By David Weiner
STAR TREK. LOGAN’S RUN. THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Three titles that have dominated the Sci-Fi realm with compelling, thought-provoking tales of the uplifting human experience — and also the foibles, follies and dark ironies of mankind. One man’s storytelling skills had a major influence on those original titles: The late, great George Clayton Johnson, who passed on to the next plane of existence Christmas Day 2015 at the ripe age of 86.
Late last year, I was pleasantly surprised to be asked to read a preview of a new book about Johnson — George’s Run: A Writer’s Journey Through the Twilight Zone, written and illustrated by visual storyteller Henry Chamberlain — and I was invited by Henry and Rutgers University Press to write a recommendation on the back-page cover.
Not to my surprise, the book was a blast — with Henry’s personal journey with Johnson presented as a colorful, creatively structured tale told in comic-book style, driven by anecdotal twists and turns that similarly follow the storyteller’s infamous stream-of-consciousness mindset.
George’s Run is such a fun and intriguing read that I was more than happy to recommend it, and I was also keen to chat with Henry about his experiences picking the brain of the award-winning writer.
A prolific writer and imaginative dreamer, the Hugo and Nebula-nominated (and Inkpot Award winner) Johnson co-wrote the LOGAN’S RUN novel with William F. Nolan in 1967; he penned the memorable salt-vampire episode “The Man Trap” as the debut episode of the first season of STAR TREK in 1966; and he graced us with such killer TWILIGHT ZONE episodes as “Kick the Can,” “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “A Game of Pool,” “Nothing in the Dark,” and “The Four of Us Are Dying” in the early ‘60s.
He also co-wrote the treatment for the classic 1960 Frank Sinatra Rat Pack heist flick OCEAN’S 11, and lent his storytelling skills to TV episodes of KUNG FU, ROUTE 66, and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.
A genre fan who works as a writer, painter, and graphic recording artist, Henry had the good fortune to spend time with Johnson starting in 2012, first meeting the Wyoming-born, California-resident writer at the Richard Alf Memorial Celebration in San Diego, then connecting through podcast interviews, phone chats, and once again in-person. Compelled to turn his indelible chats with the writer into a shareable work of art, he decided that a comic-book structure would be the best approach to document this treasure trove of oral-history nuggets.
“George was fond of saying that he was a daydreamer by profession,” says Henry, who calls the late artist a “storyteller wizard.” “He spent his days dreaming up his stories. In that spirit, I wanted my story of George to follow the rhythms of a dream. George and his cohorts were aware that they were following in the tradition of the tightly wound short story with a firecracker ending that was developed in the golden age of pulp fiction, beginning at the turn of the last century. They were all dreamers, savvy dreamers. Also, George loved comics. Many times, he would admit that he would have loved to have been an artist himself, inspired by the artistry he beheld in the newspapers as a kid. Comic strips like Tarzan, Popeye, Prince Valiant and Dick Tracy. So, it made sense to have George’s story told in the comics medium. Comics follows its own rules and that appeals to a rebel like George. Comics can be linear or nonlinear and don’t always have to be clear. The essential truth can emerge as you follow the narrative, just as it can in other art forms. Comics has its own very distinctive approaches to being enigmatic. If a work seems ‘disjointed,’ which is an overused term, well, heck, maybe there’s a reason for it.”
During his heyday, Johnson bounced ideas around with a group of great contemporary writers and creators that included Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon — a group that Henry likes to call “The Rat Pack of Science Fiction.”
“What most impressed me was that for all his praise of Ray Bradbury, which is very genuine, his ultimate praise went to Theodore Sturgeon. And that, my friend, is the key. It was Ted Sturgeon’s uncompromising attitude and his loyalty to getting his stories done right on his own terms that meant everything. If you look, you’ll find several versions of published Sturgeon stories leading up to the final gems. The crown jewel is Sturgeon’s novel, More Than Human, where all his ideas on how all human beings matter reached its crescendo. A careful reading of my graphic novel will make this clear.”
In the flesh, Henry found Johnson to be a very gracious companion, but also, “someone who did not suffer fools lightly.” Still, he adds, “What struck me the most about George was his sense of integrity. He was honest to a fault.”
Pondering Johnson’s versatile writing style, Henry offers his opinion on why the ‘60s and ‘70s-era writer ranks with the greats: “George was a voracious reader and dedicated writer. If you can develop those two passions, there’s hope for you as a writer. George had certain themes he naturally kept coming back to and, over time, was able to polish and refine his world view as a writer. He was fascinated with defying death, games of chance, self-reliance and the supernatural. In a lot of cases, his writing could fall within science fiction or fantasy. What distinguishes his writing is its integrity. George was always looking for a way to tell a story in an inventive and original way.”
