Friday, August 16, 2013

Recommended Reading for 8/16: Stephen King's The Dark Tower

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King's magnum opus, The Dark Tower, a seven book cycle that ties together the worlds of all the books that King has written. For, you see, The Dark Tower is the nexus of all reality, the thing that all worlds spin around. And dark forces are trying to bring it down, and only Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, can stop them by reaching the Tower first.

Now, the majority of what I'm going to be talking about today is the adaptation/expansion of the Dark Tower mythos that Marvel has done over the past few years. But I do want to talk about the series as a whole, because as with The Dresden Files, which I've written about in this space before, I come to The Dark Tower first as a fan of Stephen King and the novels themselves before reading the comics. And while I adore Harry Dresden and his world of Chicago, Roland and his ka-tet (that's a band drawn together by Ka, which is the word for fate, for those who don't speak the High Speech of All-World) have been a part of my life since I was fifteen, and I have a very special place in my heart for them.

All-World, the world where the land of Gilead resided before "the world moved on," as Roland often says, is a world that mixes various genres. There are Gunslingers who seem to be right out of the American old west, with big revolvers, jeans, and cowboy boots. But they quest and have manners resembling chivalrous knights of old far more than cowboys. And the world itself has remnants of technology, like gas pumps, robots, and lands blasted by radioactive fallout. And aside from these science and science fiction aspects, there are sorcerers, demons, and beast-men, tossing some fantasy into the mix.

Somehow all of these disparate elements come together to create a strange and seamless world. King's books take place mostly in a present where a middle aged Roland begins chasing a mysterious man in black who he is sure will give him the final clues he needs to find his way to the Dark Tower and answer about things from his past. But there are considerable flashbacks, especially in the first and fourth books of the series (most of the fourth book is one extended flashback), to Roland's youth, before the land of Gilead, his homeland, fell to the armies of a rebel named John Farson, called The Good Man. The comics adapt these flashbacks and expand them, filling in the gaps between the end of the flashback from Wizard and Glass, the fourth novel, and when we first met Roland in The Gunslinger, the first novel, which is fully adapted by the end of the comics.

The Dark Tower comic was divided into a series of mini-series, divided again by those just called The Dark Tower, telling the story of young Roland and the fall of Gilead, and Dark Tower- The Gunslinger, with an adult Roland. Roland is an anti-hero, a character who is at times very difficult to like. He is bullheaded, hard, and not entirely bright, although he has quite a bit of native cunning. What Roland does have that none of his friends do are the quickest hands and deadliest eye of any Gunslinger of his generation. Roland is a stone killer, and someone who, when he puts his mind to a task, nothing gets in his way.

The first mini-series, The Gunslinger Born, tells the story of Roland passing his test of manhood, and being sent on a mission with his two friends, Cuthbert Allgood and Alain Johns, to investigate the possibility of Farson establishing a foothold in one of the outer baronies and the town of Hambry. This story is the one of the closest to a traditional western, with the young men coming to a country town and finding a group of other gunslingers (not Gunslingers, mind, not the official knights of the land, but mercenaries who wield guns), serving the local mayor, but who are really Farson's agents. Roland also meets Susan Delgado, his first and greatest love. Their love is doomed from the beginning, and while Roland and his allies stop Farson's plan to use oil from the fields near Hambry to start up weapons and vehicles from the Old Ones (things like tanks), Susan is lost, killed by the townsfolk, and Roland is lost inside Maerlyn's Grapefruit, a pink seeing stone that grants the holder visions.

Cuthbert and Alain are Roland's constant companions throughout his youth, and are characters very different from Roland. Cuthbert has a sense of humor, something Roland is distinctly lacking, and is always trying to keep Roland from taking himself or any situation too seriously, but has a fiery temper that is set off at a moment's notice. Alain is cool headed and kind hearted, shorter and stocky, and fair haired to Cuthbert's tall, thin, and dark haired. Alain also possesses The Sight, a kind of combination of telepathy and prescience, something that Roland has a touch of but not as much as Alain. They are the two extremes that Roland rests in the middle of, and the three form a great friendship, although a strained one after the events in Hambry.

