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.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

52: 39-52

I finished reading 52 yesterday, and the last volume was at times exhilarating, at times very frustrating. It wasn’t a particularly definitive finale, but on the whole, I’m happy with the way things turned out. The book doesn’t work as a standalone story, there’s some resolution for the various plots, but it’s really more of a look at an ever evolving narrative universe. A piece is excerpted here, and from this point, it will continue to evolve.

The first few issues in this volume are easily the weakest, probably of the series as a whole. We start with the resolution of the Steel/Luthor arc, the weak point of the book for its entire run, and not particularly compelling here. One of the major problems was the fluctuating nature of the everyman powers, and the fact that Steel just wasn’t as compelling a character as the people in the other plotlines. I was glad to see this one resolve itself, but it wasn’t very compelling in and of itself.

From there, we move to the resolution for Ralph Dibny, in what is another one of the series’ worst issues. One of my major issues with the creators of the series is that they constantly go for the all is not as it appears kind of plot twist that requires an entire issue of backstory to fill in what really happened. This happened with Booster Gold and his false death, and it happens here again, where we have to get an infodump from Ralph to explain his real plan and the tricking of the faux Dr. Fate. This issue also suffers from the fact that it goes into really obscure DC material, and without knowing who Faust is, the story doesn’t do much for me emotionally.

The early issues of the book worked because they made you care about these characters, even if you had no idea who they were before reading the series. Here, the story feels like a copout and makes no sense to me. I don’t really care why Ralph should want to trap this guy in eternity, and I got basically no emotion from his death at all. It’s a lame resolution for what was a really cool plotline, and takes a character off the board in a lackluster way. I’m sure he’ll be back at some point, but this issue was just lame and bad. Reading these first couple of issues, I was hoping Grant wasn’t writing anything because I don’t want to think he could do something so misguided. Admittedly, part of the problem could be that I just wasn’t into the series, and what would have made sense coming immediately after #39 feels nonsensical after a couple of months off. But, that would just make these issues a little better, they are still deeply flawed on a structural and emotional level.

Once those first couple of issues are out of the way, things start to pick up. The stuff with Renee has consistently been one of the strongest plotlines in the series. She’s a character who feels real and relatable, and her journey to becoming the Question is well paced and emotionally believable. I love the stuff in Nanada Parbat, particularly the issue with Giuseppe Cannucoli, whose art reminds me of Ryan Sook’s work on Zatanna. I actually thought that Wonder Woman was Zatanna, and was a bit disappointed to read in the backmatter that she wasn’t.

Still, I did really like the moment later on when Diana encounters Rama Kushna and is told to go out and live with her new human failings. That’s the kind of moment where a genre element is used to create an emotion that can’t be replicated in real life. It’s this pure acceptance of humanity’s limits and potential, and I think there’s something humbling about it. Rama Kushna may be an old DC character, I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a universally relatable concept that anyone can understand. I think that’s the difference between a lot of the series’ good moments and it’s weaker ones. When things are working, the characters feel fresh and real, when things aren’t working, you are left to assume that this character is in there because they must have been in some cool stories in the past.

One of my favorite character reinventions in the series is the absurdly over the top Chang Tzu. He’s simultaneously a totally ridiculous figure and extremely menacing. That they could make a giant egg into a credible villain is an amazing accomplishment. The issue where the Oolong Island scientists prepare for Black Adam’s invasion is one of the best, a nice mix of humor and real menace. I also like the motivation for their villainy, that they see themselves as part of an ongoing nerds vs. superjocks battle, and want to use their intelligence to defeat the naturally gifted, athletic heroes. That’s an interesting spin on things, and fits with what Morrison did with Luthor in All Star Superman. How do you deal with the fact that no matter how smart you are, no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to match up with a superhero? That’s not the message we get from a world that is supposed to reward intelligence and hard work.

That brings us to the major throughline of these issues, Black Adam’s assault on the world. I think this is clumsily handled. The buildup is fantastic, particularly Osiris’s accidental killing of the Suicide Squad guy. Here, we get the twist that Sobek is evil, and an assault by the four horsemen on Kandhaq. I love the idea that this Death is the literal embodiment of Death, and that in fighting him, he can somehow defeat all death and save his nation.

The thing that kills the story for me is when Isis tells Black Adam that he was originally right, and should go out and destroy the humans who called the Horsemen down. In the backmatter, they hail this as a brilliant twist, I think it’s a complete betrayal, and nonsensical decision from the character, undermining everything they’ve built up about her earlier in the story. This is an ordinary woman at heart, and even if she’s been a god for a while, I don’t think she would give in to hate in this way. I suppose you could make it work, in her grief for her people and her brother, but the story just doesn’t play that way for me.

Instead, it feels like their goal was to make Black Adam go nuts, and the story justification came second. I never felt the same rage that I did in, say, the Dark Willow storyline at the end of season six. There, I disapproved of her killing Warren, but could totally understand it. Here, his reaction is so over the top that there’s no way to justify it. The conflict is removed by the fact that Isis has taken away any moral conflict. He can justify anything by saying he is doing her will, whereas if she had told him to not to take revenge, there would be great internal conflict. We basically lose all the development Black Adam went through over the course of the series once he snaps, and get no sense of remorse or uncertainty about his destruction. It’s a regression, and really doesn’t work for me.

What does work is aforementioned Oolong Island attack issue. My favorite moment is Veronica Cale’s delusional walk out to meet Adam. I love how she tells him “I made the things that killed your family, you arrogant alpha-prick.” She wants to be this badass villain, but winds herself neglected when it comes time for the action scene, and she just wanders off. There’s something so powerful in Adam just passing her by. Fiction is weird, why do certain small moments like this work, while other moments, like the hugely built up Adam conflict stuff, fail? What gives something meaning? I don’t know, I guess it depends on every individual reader. Are the best stories the ones that resonate with the most people, or are they ones that hit a few people on a deep, soul changing level?

Anyway, Will Magnus gets some pretty cool stuff in these last issues. I like his use of the little Metal Men to defeat Chang Tzu. He’s a very 60s style hero, as reflected in the fantastic Bondesque J.G. Jones cover with him firing the Metal Men bullets. Oolong started off a little confusing, but once I got to know all the people, it was consistently one of the most satisfying plotlines.

The big confrontation with Black Adam is very Miraclemanesque. It’s well done, but I can’t help the feeling that Miracleman #15 pretty much owns this kind of story. What I did love here was the glimpses of some Seven Soldiers characters, particularly the Zatanna cameo. I think it’s a testament to the power of what Grant did that characters who were in five issues can have me literally exclaiming “Bulleteer!” or “Guardian!” It doesn’t make much sense for them to be there, particularly Alix, who gave up heroing at the end of the series, but whatever. It’s great that Zatanna gets a speaking part, doing a lower scale version of her Ekirts sreidloS neveS command from 7S#1.

Another standout moment in this volume is Buddy’s return to Ellen. The goings on with the yellow aliens were a bit disappointing, we didn’t get anything new, just an echo of what happened in the original book. I suppose it’s still cool, but I would have liked to see that story integrated with the evolving DC cosmology Morrison presented in Seven Soldiers.

Regardless, the return of Buddy to Earth as a glowing sun god is fantastic. It feels totally real and yet dazzling at the same time. It’s been a long journey back home, and it’s great to see him get back. I also really like the moment where Kory finally shows up at Buddy’s house and Ellen quips, “Did Roger hire a stripper?” The subsequent moment where Cliff calls her an “E.T. with DD’s” is awful, but doesn’t kill the moment. I just hope Morrison didn’t write that line. Either way, consisting Buddy’s always been kind of the sitcom character of the DCU, it makes sense to go out on a cheesy joke before the credits. Sadly, I find myself tempted to read Countdown to Adventure to get the further adventures of Kory and Buddy back on Earth.

