Fifty-six years ago this Saturday, television history was made, and the bar for thought-provoking, entertaining and skin-crawling programming suddenly made a precipitous upward leap.  Not long afterwards, comics got in on the act…

Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of The Twilight Zone #1 awaits!

TwilightZone1CoverTHE TWILIGHT ZONE #1
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Joe Certa/Reed Crandall/Tom Gill/George Evans/George Wilson
Inker: Joe Certa/Reed Crandall/Tom Gill/George Evans/George Wilson
Letterer: Ben Oda
Publisher: Gold Key Comics
Cover Price: 12 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $400.00

Previously in The Twilight Zone:  In the wake of World War II, a young writer/actor named Rod Serling began working at WNYC radio in New York.  By 1949, Rod won his first writing award, and found that his scripts sold more successfully to the new medium of television than they did in radio.  In January of 1955, one of Rod’s scripts (a Kraft Television theatre outing entitled “Patterns”) became a huge hit, so huge that it was given a second airing (damn near unheard of in those live-television days.)  Now a big name, Rod found his scripts even easier to sell, and when a story called “The Time Element” aired on the Desilu Playhouse (notorious now for Desi Arnaz ham-fistedly attempting to explain the premise and pretty much undermining the whole affairs), it convinced CBS bigwigs that a whole series of Serling-approved tales of the uncanny could be a big hit.  The Twilight Zone debuted in 1959, and was a hit with critics, slowly building its audience with smartly written stories, a strong human element at its core, and a tendency to address the ills of the age within a fictional format.  By 1962, having won three Hugo Awards, Twilight Zone made its way to comic books, thanks to Western Publishing/Gold Key Comics, themselves fresh out of a long publishing deal with Dell Comics, ready to find new properties to turn into long-running series.  After several one-shot appearances as part of the Dell Full-Color series, Gold Key’s creative team chose to spin Twilight Zone off into its own ongoing book.

There was no way they had any idea what was about to happen.  We begin, as any good TZ should, with Rod’s trademark narration…

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Many modern readers probably have no idea what a Dell/Gold Key/Western comic book was like, but if you’re one of those poor folks, this book serves as a perfect primer.  The stories weren’t necessarily world-beaters, but they were always solid enough, allowing an assortment of skilled artists to ply their visual trade.  (Carl Barks duck stories, for instance, were produced by Dell/Gold Key, as were hundreds of other cartoon folks and TV/cartoon characters.)  As intrepid skiers Ron and Larry are separated, and Larry falls through a gap in the snow.  Landing near a strange frozen pond, he is stunned to find actual children, who aren’t particularly thrilled to find a strange man falling outta the sky…

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The strange little girl leads him through a nearly abandoned village, where they are suddenly menaced by a polar bear, then dart through a door that wasn’t there moments before.  Looking into the highly mirrored walls, Larry is stunned to see the little girl turn into a full-grown, beautiful woman before his eyes.  Immediately smitten, Larry tries to understand the dreamlike events he’s witnessed, only to find her responses… odd?

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In a sudden burst of anger, Larry smashes the mirrored wall, causing a cave-in.  He tries to save his new love interest, only to have her sink to her knees, wailing that she will now grow old and ugly and die.  They are separated by the collapsing snow-structure, leaving Larry to dig away at the snow and ice desperately.  Before he can come close to finding the girl, he instead finds his friends…

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His friends nearly have to drag him away from the strange girl, taking him back to their…

…spaceship?

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I’ll be honest with you: This one’s kind of an odd story, one that wouldn’t seem out of place in an issue of ‘Tales To Astonish’ or ‘Strange Adventures’ of the day, hardly up to the best Twilight Zone standards.  (It’s still better than Season 5’s ‘Come Wander With Me’, but then, I’ve had fever-dreams from hydrocodone that met that standard as well.)  Our second tale is a little bit more ‘Zoney’ (albeit lacking in any images of Mr. Serling), in more ways that one…

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Petty criminal Mike, on the run from the police, climbs through a window that turns out to be the local museum.  Panicked by the police on his tale, Mike desperately runs deeper within the structure, seeking some sort of hiding place that will avoid discovery…

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He is overcome by a strange flash of light, and finds himself somewhere else entirely!

