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
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
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
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
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
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!
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth