Marty tells Rust to just button it.

Much of our story is about these two guys and their nearly twenty years together, off and on. There’s a very long off period but highly unusual circumstances bring them together. No doubt about it, this is both a credible mystery and thriller. And it makes for quite a compelling study of two men’s struggles to exist on their own terms with dignity and purpose. Marty Hart seems like the simple straight shooter but he is just as vulnerable to go completely off the rails as Rust Cohle who seems to be the one with only a weak link to reality. That proves to not be the case at all as Rust is far more capable than given credit for. But no one ever said that life is fair, certainly not Rust Cohle. Part of what drives Cohle and Hart is to seek out a little fairness. It is one of the oldest stories ever told and this is a good one.

I happened to get Season Two of this series by mistake. I knew when it started out with Colin Farrell driving his nerdy son to school, that I’d taken a wrong turn. That is the thing with this show, each new season is a whole new story. Apparently, Season Two left fans cold. And it looks like this quirky series will not be moving forward much longer. Rumor has it that Season Three has been cancelled. And so I come full circle with the Ligotti connection. Had Pizzolatto chosen not to distance himself from his use of Ligotti that could have led this show down some interesting paths. It would have been roads less travelled sharing in the true spirit of the dark world of Thomas Ligotti. For more of Ligotti, all one need do now is go to the source and read Ligotti along with other masters of weird fiction.

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Filed under Dark Fantasy, HBO, Nic Pizzolatto, Television, Thomas Ligotti, Weird Fiction