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Suddenly surrounded by soldiers, Mike tries to bully his way out, insisting that he be taken to the head man.  It’s a meeting that goes poorly, as the soldiers quickly grab his gun and lock him up in the brig, awaiting their General’s arrival.  Strangely unperturbed by finding himself in an a 19th century cavalry fort, Mike bides his time until he can escape.

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Unfortunately for our criminal jerkwad, stealing the guard’s uniform and snagging a horse leaves him in the middle of a squadron of other soldiers.  Mike rides along, hoping he can duck out, only to find himself in the middle of a massive ambush by Native American tribes.

In Montana.

Under the command of a General…

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While Mike struggles with escape, the men who pursued him into the museum finally make their way to his secret hiding place…

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…THE LITTLE BIGHORN RIVER.  While this story also lacks the trademark TZ flair of Serling (or Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Earl Hamner, Jr. or the other talented writers of the TV version), it does share some thematic similarities with the later Season 5 episode ‘The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms.’  In that story, it’s a modern tank crew sent inexplicably back in time, but the end result is the same: Modern man dead in historical setting.  Drumroll.  Curtains.

Why am I talking like Rorschach?  Bygones.  Our third tale is the most effective of the lot (also the one that got the cover slot, leading me to believe that 1962 Twilight Zone, unlike today’s anthologies, put the strongest stuff last), beginning with two men on vacation, a fishing trip in a rented powerboat.  A sudden, strange fog encircles their ship, leading to a near crash…

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The woman wearily asks them which way to Rock Harbor, leaving the confused men to tell her, only to realize that her sailboat is moving steadily in becalmed waters.  A sudden storm whips up, and the girl’s boat is thrown towards rocky shores before disappearing from their view.  The two men return to port and their waiting hotel room, where more surprises await them…

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The two men are shocked to hear that Carlotta is a recurring phantasm, a ghost who repeatedly drifts into existence shortly before a terrible storm, and the innkeeper warns that trying to help her has led some to their deaths in that same maelstrom.  It’s a warning that goes unheeded by Roy, who finds himself entranced by the face of the beautiful spectre.  Our intrepid protagonists continue their fishing trip, but some days later, the strange mist recurs…

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Dan tries to stop his friend, but the sudden storm blows in again, forcing him to take the wheel of their ship lest their tiny ship be tossed.  Lacking as he does a fearless crew, it was all up to him to keep the ship from being lost, because Gilligan’s Island references don’t just write themselves, y’all.  Returning to the Inn, Dan tells the authorities of the arcane events he has witnessed, but not only do they not believe him, they accuse him of offing Roy himself.  Two marshals return to the waters with Dan to investigate his story, only to find themselves engulfed in that same, strange fog…

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Of the stories in this first issue, this last one does the best job of capturing the lyrical nature of the television Zone, though its ending lacks a certain something that would give it that Serling oomph.  Still, the art is really well-executed throughout the issue, and none of the stories are full-on nutso howlers (something you can’t always say about paranormal thrillers of the era.)  Interestingly, this book lasted nearly 100 issues over the next 20 years, outlasting not only the original Twilight Zone series, but continuing after Serling’s death in 1975, meaning that he continued hosting this version of the Zone a decade after his passing.  (Seems appropriate.)  All in all, The Twilight Zone #1 works well-enough, and hits about the 60% quality mark on the Zone-O-Meter, which isn’t bad at all, earning it 3 out of 5 stars overall.  It’s never quite ‘The Invaders’, but it’s a better narrative than ‘Black Leather Jackets’ or ‘Cavender Is Coming.’…

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Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture! And a nice red uniform.

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