Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born

I finished the Dark Tower book series shortly after the final book was released in 2003. It’s a huge work, flawed at times, but still a brilliant fusion of fantasy, western, horror and metacommentary on fiction itself. It’s a huge work, one that now exists in my head in a kind of apocryphal state, details hazy, but overall impact clear. That makes it an ideal time to read the Dark Tower comic series that just arrived in hardcover, a retelling of Roland’s backstory, starting with his adventures in Hambry, previously chronicled in The Wizard and the Glass.

If I was reading this immediately after finishing the book series, I might have had more issues. There was some stuff that was left out I’m sure, but it’s the big moments that linger in my head, and most of those beats are covered here. I remembered vaguely what happened, but the twists in the story still surprised me. This is one of the best cross media translations of a work that I’ve ever encountered, perfectly capturing the feel of the books, and adding what only comics can do.

I usually approach comics from a writer centric perspective, they are the igniting vision, while the artist just helps bring that vision to life. However, this series demands an artist centric reading. The reason the book exists is to bring a visual dimension to the Dark Tower universe, and Jae Lee and Richard Isanove do an incredible job, creating a moody universe unlike anything else I’ve seen in comics. Lee’s work on Grant Morrison’s Fantastic Four: 1234 was amazing, obscuring details, but conveying so much character emotion.

Here, he gives us a hazy universe that looks like a half remembered dream. Faces are frequently obscured, the backgrounds only sky. There’s not much detail, but in the posing of the characters, and the lines we do see, we understand everything we need to about them. Roland was always an enigma during the series, and the comic doesn’t give too much away. A lot of the problem with making a book into a comic or movie is the fact that you don’t imagine a fully realized universe in your head when reading, it’s more a focus on characters, what they’re feeling with the rest of the world trailing off, not quite filled in. To have a more detailed artist on this book would mean losing that sense of mystery. While some characters don’t look like I imagined, there’s enough room for interpretation in the world to make it your own.

That’s not to say that Lee doesn’t make the world his own. There’s a very specific vibe and feel here, particularly in the early issues set in the castle. You’re dropped into the world of this story, so completely immersed in it, and that’s exciting. It was great to return to this world after so long away, reading the comic does have me itching to reread the books again.

While Lee is the star, I’ve got to give big props to Peter David and the writing team for crafting a style that’s uniquely equipped to convey the feel of the book. In Wizard and the Glass, we heard this story from Roland’s perspective, here we get an omniscient third person narrator who’s explicitly telling us the story. The way I imagine it is that this story became legend in the world of the Dark Tower, and we’re listening in on some old man telling it around a campfire.

The narration uses the language of the series, the ka and thankee sa dialect. I’m not sure how new readers would respond, I think it’s a fairly open, standalone story, but a lot of the power probably does come from my knowledge of the books. The characters have added depth because of what I know they will become. Even if a new reader figured out the language, they might not get what’s special about the story.

But, as a long time reader, this is the perfect form for a new Dark Tower story. There’s a reason that books frequently get adapted into films, not the other way around, once you have a visual conception of someone in real life, it’s hard to go back to them just being a character on a page. That’s the problem with the Buffy comic for me, there it’s not exciting to see the characters in visual form, I just wind up missing the lifeforce the actors gave them. Here, with no previous visual knowledge, it is cool to see everyone on the page.

The other crucial thing to making this work is the fact that it’s not trying to tell the whole story. In a book series this large, you’re not going to capture all the details of the main story. By focusing on this one incident, a legend within the series, they’re able to tell one story that really works. I’m excited to see the future miniseries, which further develop Roland’s backstory and flesh out stuff from the main books. As much as I’d like to see Eddie or Jake in the comics, I don’t think the main ka-tet stuff has a place, we’ve experienced that story in the present moment, by focusing on the background, we get something added to the universe.

As for the story itself, I found it extremely well done. The pacing was fantastic, each issue dense and full of wonderful images and ideas. The villains were nasty, the heroes were likable, even though we know they were doomed, and the love between Roland and Susan really worked. The one misstep is the slightly rushed pacing on the last issue, but the scorching two page spread of Susan on the bonfire was powerful enough to give a strong emotional punch to the ending. I would have liked just a couple more pages, maybe revisiting Roland in the desert, to close things out.

But, on the whole this is a really amazing piece of work. I had almost forgot the series was even made until I saw the hardcover in the comic shop, so it was a great bonus when I found out the series was actually quite brilliant. It’s a near perfect example of how to translate a work into another medium and simultaneously maintain the essence of the original, and add in what only the new medium can do.

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