Dark Horse Comics.
Marvel Comics. Sketch variant cover (#5c).
I was very happily surprised at what I found. This isn’t merely a comic book adaptation of “The Dark Tower” series of books. Although portions of it recount events seen in flashback in “The Gunslinger” and “Wizard and Glass,” most of it is new material. And it’s exactly what a hell of a lot of fans would want – chronicling Roland’s younger years, in which he and his closest friends train as Gunslingers, carry out their first quest, try in vain to prevent the fall of their kingdom and then meet their final fates at Jericho Hill. Also covered in great detail is the role of The Man in Black (known elsewhere as Randall Flagg, among other aliases) in the Fall of Gilead, as well as the destruction of Roland’s family and friends.
It’s a great book. I’d honestly recommend it to fans who have completed the series of prose novels, because much of the fun of those is the gradual exposition of Roland’s brutal childhood and the inception of his inter-dimensional quest. Much of that is rendered in detail here, which could ruin the narrative power of his tales and flashbacks throughout the books.
There are all sorts of treasures for people who fell in love with Mid-World, as I did in the early 1980’s. We see Steven Deschain and his contemporaries in action for the first time, in adventures that seem penned by King himself. (King was Executive Director of the project, while the story was adapted by Robin Furth and scripted by Peter David.) We see Flagg, known here as Marten Broadcloak, betray Roland’s father by seducing his mother, and the even greater tragedy that results. We see the Fall of Gilead and the Battle of Jericho Hill (even if they’re a little mishandled here). And, maybe best of all, we get to better know fellow young Gunslingers Cuthbert Allgood and Alain Johns as they fight alongside Roland – something only covered before in one book, “Wizard and Glass.”
The biggest surprise, however, is a DETAILED ORIGIN STORY FOR RANDALL FLAGG. Any King fan knows that Flagg’s nature and origin have been a mystery for decades – in all the various Stephen King novels in which he’s appeared. Here, we literally meet his parents and see him born, and are shown in greater detail his role in The Crimson King’s planned destruction of the infinite multiverse.
The art by Jae Lee is simply amazing – it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen in comics. All of the characters – except Flagg, regrettably – are portrayed how a reader might have easily envisioned them. Roland has a great look, and the characters of Susan and Aileen are beautiful. Lee makes great use of color, large panels and sweeping vistas that bring Mid-World to eerie, dreamlike life. Lee’s most fearsome portrayal is John Farson, aka The Good Man, shown here battling the forces of light in black armor and blood-red mask, astride a giant black steed. The art was just perfect.
The stories are generally good. The horror elements we’d hope for are all there, and there are countless moments that enrich the pre-existing books for us – often courtesy of Lee’s amazing talent.
Roland is mostly consistent with the character we love; Cuthbert and Alain are pitch-perfect and incredibly likable. This book was enhanced in many, many ways by featuring characters that were spot on and mostly what we would expect. Peter David is well known as a humorous comic book writer (he could have been a disastrous choice for this material), but he does very well. There were one or two moments that were awful attempts at unnecessary levity (they can’t start the quest because Sheemie has to “pee?”) But David’s talent for dialogue pays off extremely well with the banter between Cuthbert and Alain.
Farson, referred to only obliquely in the prose books, is terrifying. A terrific new character is Aileen, Cort’s niece, who is the first female Gunslinger (presumably created by Furth?). I wound up wishing she was included in the novels.
But the biggest character improvement was The Crimson King. Fans of the series have lamented the fact King’s arch enemy of the universe fell flat in “The Dark Tower,” the last book of the series. Even someone like me, who loved the books, can concede that. He’s different here – finally changed by Furth, David and Lee into a truly frightening enemy. He’s both better written and gorgeously illustrated. Here, “The Dark Tower Omnibus” actually improves on its source material.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Randall Flagg. I felt his characterization here was way off. He resembles little of the Flagg that we know and loathe from “The Stand” and other books. He doesn’t seem terribly much like “The Man in Black” introduced in “The Gunslinger.” Instead, he sometimes seems like a mere stock character – the cartoonish evil magician. He even has what sometimes resembles a handlebar mustache! I was surprised that the creative team here excelled everywhere else, yet fumbled the ball with this extremely unique and popular character.
There were other aspects of the stories here that may have been less than perfect. I was surprised at how little the writers sought to exploit comic books as a medium. The stories are extremely dialogue-heavy for a comic series. The entire series seems to have missed opportunities to show the incredibly varied monster, mutants, cyborgs and demons of Stephen King’s dangerous, Kafkaesque universe.
There were also at least two anticlimaxes. We’re given tremendous foreshadowing and tension building up to The Fall of Gilead. Then … we’re shown it in only a few pages. After countless pages of conversations about how to wage the battle, the battle itself is … hardly shown. I wonder if some sort of mistake was made in the editorial process. Did they deliberately try to avoid showing too much action? The Battle of Jericho Hill is also seen as an incidental standoff after Farson surprises Roland’s forces, with little other relevance to the destruction of Mid-World or the planned destruction of The Dark Tower.
The second volume in the set is a wealth of supplementary information, mostly penned by Furth, composed as addendums to the comic stories when they were originally published. It almost seems like “The Dark Tower” series’ equivalent of Tolkien’s “Silmarillion,” with a broad and interesting spectrum of biographies, vignettes, maps, history and theology that make up not just Mid-World, but also the god and the demons who gave rise to The Tower and its parallel universes. All sorts of questions are answered here comprehensively – not the least of which is where and how Flagg came to be. There are even classifications of the mutants, cyborgs and robots with which Roland and his Ka-Tet tangled throughout the books. Mixed with those are tons of additional art, as well as interviews with the creators.
Again, this was a fantastic set, and a sheer treasure for any fan of the book series.