Friday, January 05, 2024

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television by Koren Shadmi

When I was a lad, the standard bio-for-young-people format was a small hardcover, heavily illustrated but written in prose, in short, punchy chapters and topping out at maybe a hundred and fifty pages. There were a lot of them: I recall shelves in classrooms and school libraries full of the things, some of them in specific series from particular publishers.

At some point since that dim misty past, the format seems to have shifted - or maybe a new format has been added, but I think the old style is at least declining if not dead - into a graphic novel that covers roughly the same territory but in a more visually exciting (and reluctant-reader-appealing) way.

Now, let's be clear: the new style is not just for middle-schoolers who need to do a report on Random Famous Dead Person a couple of times a semester. But that is a large and powerful audience, with vast collective library and school budgets seeking books to buy all the time, so it's not surprising that things tend to be published that will fit that model, even if they were conceived for different purposes and audiences.

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, a 2019 book by Israeli-American cartoonist Koren Shadmi, fits pretty comfortably into that category: it covers Sterling's whole life, with a Twilight Zone-ish frame story where most readers will guess the payoff very early (which is very Twilight Zone, and so deeply appropriate), tending to play up the drama and struggle to give a clear arc of a life.

It's crisp and clear and sweeping, covering Serling's fifty years with a central focus on what every reader really wants to know: how he got to create Twilight Zone, what those years were like, and how it affected him afterward. To be reductive: he was an award-winning writing superstar for the then-popular TV anthology-show format; super-busy and stressful, with increasing network trouble over the five-year run; he didn't live long enough to get a real third act, and his second act was all reaction and scrambling for any, usually tawdry, work as the anthology-show format entirely disappeared.

Shadmi has been doing this sort of historical non-fiction book fairly regularly the past few years - I'd previously read his Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Dracula, which came out two years after Twilight Man. He's good at it: it takes a lot of research and synthesizing to present wads of historical context and full conversations (or large chunks of TV-show dialogue) in an engaging way, and Shadmi does that consistently here.

He tells this story in Serling's voice, which is appropriate for the man who so intensely narrated his most famous production but presents certain potential pitfalls. As far as I could see, Shadmi avoids them all: Serling comes across as understandable but clearly a man of his time, with the right cadence and style in his speech. Shadmi also keeps his trademark cigarette in hand consistently - I wonder if that was less of an issue in this book because it came out from Humanoids, a dedicated GN publisher, rather than the young-readers division of a major house? I would not be surprised if some school districts avoided buying it because it has a cigarette on the cover.

Twilight Man aims to tell the story of this one guy, and somewhat show what writing for TV was like in his heyday of the '50s and '60s - it does the former well, and gives at least a Serling flavor of the latter. The second half of the subtitle is more expansive than the book itself; it really is just about Serling. I see Shadmi has a couple of other similar books I haven't found yet; I'll be looking out for them.

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