This story is the tale of the death of innocence, of Roland losing everything he held dear. The test of manhood is set off when he learns that his mother is being unfaithful to his father, and with his chief advisor, the wizard Marten Broadcloak. And even after he has attained manhood, and found someone to love, that youthful love that could have grown into something more, is snatched from his hands by the witch Rhea, who was the custodian of the Grapefruit, who manipulated the townsfolk into killing Susan as revenge for Roland taking the orb. Roland, born a child of privilege to a father who is the ruler of one of the greatest lands in In-World, is now stripped of everything, including possibly his own sanity.

The Long Road Home continues directly from the end of the previous series, and tells the story of Cuthebert and Alain bringing Roland's now insensate body back to Gilead, whose mind is still lost in dreams inside the Grapefruit. This story is the most surreal of any of the comics, as while half of it takes place on the physical long road, much of it takes place in the dreamlike End-World, a horrible blasted landscape. There Roland confronts Marten, who reveals himself to be far more than a traitor to Gilead, but a traitor to all life, serving an ancient evil called The Crimson King, a spiderlike demonic force whose only goal is the complete destruction of the Dark Tower and the casting of all reality into chaos. Artist Jae Lee does a tremendous job crafting the monstrous world of the dream, and the horror of the half human/half spider Crimson King, who Roland must also face. He is aided by Sheemie Ruiz, a young man, born retarded, who he met in Hambry, who was granted amazing psychic powers by a device of the Old Ones. Sheemie is one of the most important characters in the entire mythos, and this mini-series is the time where the origin of his powers, never explained in the books, is revealed.

I've mentioned Marten a couple times, and I think before I continue, I'll talk a little more about him. Marten, the Dark Man, the Man of Many Names, is one of my favorite characters in all of King's work, and possibly in all of literature. He is the fly in the ointment in many of King's work, known variously as Walter O'Dim, Flagg, and Randall Flagg, the chief villain in King's greatest single novel, The Stand. An ancient, immortal shapeshifter, Marten sows discord wherever he goes for the sheer pleasure of it. He serves the Crimson King, but only so far as it serves his own purposes. A mysterious figure who only pops up for a few pages here and there to create more chaos and to push various pawns, especially John Farson who believes himself to be in charge of the rebellion, but instead is a pawn of Marten, the one shot The Sorcerer is Marten's story, revealing bits of his origin and his motives. The story does nothing to try to expiate Marten's sins, or to explain his tortured past; Marten is a villain through and through, and not entirely human. This one shot is drawn by Richard Isanove, who inks every issue in all the series that he does not draw himself, giving the various artists a consistent feel, and he does a tremendous job when given the solo reins, with a style similar to Jae Lee without aping his work, and giving it a dark style suited to Marten's black heart.

The final three miniseries of the first half of The Dark Tower comics. Treachery, The Fall of Gilead, and The Battle of Jericho Hill, are a continuous narrative of the destruction of Gilead and the loss of all of Roland's friends. These stories are stories of loss and obsession, two of the central themes of The Dark Tower, as Roland becomes the last man standing. Treachery introduces the last of the truly important characters to these stories, Aileen Ritter, niece and ward of Cort, the man who trains young Gunslingers, and who wishes to be a Gunslinger herself, even though it is forbidden for women to do so. Aileen is a study in unrequited desire, as not only is the life she wants out of reach, but the man she has always harboured feelings for now completely out of reach, as Roland, her secret love, is now in total mourning for Susan. Aileen is tough, smart, and a counterpoint to Roland's mother, Gabrielle, who is sad and broken, made into nothing more than a pawn for Marten's cruel games against Roland and Roland's father, Steven.

Throughout Treachery and The Fall of Gilead, all of the established guardians of Gilead and The White, the force of good, are systematically slaughtered by Farson and his agents. Cort and Vannay, Roland's teachers are murdered using poison and treachery. The fathers of all Roland's friends are killed in a series of ambushes, and despite escaping, Steven Deschain is killed by a traitor in his own keep. All of this as Roland wrestles with having accidentally killed his own mother after a vision from the Grapefruit tricked him into seeing her as Rhea, the swamp witch. Now a matricide, Roland still must lead his friends out of the wreck of Gilead and lead them on the quest, the one he has decided to take up after his visions, the quest to climb the Dark Tower and see what waits at its top.