Henry’s book George’s Run: A Writer’s Journey Through the Twilight Zone is a 204-page trip of a read, similar to cannabis-crusader Johnson’s pot-fueled flights of fantasy — so many wild stories that sometimes made it pen-to-paper, sometimes didn’t. Much like the Grateful Dead’s Truckin’ lyric, “What a long strange trip it’s been,” the concepts and themes explored within amount to a Kodachrome snapshot of Johnson’s big-picture questions about our place in the cosmos.
“I invite readers to seek out my graphic novel to get a unique look at the creative process that led to such wonders as THE TWILIGHT ZONE and STAR TREK. The story that I’m offering readers is multi-faceted and something I’ve made the intentional effort of imbuing with what George valued most in writing, ‘a touch of strange.’ Think of my graphic novel, in part, as the sort of entertainment you’d find in a series like STRANGER THINGS. What I’m dealing with is not just science fiction, or the golden age of television. These are matters of life and death. Yes, that’s exactly how George would have seen it.”
Henry adds, “It is my hope that readers will see, as I did, that George Clayton Johnson is a writer one can learn from and be inspired by. It’s George’s persistent need to create original work that I keep coming back to. He was always experimenting and would not settle for doing another version of something that was already popular. He loathed the typical producer out to bank on the latest hit with a knock-off version. I hope people will seek out his work. The original TWILIGHT ZONE has secured a place in the culture as viable and real as CITIZEN KANE. Since George’s contributions to TWILIGHT ZONE are among the very best, George’s legacy is secure. For a deeper dive into George’s writing, I highly recommend that readers seek out his collected works, All of Us Are Dying. You’ll find several hidden gems and gain a keener appreciation of his work.”
A few more questions for Henry about a few of George Clayton Johnson’s specific titles, and why they particularly resonated with him:
What was the first George Clayton Johnson film or TV show that put him on the map for you/grabbed your attention with his storytelling skills?
“‘Kick the Can,’ was most likely the first time I’d viewed a George Clayton Johnson TWILIGHT ZONE episode, and it gets me every time. It epitomizes what THE TWILIGHT ZONE is all about and is my favorite aspect of the show, when it achieved that perfect mix of the whimsical with the supernatural. George, Rod Serling, that whole orbit of writers recognized that mix as the sweet spot to aspire to. George kept aiming for it and he succeeds with his top four TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, all so iconic and memorable.”
Which TWILIGHT ZONE episode written by Johnson is your favorite, and why?
“‘Nothing in the Dark’ is so cinematic and a whole world all to itself. I could see it being developed into a stage play. It’s already so black box theatrical in the best possible way. It really tugs at my heart to see Wanda in her final hours attempting to outwit Mister Death, played by none other than a young and dashing Robert Redford.
I keep these special TWILIGHT ZONE episodes for a rainy day so as not to lessen their luster on me. I don’t think that will ever happen. I can appreciate the countless bits of details that all fell into place: George’s talents and vision had perfectly aligned with Rod Sand the rest of the writers. George was engaging with the motif of his life’s work: the struggle between life and death. And here he was triumphant: the show runner, the actors, everyone was on board.”
What makes George’s “The Man Trap” story a notable STAR TREK episode?
“‘The Man Trap’ is another strange case of perfect timing for George as he ended up writing the script for the first episode broadcast of STAR TREK, which took place September 8, 1966. It was his episode that helped set the tone for what this odd and experimental show was about. It’s George who provides that first bridge between the creative orbits from TWILIGHT ZONE and STAR TREK. There was some overlap between like-minded talent either directly or indirectly associated with both shows, like Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon.
At the time, there was still some tinkering going on with the development of the lead characters. George’s episode allowed for a focus to be placed on what viewers could expect from the content of this new show. In order to make the show more relatable, the creator, Gene Roddenberry, had tried to associate it with the popular Western TV genre of the era: ‘TWILIGHT ZONE is WAGON TRAIN to the stars!’ And George seemed to oblige by including a buffalo in the storyline.
George’s quirky tale about the struggle, and failure, of some to fit into society, even a salt vampire, gave viewers a clue as to what was in store for them in future episodes.”
Why do you think LOGAN’S RUN resonated with audiences in the ’70s?
“George and his co-writer, William F. Nolan, felt the time was right to return to the high-octane science fiction adventure stories of yesteryear with a whole new novel of their own. The novel came out in 1967 and the movie came out in 1976. Something was in the air, in the same way that the time was right for the original TWILIGHT ZONE.
Both George and Bill were well-versed in not only the sci-fi genre but its numerous offshoots and related genres, including mystery, horror and Westerns. Their intention was for the novel to be paced with the same energy as a shooting bullet, relentless and uninhibited. Many readers and critics agree that they succeeded. It was a classic case of everything old is new again. That’s part of it along with it being quite a rollicking and original story speaking to concerns we grapple with to this day: overpopulation, the climate, the state, ageism. STAR WARS seemed to take a page from the LOGAN’S RUN playbook but veered straight for fantasy and escapism, a trend that was to gain ground in the coming decade.”
George’s Run: A Writer’s Journey Through the Twilight Zone is available May 12 from Rutgers University Press.
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