December 13, 2009

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The Twilight Zone: The Monsters are Due on Maple Street

Original Script by Rod Serling
Adapted by Mark Kneece
Illustrated by Rich Ellis
Walker & Company (Bloomsbury)

The best part about living in a city with an amazing set of libraries is getting to stumble on little gems like this idea, a faithful but fresh take on one of the best TV series of all time.

I don't think I need to tell anyone who'd be reading my reviews what the Twilight Zone is, so I'll only mention that Serling was amazingly prolific as a writer and often used fantastical settings to mask his points, thereby getting past the censors.

Kneece recognizes, this and in a loving afterward discussing his set of adaptations (I was pleased to learn there's more than one of these books), he talks about trying to immerse himself in Serling's world, one that definitely was influenced by comics. His personal narration of each episode's opening and closing mirror that of EC comics's Crypt Keeper and similar characters from the pre-code days of comics.

In that way, the process has gone full circle: Serling used a comic trick to tell his tales and now finally comics are bringing his ideas to (nearly) budget-free life in a series for teen readers.

Monsters is a great choice to be adapted, as it is one of the best of the Serling-penned episodes. The plot revolves around the fear that can all too easily grip a group of people, turning them into an angry mob. The idea of humanity losing its humanity is a common theme in Serling's work, showing up time and again.

After a brief set-up, Serling looms over the proceedings in a pretty good impression by artist Ellis, telling us that Mapletown could be anywhere in the country. It's a pretty typical neighborhood, with the usual veneer of peace and harmony, until odd things start happening.

At first, people are relative cool about things, but then a child throws in the idea of aliens--possibly just from reading one too many Stan Lee-penned comic books--and the citizens on Maple Street start throwing out more wild accusations than a Sunday political talk show.

The drama shifts from person to person as the neighbors, former friends and probably co-workers, jockey to be the most normal and deflect suspicion onto weaker targets. The verbal attacks get worse and lead to violence. By the time Serling/Kneece add the patented Twilight Zone twist, the city is awash in chaos.

As with the original episode, Kneece brings Serling back to close the action, with Ellis giving him just the right facial expressions for his dialog, a mix of sadness and detachment fitting for the omniscient narrator. For after all, is such hostility confined merely to...well, you know.

Kneece's adaption gives all the drama and psychological horror of the original and does not deviate far from Serling's vision. This is either good or bad, depending on how you prefer your adaptations to be presented. I like it when the adapter stays close to the source material, personally, so this worked well for me. (I think if you're going to deviate far from the original, just do your own story as an homage, not an adaptation.) I can't speak for how it would play to a teen audience, but I only caught one glaring reference that would not be immediately known by a person not yet in high school. (I don't think 5th Columnists is a common term--Kneece should have used "sleeper cell" instead.)

I thought Ellis' artwork did a good job presenting the material as well. He plays things mostly straight, which works for this, and doesn't go overboard trying to make the fantastic elements more than they need to be. After all, the point of the story is man's cruelty to man, not the alien plot. He uses old-school Marvel house style closeups and Jim Aparo angle shots to break up the action, which I thought was particularly fitting. I also liked his ability to vary facial reactions and use body language to help tell the story.

This is very much a Savannah College of Art and Design project, as both the adapter, the artist, and the writer of the introduction are linked to the college. That's a bit unusual for something printed by an outside publisher, but also kind of neat. If I were a young man with art talent, I'd be interested in going to a school that was producing Twilight Zone adaptations!

I was very pleased with this book and I definitely will read more in the series. If you're a fan of the Twilight Zone, it's worth a look. Though written for a teen audience, I think it holds up well for the adult with an affinity for the source material.