Saturday was Comic Book Day, which saw Tommy and I reading our prized purchases while munching Roly Poly sandwiches and sipping soda pop. Of course the big release this week was Marvel’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born issue #1 of a seven issue series. As I’ve already written, I have looked at this series with a suspicious eye being a huge fan of the Stephen King series of novels. I was not sure anybody could really do it justice in comic book form. Therefore I bought issue one with low expectations.
I liken this situation somewhat to when I first heard that there was going to be a trilogy of movies filmed of The Lord of the Rings. I was intrigued but did not get too excited about it, as I had my doubts anyone could capture the books on film. Peter Jackson and company proved they understood the material through and through, and did justice to it that I could hardly have believed possible in film. He made necessary changes in the story to accommodate the medium of film as opposed to books, and created a separate masterpiece that was as true to the spirit and prose of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novels as could be accomplished in the movies.
The Dark Tower comic, at least with this first issue, falls short of that high bar.
It became apparent to me in the very first two pages that Peter David does not understand the gunslinger material and King’s carefully structured and unique world of the gunslinger as he should. My first clue was that the sentence “The man in black fled across the desert… and the gunslinger followed” was not the first words of the series. Anyone who has ever immersed themselves in these books and understands them properly would never begin an adaptation with any other words. It would be like beginning an adaptation of “Moby Dick” with something other than “Call me Ishmael”. The simple fact that David and the editors did not understand the significance of the first sentence of King’s epic told me immediately there would be issues with their understanding of the gunslinger’s world in general. That sentence was found on page two. Bad sign. Another is David’s lack of grasp of the vernacular of Roland’s world. One of the most engaging thing about King’s Tower universe is it’s odd combination of old fashioned language, both that of the old west and that of a kind of middle age flavor, mixed in with his own words like “ka”, “dan-tete” and such that have an almost Japanese feel. David seems to think substituting the word “ya” for “you” will do the trick. In fact, even in the “low speech” the pronoun “you” was still used except when combined within a phrase like “thankya”. Phrases like “Do you say so?” and “If you say so, let it be so” still use “you”. In the outer lands like Mejis and the Callas, it would be more common to hear “ye” and “thee” than “you”, but still not “ya”. It’s an odd mix, that’s for sure, but one that is familiar to readers and should have been better captured in the comic. David gets some of it right, though. He uses “kennit” (meaning understanding), “trim” and “palaver” correctly, plus makes reference to bumblers and other mid-world things in subtle but good measure.
The story itself is a recounting of Roland’s goading to an early test of manhood by Marten Broadcloak, his father’s treacherous wizard and chief advisor. It’s brutally cut and edited to squeeze the entire mini-tale into this one issue, and no time is given to understand the deep training these gunslinger hopefuls have endured since nearly birth or the love-hate relationship between their combat teacher Cort and his students. Of course there is no way for a comic book to match the depth a novel can give in understanding motivations and establishing complex relationships, but even so I felt this was all rushed and shoehorned together far more than it had to be. We never have any chance to understand why Roland would demand for the test of manhood years earlier than is usual for students. David does do a nice job implying how Roland differs from his peers, both in prowess and in attitude, in a few panels.
David takes some liberties with the story and adds some scenes that did not happen in the book. He added a small scene between Roland and his friends before he faces Cort for his test of manhood. This demonstrates more misunderstanding of Roland. He is ultimately a loner, and the only reason his friends knew he was going to face Cort was that Jamie happened to see his face as he stalked to Cort’s cottage to challenge him. Roland would never have spoken or allowed himself to be spoken to by his friends in that time of trial. In the scene between Roland, Marten and Roland’s mother Gabrielle, David chose to be much less subtle about their affair by making her literally naked in bed when Roland sees her. Marten catches Roland in the hall of his family home and asked him to come speak with his mother. In the book she is oddly awkward with him and disheveled, with a love bite on her neck and the entire room “reeked of what they’d been up to”. She was still clothed, however. Although based on the formality of the civilized Gilead, Gabrielle Deschain would probably have thrown herself from the room at Roland’s entrance if she’d been naked and Roland would have had no choice but to try and kill Marten there and then, I think this was a good choice for David. There is no way anyone could mistake what was going on with Gabrielle found in this condition. Certain subtleties will need to be changed in favor of a more direct approach in order to work in the comic book medium. That said I still do not feel like we were given adequate time to understand the animosity Roland has for Marten, but it’s a valiant attempt. I think the biggest problem I am going to have with this series, and granted it’s based on only one issue, is that it seems they are going to try and tell the entire 7 book epic in a few mini-series of comics. That is an immense disservice to the material. I would have loved for them to fill in gaps in the story and take some time to tell it, so readers are allowed to really get a feel for the universe(s) King created to spin his stories in. The first issue could have told the story of Hax the cook, being found a traitor by an even younger Roland and Cuthbert and subsequently being hung. This story, which would allow a more complete introdcution of the characters and their relationships, would have served a better primer for the ‘comin of age’ tale in this issue. This tale could have been better served split into two issues, with Roland and Cort facing each other in the battlefield as the cliffhanger to be concluded in the next issue. What I’m saying here is they need to slow down and not be in such a hurry.
