The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television
I’ve enjoyed the relatively recent boom in graphic memoir and biography, particularly those stories that cover the lives of artists and creative people. Unfortunately, too often we see that those who make long-lasting works struggle personally, and The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi is no different. What sets it apart, though, is its setting in the relatively modern era.
The book has four major sections, tied together with a framing story that will feel familiar to fans of Serling’s best-known creation, The Twilight Zone. On an airline flight through the night, Serling shares a cocktail, a cigarette, and his story with his seat mate.
The first chapter is a war story, as the young, short, Jewish Serling struggles to become a paratrooper, demonstrating his dogged determination. After a brief stint as a boxer, he gets back to the slog of battle, with its pointless deaths and survivor’s guilt. I found this a challenge to get through, because it’s a relatively common type of story from the 1940s, but it’s worth it once he returns stateside, and it’s an important background explaining his drive and life choices.
His return is plagued by night terrors, and he goes to college, where he studies literature while writing radio scripts. His method of balancing what he has to do to support his wife while pursuing his dramatic interests lead to a lifelong habit of working too hard and sacrificing his health. He’s also strongly challenged by the conflict between telling meaningful stories and the commercialism of the media industry, as he begins writing for the live TV anthology shows like Playhouse 90.
The third section of the book sends him out to Los Angeles and covers the creation of The Twilight Zone, the peak of his career, as well as the toll it took on his life and family as he works long hours, addicted to caffeine and cigarettes. The shortest and final section covers what happened afterwards, as he sells out and passes away too soon.
The book is very much in the tradition of mid-century men’s struggles to come to terms with emotions in a macho setting constrained by expectations as a provider, but I liked it more than many of those types of stories because of the show business overlay. Shadmi’s art is astounding: clear to read, good with close-enough likeness without being photo-realistic or stiff, not showy but accomplished with a variety of settings, expressions, and moods. It allows the reader to follow and fall into the life without ever getting in the way.
I would have liked more reflection in the later chapters, to see more direct interaction with the contradictions of Serling’s choices, but perhaps that doesn’t need to be spelled out for the adult reader, used to their own compromises. The Twilight Man is a thought-provoking work about the toll “creative” industries take on those who wander through that machine.