The “Dark Tower” comic book series from Marvel, based on the Stephen King novels, is now on it’s third issue. I wrote reviews of the first two here and here, and while I liked some aspects of the comics and approach, I knew I had to give the series a few issues to gel and try and find it’s footing before really deciding on my opinions of it as a whole.
This will be my last review of any of the series, at least until it takes a different creative and/or editorial approach than it’s current format.
I guess that bodes ill for my opinions of it. In all fairness, I was a tough sell to begin with. I am a huge fan of the King books, and have read them/listened to them countless times. When the source material is that familiar, almost any adaptation is bound to disappoint. Even the brilliant Peter Jackson “The Lord of the Rings” film adaptations of the J.R.R. Tolkein novels had it’s critics among hard core Tolkein buffs. Personally I can always take the limitations of the intended medium into consideration when weighing an adaptation of a written work, and therefore can recognize achieving a successful balance between the original and the demands of the adapted medium.
That said, I have come to the conclusion that this comic book series misses the mark too far for me to call it successful.
Let’s start with the story. After a stumbling beginning writer Peter David seems to have gotten a handle on the unique vernacular of the region. It’s a cross between old west and an oddly formal medieval dialect, with certain phrases that are used often. He also does admirably well in inventing his own dialogue to establish character elements that would otherwise have been either missed or needed deeper digging into the story to get across. For example, in the books the character of Susan Delgado is shown to be high spirited and brave despite her being a young girl. No single scene from the books delivers that trait but is comes across over the course of the story. David adds a single panel where Susan brandishes a small knife to show Roland she was prepared to fight if met with an attackers while out alone. In that one panel David describes much about Susan, even the fact that while brave she is not tremendously formidable through the fact that her knife is a tiny, almost useless blade.
Where the story suffers is in the need to shorten and gloss over the story to fit it within the framework of a seven issue series, and in some misguided ideas concerning the added element of John Farson and Walter’s appearances.
As to the former, all too often these kinds of adaptations are awkward in shoehorning in the introductions of various characters and then launching into scenes where their lack of character development makes the reader feel like they missed something. David failed to make the readers understand how dangerous and different these “Big Coffin Hunters” are from the regular folks in Hambry, and yet we are meant to be afraid for Sheemie at the mere mention that Roy Depape was the man who received an accidental soaking at his hands in the Traveler’s Rest saloon. Again, the brevity of the mini-series precludes much that should be told, but this is just an example of why that does not work. Would a 12 issue mini-series have been too long? I can”t answer that, but if this kind of thing is the result of editing down to seven issues, then I can say with certainty it’s too short. There is only 20 pages of story here as well. Most comics are 22 pages I think, or used to be.
The latter, regarding the additional scenes, seem to me to be really off base. I can appreciate the addition of information and story only hinted at in the King books, but some of this seems horribly far from King’s hints. According to the books, John Farson was a warlord who led a rebellion against the class system of Mid-World. Called “The Good Man” by his followers, he was in fact a ruthless killer and despot who used the natural envy of the lower classes against the (usually) fair but none-the-less privileged rule of the barons and the gunslingers to overthrow them. In the comics he’s depicted as a grotesque freak in Hellraiser leather armor and a bizarre mutant mask/helmet playing bat the decapitated head. I have no idea where that came from. I have to assume King has plenty of creative control over the process here… is that what he intended? His villains seem a bit more grounded in reality than that, barring the Crimson King himself. These people are not slow mutants.
The story as a whole is being told reasonably well and even with some flashes of innovation that work, if there are some that don’t. As far as the art goes, that is another matter.
I really wanted to love the art, but I am already very tired of the endless overuse of blacks and shadows, the non-existent or extremely minimalist backgrounds, the full page width panel layouts and close up after close up with almost no camera angle variation. It seems to me in his quest to create a moody, dark world Jae Lee has succeeded in creating no world at all. The story seems to be taking place in a dreamscape where nothing but the central characters are distinct and the rest of the world is hidden beyond edges of mist and clouds. This story takes place on the edge of a sea town in late summer, drenched in sun and approaching harvest. It’s all too stylized and the reader gets no opportunity to get a sense of the environment. The depictions of the characters are also often far from King’s descriptions, and Lee’s ultra stylized approach hasn’t given us any strong visual characterizations for the players. Except for Jonas, who looks like the old kung fu master from the “Kill Bill” movies with his white Fu Manchu mustache, I’m not sure I could match the name to a face out of context even after three issues.
I think it all stems to bad decisions on concept and direction, rather than a lack of effort. I am sure Jae Lee is capable of drawing detailed and descriptive characters, backgrounds and environments… but the way it’s handled in long, thin panels and close up after close up I’d swear it was done to save time and create as little work as possible on the majority of panels. Many of them smack of shortcuts and ‘easy’ panels that are meant to give the reader’s eye a break, not to be the central format.
I really wanted to like this comic series. I don’t think it’s awful or a waste of time, but it is certainly disappointing… at least to me. I’ll pick up the rest of them but am not expecting to be surprised by any of it. Perhaps later series will be drawn differently or by a different team and therefore provide a fresh approach.
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