Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
January 2010

Eat it if you want to grow up strong and mutated.

Stephen King's The Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born and The Dark Tower: The Long Road Home (Marvel)

I haven't read The Dark Tower. Well, I have, sort of. I read The Gunslinger while I was an undergraduate starved for something to fill the hole between George R.R. Martin books (that hole is still just as empty).

The "sort of" is because I would keep reading the same passage over and over, forgetting what I was doing. I forced myself to finish the book, but it wasn't so much finishing as it was looking at every page.

It's a book cursed by what King describes as "too many writing seminars," apparently seminars in how to make your writing more opaque and less plotty. In his introduction, King even admits that he had to rewrite it extensively in his fifties to be happy, and that you're better off starting with the second novel in the series, a sentiment other Dark Tower fans have echoed to me.

So this is an acclaimed, cult-favorite fantasy series -- the prolific author's self-described magnum opus -- and you shouldn't read the first book?

In any case, after having read Gunslinger Born and The Long Road Home, I feel like I've gotten a much better introduction to King's unique world. Much prettier, too. I even went back to The Gunslinger and understood most -- most, mind you -- of what King was talking about.

Part of it is how Peter David's masterful hand guides the dialogue of these books. It's the same way he's guided dozens of other comics through the years, wrapping up continuity and character in a masterfully wry voice. In this case he's beautifully true to King's mishmash dialect, i.e.: "The gunslinger is iconic and legend, your best friend, praise the Man Jesus, and your worst enemy . . . ya kennit?"

David currently writes my favorite ongoing superhero comic, X-Factor, and he wrote some of my (and everyone's) favorite Hulk and Spider-Man stories, including the futuristic Spider-Man 2099. Anything the man touches is instantly funny, wrenching and mind-bending. Somehow in thirty years in comics he hasn't lost it, unlike his 80s compatriots John Byrne and Chris Claremont.

Jae Lee's art is swimming in shadow, with exquisite posing and texture given further depth by Richard Isanove's brilliant deep-hued colors. There ain't no prettier book out there than these first two Dark Towers. Nothing. The characters stand massive in giant panels and two-page spreads, from the swirling black of Marten Broadcloak, the Man in Black, to the pale swollen spidery Crimson King to the smooth, shining Susan Delgado, with her long pale braid behind her like a trail of sunlight.

The haunting ghostly blue of the intelligent abyss "thinny," the deep dusty orange of the Crimson King's world, the greens and weathered browns of Gilead -- each setting is brighter-than-life, and as vivid as Lothlórien, Moria or The Shire.

For a newbie, Born retells some of the most fundamental moments that were retold in flashback in the actual Dark Tower books. Roland of Gilead, a gunslinger-in-training (a position akin to and descended from Arthur's knights) discovers that Marten O'Dim, the Man in Black and the evil sorcerer close to the demonic Crimson King, has seduced his mother.

Aflame with anger over the discovery, Roland challenges his trainer Cort for the right to be a gunslinger, so that he can in turn challenge O'Dim. Through a rather inventive choice of weapon -- his trained hawk -- Roland gains the victory. Hard for Cort to win when a hawk's trying to claw his eyes out.

In the process, Roland's hawk dies, crushed by Cort's hand. It's a sign of the future: Roland will often survive by pursuing his goal at the cost of his friends and allies. It's hard not to sympathize with him, but at times it's hard to like him. Nice anti-heroing, King and David.

Young Roland dons the nickel-plated guns of a first-year gunslinger, "caressing them as he would a woman, save with more love." His father intervenes with Roland's challenge to Marten, though. Steven Deschain knows that Marten O'Dim plots against Gilead, and even knows that Marten cuckolded him, but has determined that the time is not yet for Roland to make the move against Marten, intimating that Marten is more powerful than they suspect. Instead, he sends Roland, with his friends Cuthbert and Alain, to bargain for horses in the town of Hambry.

Bargain for horses? What?

I thought at that point that this story seemed determined to give us a contrived prequel "before-they-were" adventure. Luckily, Gunslinger Born is not an "early adventure you've never heard about," but an adaptation culled from the important flashbacks of the series. Every event shapes the Roland who will pursue the Tower through seven books.

