“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed” – Stephen King, “The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger.”
Like Honore de Balzac, (if the comparison isn’t too lofty) Stephen King didn’t necessarily start with any sort of organized, unified vision for his work. He only wrote about Maine because he knew Maine; he only returned to horror again and again because branding was, and still is, the best business strategy for an ambitious writer. But as the years passed and the pages accumulated, the strange happenings in Castle Rock and Derry and Salem’s Lot began to share a more tangible geographical reality. Fans loved the little inside jokes and call-backs (I know I did) and King took every opportunity to make his “Constant Readers” feel welcome in a territory as lived-in as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County (is that lofty too?)
But those links between novels were never heavy or detrimental to any individual story. Not until the 90s anyway: some discontent and boredom must have snuck in, because when King scrapped Castle Rock in “Needful Things,” he did it with the glee of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Reichenbach Falls (THAT comparison isn’t lofty at all.) Like the end of Sherlock Holmes, the end of Castle Rock was not to be taken too seriously. (And neither were its author’s frequent threats to retire, although I imagine he’s only got two or three books left in him. Right? RIGHT?)
By the end of book 7 of “The Dark Tower,” King’s fantastic Mid-world had gained density and sucked in all the “real world” novels into its landscape: people in certain quarters still haven’t decided if that was brilliantly meta or annoyingly self-indulgent. In any case, The Dark Tower was the symbolic linchpin turning King’s disparate efforts into a sort of Human Comedy (well, Human Horror Story, rather.) That’s how a fantasy series gave coherence to the work of someone who hadn’t been known primarily as a fantasist. (I’m probably right in suggesting his most conventional fantasy, “The Eyes of the Dragon,” which is a rough draft of ideas for the Dark Tower universe, is one of his least beloved books. Proof: No movie yet. They’ve made movies of, like, EVERYTHING the dude ever wrote.)
In the many “Dark Tower”-related graphic novels issued by Marvel over the last five years or so, writer Peter David does his best to honor the legacy of the series. He does this by imitating Stephen King’s more obvious tics: the conversational faux-folksiness, the repetition of terms (you can set your watch and warrant on it: half of the dialogue recycles the same stock phraseology.) Those tics, when not abused, give the world of his novels narrative cohesion. But David abuses them as much as King does in his latter books. No doubt David knows the boundaries of commercial fan-fiction: he has written everything from The Hulk to Star Trek novels. But by the hundredth time someone “sets a watch and warrant on it,” you wish he would stop being such a reverential fan; he needed to break free from the franchise, blaze new trails, and make up some new damn sayings, do ya kennit?
As for the artwork by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove: it is very beautiful but static. I’ve come to realize that I don’t always appreciate the “every page is a painting” approach to the graphic novel. What makes comics work best is the fluid transition between panels, movement INSIDE panels, liveliness, charm; not stiff gallery artwork.
Compare a poem and a novel. The poem stops you, imposes its beauty, it creates an image; the novel invites you to flow through its story, it creates a world. They both have their place, but when one poses as the other, the results are typically unsatisfactory. Well, paintings are poems; graphic novels are, well, NOVELS. The inside pages in “The Dark Tower” are very good-looking, (and this is some of the best coloring to ever come out of Marvel) but they’re too painterly; they represent poses, and not actions. It’s weird to fault a work for EXCESS beauty, but that’s where this gunslinger makes his stand in the sand.
RATING: Mostly GOOD ENOUGH, Sometimes COOL!