The fight between Cort and Roland is given 10 pages if you count the pre and post moments. It was handled very well but, given the unwillingness to add pages, might have been trimmed to allow some extra pages to help build up to the combat scene properly. This is one scene where they spent the necessary time and attention to get the point across… of course action is the easiest thing to translate into comics.
The added scene where Roland meets Marten and his mother again, this timed armed with his ‘prenice guns was another nice touch. Again, I question if Roland could have seen Marten at that time when wearing his guns and not killed him, but this nicely explained how Roland understood what Marten was up to and let him know it. Likewise the scene with ‘Bert and Roland burying his hawk David further explained how Roland had eschewed the obvious course of action for something more devious and scheming. This is a real hallmark of the gunslinger, who does and did things in the books that couldn’t be called anything short of lies and betrayal to achieve whatever ends he felt justified them. He is complex, and that apparently is understood. A good sign.
The final scene shows Roland’s father finding him lying with a prostitute in a brothel. This scene is from book four, Wizards and Glass, where Roland tells his ka-tet of Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy of when he was sent away with Cuthbert and Alain as a boy to the seaside community of Mejis to get out of the way… and where he has a great adventure. That story begins with this scene between Steven Deschain and Roland in that brothel. I hope they give it more than the scant pages given to much of this truncated telling of Roland’s becoming an apprentice gunslinger at only fourteen.
As for the art, the credited artists are Jae Lee and Richard Isanove. There is no specifics as to who did what, but I assume Lee did the pencils/inks and Isanove did the coloring. Lee uses a lot of heavy shadows, contrast and silhouettes to try and create a dark and creepy feel to the gunslinger’s world. It works fairly well in that regard, but that kind of art requires some very exacting structural drawing especially with regard to faces, and lee often falls short in that department. The faces seem too smooth and minimalist, and are sometimes awkward in their angles and features. This stark approach to drawing is tough to pull off, but overall Lee does a very good job. I liked the clothes, creatures and other accessories for the characters which I thought fit well within King’s descriptions of Mid-World. Isanove’s coloring is very painterly in places but still occasionally suffers from the over-gradated look that many comic books seem to feature these days. He picks palettes by scenes and sticks to them religiously… aquas for the training scene, purples for the Roland/Marten/mother scene, Oranges/browns for the fight scenes. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It works, especially with the heavy blacks and use of silhouette mentioned before. There are enough textures used to escape somewhat from the usual digital quality of many comics.
My main issue with the art are the choices made with respect to the atmosphere. Gilead, a place described in King’s books as ‘full of light and life’ seems in constant mist and weak light here. In fact, the place looks more like I’d have imagined the edges of the wastelands to look… full of dead trees and heavy, broad-bladed undergrowth. Giliead is supposed to be the last vestige of the glory of the former civilization… the one place that has “moved on” least in Mid-World. I can understand the need to shroud the gunslinger books in deep atmosphere and capture a feeling of suspense and moodiness… but what are they going to do when they actually get to lands described by King as murky and despairing?? Personally in a perfect world I’d have liked to see how Alex Ross would have handled the visuals… but you could say that of any comic book not done by Ross.
The short story at the end of the comic… a lesson with Vannay, Roland and his friend’s philosophy teacher, does a nice job encapsulating the concepts of the beams, guardians, portals and the Tower, as well as touching on things like todash, the Manni, Gan and the Prim. I hope they continue with these interludes in each book. If you consider that a number of readers will be new to the Dark Tower story, it will help ensure that they can get brought up to speed on the backstory and explanations of important concepts while the comic storytelling concentrates on the story itself. The after story was written by Robin Furth, a Tower scholar and author of The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance.
I am certainly not going to praise or dismiss this series based on the one issue. I hope the creative team finds their voice and rhythm as they go along and everything really begins to sing in tune. An adaptation is just that, not the original but a retelling in another medium. That necessitates some hard decisions but, as in the case of The Lord of the Rings films, we have been shown those choices can work if the material is understood well enough. I have to assume King has a lot of input on this work, and therefore all these choices come with his approval and blessing. Still, sometimes the painter creates something that is perceived differently by it’s viewers than perhaps he even perceives it, and it’s hard to see past their own brushstrokes. This series is a very ambitious undertaking and there are some successful elements to it. I’m looking forward to the next issue.
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