Talking Shadow and Substance with Twilight Zone Writer Mark Rahner

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Talking Shadow and Substance with <i>Twilight Zone</i> Writer Mark Rahner

This week, writer Mark Rahner and artist Edu Menna kick off a new extension of the Twilight Zone mythos with Shadow and Substance, a new comic from Dynamite. The pair’s first story arc echoes the classic, bittersweet 1959 episode of the original show, “Walking Distance.” In this entry, a man inexplicably drives back in time to a boyhood summer in his idyllic hometown. Rahner’s dark, booze-soaked interpretation, “Stumbling Distance,” starts in present day and stretches back to the grime and decay of the 1970s as the main character, William Gaunt, encounters his drunk mother at a dive bar, and soon thereafter, his younger self as he tries to escort her home safely.

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Though the story springs from a concept first posited by original Twilight Zone mastermind Rod Serling, “Stumbling Distance” holds a personal connection to Rahner. The fictional town of Scoville sounds suspiciously familiar to the author’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. Scoville is also a measurement scale for the heat in spicy foods; draw your own infernal conclusions. Besides scripting comics, Rahner has 20 years of experience in writing and media that includes hosting The Mark Rhaner Show for KIRO Seattle as well as contributing to Seattle Weekly. To celebrate his new comic, Rahner chatted over email about what the classic TV show has meant to him and how to repurpose that love into fresh Twilight Zone stories for the printed page.

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Paste: This debut issue is the first half of a story called “Stumbling Distance,” which was inspired by The Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance.” Was there a reason you wanted to start off the series with a nod to that particular episode?
Mark Rahner: I’d had the idea brewing for some time, and it became a sort of variation on a theme, not a remake or update. More like chord progressions in jazz — but darker chords — and it takes off in a direction of its own. I’m not interested in lazy nostalgia.

“Walking Distance” exemplified a lot about The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling. He was obsessed with his childhood and hometown. And that story was fantasy, but completely human-centered and heart-wrenching. Starting with a nod to it seemed like a good way to let die-hards know where my head’s at: faithful, but raw.

Paste: Your main character — William Gaunt — is a writer, and when he talks to his boyhood self, they talk about writing and comic books. There’s a kindness to how the gruff, sarcastic Gaunt talks to his younger incarnation. Is there a personal element to this story?
Rahner: Yeah, it’s more personal than I’ve done before. But why not risk something if Serling could be so intense and edgy? Comic book writers were all comic readers, and young readers look for escape and sanctuary — and hope — in addition to the usual juvenile power fantasies. I sure did. And if you look at all the experiences that gave you depth and made you interesting as an adult, not to mention fueling your livelihood, would you want to protect a child from them? Or would you have more of a Star Trek Prime Directive hands-off attitude?

Paste: In the “Walking Distance” TV episode, the main character realizes how wonderful life was as an 11-year-old in a small town in summer. In “Stumbling Distance,” the look back is more of a nightmare, as the main character sees himself as a child suffering through a crappy home life. Why did you decide to write childhood as something we have to survive and escape?
Rahner: One answer is that Serling gave you his childhood, and here’s mine — a very sanitized version of mine, believe it or not. But times have changed, and I also thought Gaunt’s childhood would be more relatable in 2015. There are a lot of people who find “nostalgia” to be a foreign concept, if not a dirty word, and who’d never want to revisit something they were desperate to escape. Who hasn’t always wondered what they’d say to his or her younger self? We build up defense mechanisms and personas to get by — different ones for each of us. The “Stumbling” man has to shed those with difficulty to get through to his younger, tormented self.

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Paste: How do you balance making something personal with staying true to an existing franchise?
Rahner: If you cut me with a knife, I’d bleed an eyeball, E=MC2 and a toy SCUBA diver. I think I also share Serling’s anger about things I think are wrong or cruel or stupid, and the impulse to turn that into something entertaining, to comment. I was a newspaper writer before comics, and I do some talk radio. You get the idea.

Paste: The Twilight Zone was unprecedented and edgy when it first aired in 1959. Since then, it’s found its way into so much of American popular culture that we have more receptors for this stuff. Is there a way to try to keep these sorts of stories fresh? How do you approach these stories in 2015?
Rahner: That’s the challenge, all right. Take something with more than a half-century of familiarity, that’s seeped into every aspect of pop culture and try to touch on what first stopped viewers in their tracks. No one could recapture the impact, but it’s still what you strive for. I keep Serling’s themes and attitudes close to heart, and operate a little like he did, getting inspiration, melancholy — and again, rage — from my own experiences and observations. And believe me, he’d have had no shortage of material today. In fact, I think his head would be reeling. Serling used a Dictaphone and chain-smoked by his pool. I type 100 words a minute, enjoy a cocktail, and couldn’t afford a pool even if I didn’t have a deep-water phobia.

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Paste: What do you hope will carry through from the TV series, and what are the challenges of doing that in comic book form?
Rahner: I’ve also done two large Twilight Zone specials that had three stories each. The goal of those and the “Shadow and Substance” series is to make you feel like you’re seeing what could be an episode. There’s no likeness of Serling, but the narration should conjure his voice. One challenge is resisting the desire to go big in comics, because an artist can draw anything you can imagine with no budget constraints. But the scale of my stories is seldom so large that you couldn’t imagine it on a budget-conscious set or location. And then there’s starting more or less from scratch for each story. But that’s also what I love about anthologies.

Paste: I really liked the faces in the book, and the retro details in the sidewalk scenes and interiors. I noticed that a lot of the panels have that “golden hour” look of late afternoon, which I always think of as a nostalgic time of day in any city. Did you have any special notes for Edu Menna and the colorist, Thiago Ribeiro, in creating the feel of this story?
Rahner: They both did a really nice job, especially considering that they live in Brazil and didn’t grow up in mid-’70s USA. The power of Google can only account for so much, and you can only cram so many details into a script.

Edu had done a story in each of my Twilight Zone specials, and really got my attention with his second one, “Cold Calculation.” Then he did my Avenger — The Television Killers special, and it was so good that I hope people who may not even be into pulp adventures seek it out. It seems like he freakishly gets better with each project.

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Paste: Bernard Hermann’s score for the “Walking Distance” episode is sweeter and warmer than a lot of his other Twilight Zone music.Your character’s unexplained time travel is to the late 1970s — what music do you think would be good to read this issue to?
Rahner: It doesn’t get any better than Herrmann, and I’ll bet he inspired as many musicians as Serling did writers. I always listen to movie soundtracks while I write, and his Twilight Zone music has been in my heavy rotation for years. Emotional, weird, quirky, ambient — and just beautiful. His Vertigo score’s one of the all-time best, too. Sitting at my “typewriter” with Herrmann’s music playing while I concoct new Twilight Zone tales is a hell of a feeling.

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