The Battle of Jericho Hill is an event that was hinted at in the books, and a small fraction of it shown, but the mini-series that bears its name gives the complete lead up and the actual battle. Set nine years after the fall of Gilead, Roland and his ka-tet have been wandering, searching for the Dark Tower and fighting Farson's forces whenever they can. But in a story that parallels the betrayal of Steven Deschain by people within his own camp, one of Roland's followers sells him out to Marten, who sets up the battle, with Roland's drastically outnumbered Gunslingers at the top of the hill, and an army of Farson's men beneath. Alain is killed the night before, accidentally shot by Roland and Cuthbert as he came to tell them of what awaited, and Cuthbert is killed by Marten, having taken a new form and name, Rudin Filaro, but dies with a laugh on his lips. As the series ends, Roland pulls himself from a charnel pit, where he has been tossed with the rest of his friends, alone and ready to take up the quest for the tower on his own.

The second half of the comic cycle, The Dark Tower- The Gunlsinger, is nearly entirely adaptation of the first Dark Tower novel as well as the novella, "The Little Sisters of Eluria." The first arc, The Journey Begins, is an original story. It tells of how Roland began chasing Marten, the Man in Black, and of the death of Aileen, the only other survivor of the Battle of Jericho Hill. Roland also meets a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Susan Delgado, who he saves from a group of Not Men, beings who can turn invisible, and while he has a chance to stay with her, he again leaves and heads after Marten.

Following the aforementioned adaptation of "The Little Sisters of Eluria," the final three mini-series are an adaptation of the non-flashback sequences from The Gunslinger. The Battle of Tull, The Way Station, and The Man In Black tell the tale of Roland's final crossing of the great desert and his confrontation with the Man in Black. Along the way he massacres the entire town of Tull, which has been taken under the Man in Black's thrall, meets a young boy named Jake Chambers who has come from one of the other worlds that circles the Tower, and then sacrifices the boy to finally confront the Man in Black, and have the palaver that gives Roland all the information that he needs to begin his final march to the Dark Tower. Again, we see Roland as an implacable force, and if given the choice between saving someone who depends on him, and making it to the Tower, for Roland there is no choice.

These final stories take the Roland who was a young man with some foolish aspirations, and shows the final result of all the loss he has experienced. Roland is now something that has lost nearly all his human feeling. He has no love left, and next to no compassion. All that is left is the quest for the Dark Tower. It's a tragedy, with a sad ending. It's interesting if you encounter these stories after you have read the novels, which is the story, among other things, of redemption and of Roland reattaining everything he loses over the course of his youth. These stories end with Roland at one of his darkest points, at his least heroic.

If you are also a fan of the novels, you will notice some differences between the events as recounted in the original novels and in the comics; the continuities of Roland's past don't exactly line up, and even events right out of the books don't always seem exactly the same. There is a reason for this, once you would understand if you had read through the books, and so I recommend if you start the comics and really enjoy them to start reading the novels from the beginning, not to skip the first novel because you've read the adaptation already.

Aside from Jae Lee and Richard Isanove, who drew many of the stories, various other A List artists came in to draw the later arcs. Sean Phillips and Michael Lark draw the gritty tales in The Journey Begins and The Battle of Tull respectively, and their styles work well with the wasted Western landscapes of the Mid-World Roland travels through. Alex Maleev draws The Man in Black, and his dark, angular style is suited for Roland's mystical journey with Walter/Marten/what have you. And while Stephen King provided the source material and advice, the admirable and daunting task of the actual adaptations came from Robin Furth, King's assistant, who provided the plots as well as backmatter available in the single issues, and Peter David, who scripted the majority of the stories, although Furth plotted and scripted many of the side one-shots.

The Dark Tower is a story about fate and choice, about redemption and damnation, and about good versus evil. It is long, sprawling, and influenced by many of the great works of fiction, from Robert Browning's epic poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (where King drew his title and a skeleton of the idea of where the books ended), The Lord of the Rings, and Marvel Comics, as well as drawing in characters and places from many of King's works, and the author himself in a very meta sequence. It's something to be read, reread, and savored. And if you've never read it, if you've never read any King, this might be a good place to get a start. Long Days and Pleasant Nights to you, one and all.

The entire run of the main Dark Tower stories is available in hardcover and in print. All but the final volume, The Man in Black, are also available in paperback, with The Man in Black coming this October. A final volume collecting the associated one shots will be released around the same time as a collection called Last Shots. The final of these shorter pieces, So Fell Lord Perth, was released last week, and if you are a fan or want the full experience, it's worth tracking down the singles to get Robin Furth's notes and stories of the mythology of the Dark Tower world in the back of each issue.

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