In Hambry, Roland meets the woman who will be his love and his undoing, Susan Delgado. Meant as a pretty little concubine for the corrupt mayor of Hambry, she and Roland strike Wesley-and-Buttercup-style sparks upon first meeting. Those sparks fall on dry political tinder. The sheriff of Hambry, Eldred Jonas, and his cohorts are in league with "The Good Man" John Farson, a rebel determined to bring down the gunslingers of Gilead, and they mark the young gunslingers for death. It's not long before Susan and Roland make like bunnies -- getting rid of the virginity that made Susan a prize for the mayor, and sentencing her to death if she's caught. Which, of course, she is.

Blazing guns and heartbreak ensue, told between David's twisting dialogue and Lee's dark-drenched visuals. Also, there are tanks.

Toward the end of the story a magical MacGuffin shows up -- "Merlyn's Grapefruit," a kind of mental shortcut to the astral plane where the Crimson King lives. Roland is caught in it, and thus begins The Long Road Home, where Alain and Cuthbert fight off their pursuers in the real world while Roland is taken psychically captive by the Crimson King.

The Crimson King is truly one of the most disgusting spectacles ever laid out on comics page with his fat swollen body and knobby spider limbs. Like a good comic-book villain, he monologues out his plan for Roland. He is half-human, son of the legendary Arthur Eld and a demon queen of the Prim, Lovecraftian elder gods who live outside of the multiverse in chaos.

The Crimson King seeks the destruction of the ubiquitous Dark Tower, the stitch that holds all worlds together, to return the world to "the glorious chaos that existed before the Tower spun coherent worlds from a web of disorder . . . The wreckage of the multiverse shall provide a feast for generations to come." He's the Eater of Worlds. (As far as secondary titles for Dark Lords go, that's one of my favorites.)

Naturally, Roland is the chosen one who can aid the Crimson King in his mad plan. Also naturally, a brave young character sacrifices himself to save Roland and pull him from the Grapefruit and the King's clutches, so that Roland can survive to win the future.

Another dead for Roland's quest. He's starting to rack them up. King and David have done their work well, because at this point, having seen the damage Roland can wreck, I'm interested to see what happens after Gilead falls and Roland follows the man in black across the desert.

So I went out and bought the first four books in the Dark Tower series.

(It doesn't hurt that the gorgeous Steve Stone painted covers were all at the local used bookstore. They look so good on my bookshelf. Damn you, book-slut wallet!)

But so far, even knowing what I know, rereading The Gunslinger is rough. I feel like Roland chasing the man in black across the desert. Plodding and obsessed.

The sheer beauty, depth and superiority of these comic adaptations is odd. Quite often when a vivid and detailed fantasy series is adapted, it suffers. Chuck Dixon and David Wenzel's The Hobbit died from trying to keep too much of Tolkien's dialogue. Though Wenzel's art was brilliant, he didn't capture the obsessive detail and richness of location that Peter Jackson did.

George R.R. Martin's The Hedge Knight seemed a lot more vivid as a book than a comic. I could see the varied denizens of the market, and see the bright armor stained by the mud and blood of combat in the ending melee. The comic adaptation had none of that -- it looked as though the artist had copied from a rather pedestrian set of medieval figurines.

Neither of those adaptations was produced by talent on the level of David and Lee and Isanove, though David Wenzel, when allowed to draw pictures without too many cluttering captions, is fantastic. The others just didn't seem to get it. Adaptation is a tricky business.

Like the aforementioned Peter Jackson and his movies, a comic book adaptor has to be devoted to the process of recreating the story in a different meaning, not merely transposing locations and dialogue. Zack Snyder failed in Watchmen for the same reasons Dixon failed. He tried to keep the precise scenes and dialogue as they worked in the original medium.

Gunslinger Born and The Long Road Home don't do that. They give us something new, where the basic bones of the story and some of the dressing are told anew.

Praise the Man Jesus and say thankee sai for Peter David. And Jae Lee and Richard Isanove.

Next issue: I gave them the coveted honor of Best Superhero Movie of All Time -- now let's see how the all-new stories of The Incredibles pan out, from Boom! Comics.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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