Things then shift tones drastically for the final issue of the series. While I like the revelations about the multiverse, I feel like they kind of come out of nowhere. There was set up early in the series, but not much in the second half, and to have what is in theory the climax of the series revolve around it is a bit odd. Still, with the background of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, this actually made sense to me, and it’s pretty exciting to get a miniature Crisis happen in one issue. Booster’s one of the series’ stronger characters, and the tour through the other worlds is a success.

While this technically isn’t the old multiverse, it’s pretty close, and opens up some new storytelling possibilities for the DCU. I like the craziness of the multiverse, and I think this new multiverse will avoid a lot of the problems of the old one. There is now one definitive Superman, one definitive Batman, etc. so the other Earths can be more about exploring stories that don’t fit into mainstream DC continuity. The rebirth of Uncle Sam and his crew on their own world puts them in a place that makes more storytelling sense. It doesn’t necessarily work as a dramatic resolution for 52, but as an end in itself, it’s a success.

The final pages of the series do a nice job of wrapping things up, though the final moment is a bit odd. It’s not so much an ending as a stopping point, and I’m not sure why “Are you ready” is the last thing. I guess 52 was a prelude for the DCU to come, and now we’re being asked if we’re ready for it. I would have gone for more of a stasis moment.

Ultimately, I think 52 was a big success. It made a lot of characters I was familiar with into fully realized people who I want to read more about. It deepened and expanded the universe, and made it into a more exciting place. That was the mission of the book, and along the way, it told some great stories. As a cohesive narrative, I don’t think it was a complete success, but the good outweighed the bad. It’s a shame that Countdown is apparently awful because I think a weekly book about the DCU, the backbone of the universe, would be great. You should be able to read that book and get a glimpse of what’s going on all around, while the character monthlies give more background on other stories.

Most importantly, I think 52 really benefited from being a year without the big three. Much like Seven Soldiers, the focus on lower level heroes makes for a more dramatic story. People can die, and there are legitimate struggles because these aren’t gods, they’re just people trying their best to be like those icons. I particularly like how we see the human side of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, even they can’t live up to the image of themselves. The stories that were most successful, like Renee’s and Buddy’s, were about real people in a crazy universe trying to make their lives better. It was relatable, and weren’t as dependent on previous continuity.

The biggest problem with the series was the seeming acceptance of all that’s bad about comic writing. It takes away the emotional impact of stories to have characters routinely coming back from the dead, and the frequent reliance on obscure DC continuity presented a problem. Ralph Dibny’s story was the biggest victim of that.

But, considering the scale of the undertaking, I think it was a big success, and would love to read another weekly book. I hope the Busiek/Bagley DC weekly is good because it’s a lot of fun to pick up Messiah Complex every week, and I’d imagine reading 52 every week was equally interesting. Much like a TV show, a weekly book can become a part of your life, something that makes Wednesday a little special, and maybe that’s why art exists, to bring some excitement and craziness to everyday routine. This book was certainly exciting and crazy, in the way that only comics can be. While I cracked on the book for its comic book failings, I have to hail it for doing what only a shared universe like this can do, to delve into eighty years of backstory and come out with something that feels simultaneously new and part of a long legacy is quite an accomplishment. It wasn’t always perfect, but on the whole, this was a great series, and I’m eagerly awaiting my next trip back to the DCU, Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis!

And, for those of you wondering where comics will take me next, as I mentioned above, I’ve been reading Messiah Complex every week. It’s got some issues, but is pretty compelling so far. Last night, I read the first issue of the Dark Tower comic, which was just so on, I was surprised by how fucking good it was. I loved those books, and to see the world realized in visual form was frankly awesome. I’m not sure if all the issues will live up to that first one, but so far, it’s brilliant, a great addition to the book’s universe. It helps that I read the books a while ago, so the stories do exist in a sort of hazy, archetypal form, rather than some kind of definitive interpretation that should be stuck to. So, look for more about that book in the future, as well as some writing on Messiah Complex, and eventually a look at the third volume of Kirby’s Fourth World omnibus.