Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #1

Posted: Sunday, February 4, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

Writers: Robin Furth, Peter David
Artists: Jae Lee, Richard Isanove

Publisher: Marvel Comics

EDITORíS NOTE: The much anticipated first issue of Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born, based on Stephen Kingís best-selling series of novels, arrives in stores this Wednesday, February 7.

Average Rating:

Kelvin Green:
Luke Handley:
Robert Murray:
Steven G. Saunders:
Caryn A. Tate:
Dave Wallace:

Kelvin Green

Over here in Britain, The Simpsons is shown on Sky, a subscription-only satellite service owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox (this will all become relevant soon, I promise). Then one day a few years ago, the venerable BBC made a big announcement to the press: they'd snagged the rights to show The Simpsons! Given the media frenzy, one would think that the mighty Beeb had somehow wrested the show from Murdoch himself, but in fact what theyíd secured rights to were old episodes, occasionally very old episodes. Recently, rival broadcaster Channel Four made a similar fuss over exactly the same deal, the right to show upwards-of-ten-year-old episodes of a programme thatís not as good as Futurama.

All of which was brought to mind by Marvelís foamy-mouthed excitement over their deal with Stephen King to bring his Dark Tower novels to comics (see? Relevance!). Except Kingís most definitely not writing it, and the Dark Tower sequence ended a few years ago, in a way that does not immediately inspire sequels, or indeed prequels.

So, what we have here is essentially a continuity implant; something that can slot neatly in one of the narrative gaps in Kingís story without upsetting what King wrote. The challenge is to put together a compelling tale with the scraps and gaps the original author didnít deal with himself, and pairing the fellow whoís written guidebooks to the Dark Tower continuity with a solid and dependable comics writer like Peter David is a sensible way of approaching the task, even if itís a great deal less impressive on paper than the ďSTEPHEN KING WRITES MARVEL COMICSĒ nonsense Quesada and his goons were spouting.

So, three paragraphs of waffle later, is it any good? Well...

This comic is essentially an illustrated version of some chapters from the original novels. Itís illustrated very well, of course; Jae Lee is a good choice to visualise the Gunslingerís world, and heís properly arty enough (Iíve seen his work in real books!) to capture that crossover market Marvel are so transparently after with this project. That said, Leeís art, as digitally painted by Richard Isanove here, is a bit too clean and smooth for ďa world that has moved on,Ē and I canít help but think that a grittier artist more associated with western/cowboy comics might have been a better choice, and 2000ADís Carlos Ezquerra would have been the best choice of all (although heís currently busy drawing the origin of a different gunslinger), but given what Marvel are going for, Lee is certainly not a bad fit.

The writing is where the biggest problems lie. Having read the Dark Tower novels, I would say this comic seems hollow and pointless, as it really is just a selection of scenes from those original novels, only with pictures. Furthermore, one of Stephen Kingís key strengths as a writer is a knack for producing prose that has a surprisingly visual feel to it, and in merely illustrating that prose, it just seems like the creative team are going through the motions and not bringing anything new to the work. It is disappointing, as King has left plenty of unexplored territory in his protagonistís past, all of which would be fertile ground for comics storytelling, but we donít seem to be going anywhere near that.

(This is only the first episode, and I expect weíll probably get to see battles with Farsonís men later on, culminating in the apocalyptic, and barely sketched in the novels, Battle of Jericho Hill, but that doesnít help this first issue.)

But all that is said from the perspective of a Dark Tower reader, and while Iím sure those familiar with the mythos will make up the majority of the comicís readership, there are bound to be some new readers coming in, and those people will find this to be a fairly effective introduction to Roland the Gunslinger. The scenes picked for adaptation here do a good job of telling us what kind of person Roland is (although his companions are given very short thrift, another place where the novels left gaps ripe for exploration) and that might be enough to grab new readers. Iíd suspect not, however, as these scenes originally took the forms of flashbacks that fleshed out the Gunslingerís character through comparison with his current state, a sort of ďthatís how heís ended up like this, thatís why he does that, etc.Ē approach; by taking the flashbacks out of that context (and again, frustratingly, bringing nothing new to them in the adaptation), I do wonder how effective they are, and whether theyíre only doing half the job they did in the books. But all of this is difficult for me to judge, as I know Roland and his world fairly well.

This is a solid, well-produced comic, but itís also a disappointment. I really canít grasp at which audience this is supposed to be aimed, as it doesnít serve up anything new to Dark Tower veterans, and doesnít seem to have enough meat on its bones to serve as a proper introduction for new readers. Itís a passable fantasy comic (and I'ím very pleased to see a fantasy title from a major publisher), but itís nonetheless burdened by an overwhelming sense of pointlessness. Later issues will probably be better, but this is a bit naff.

Luke Handley:

Before I start, I should mention that I havenít read any of Stephen Kingís Dark Tower series. In fact, Iíve never read a Stephen King novel period. So I went into this with no prejudice or expectations, other than the fact that itís drawn by Jae Lee, which is a reason in itself to give this series a look.

In fact, letís start with the art. Joe Quesada promised that Jae Leeís pencils and Richard Isanoveís colours on this title would blow us, the readers, away. And for once, Joey Q wasnít exaggerating. This book is beautiful. I think thatís the best way to describe what is probably the best looking comic Iíve read in quite a while. Marvel has said Isanove deserves to be credited as ďartistĒ on this book as much as Lee himself, and when you see these pages, you can understand why. The whole package is spectacular and even if the story sucked it would almost be worth the admission price just to see it.

Luckily though, the story doesnít suck. Being unfamiliar with Kingís characters and their world, thereís little more I can say other than this is obviously a coming of age tale about the man who will become the Gunslinger in the novels. What one might expect from a series entitled The Gunslinger Born I guess. The young protagonist and his friends are being trained to become ďGunslingers,Ē which appear to be some sort of cross between law-keeper, vigilante and mercenary. The heroís honour is wronged, and he seeks the means to right it himself even if heís not yet prepared for the test that will grant him his Gun. And his world looks like it will soon be turned on its head following the twist on the last page.

The formula of young friends coming of age, making mistakes, triumphing in the face of adversity is nothing new to comics or any form of media. But Furth and David make it feel fresh and interesting, thanks in no small part to the Fantasy world of Mid-Gard created by Stephen King. For the most part, Davidís scripting is up to the task of telling the story plotted out by Furth. To do so, he uses an unseen narrator who explains parts of the story being shown rather than telling it directly. This took a little getting used to but once it gets going, it flows quite wellÖ, except for in a couple of places. I canít really say why, but every now and again the narrative completely drew me out of the story. It does enhance the overall reading experience as it explains crucial points readers unfamiliar with Kingís work need to comprehend, but in places itís completely unnecessary and detracts from the story proper. And the expression ďkennitĒ the narrator uses just gets on my nerves. Another one that niggled at me was the referral to Alainís psychic power as ďthe touch,Ē because he has to ďtouchĒ someone for it to manifest. Wow, how original. But Iím guessing that this is something King came up with, so the writers here canít be blamed.

At the back of the book can be found a couple of welcome extras. First of all, a map of the Barony of Canaan. I love maps. Every work of fantasy is enriched by the inclusion of a map of the world / land in which itís set. It just adds an extra level to the tale somehow and shows the writer has a real vision of the place heís writing about. Thereís a prose tale about a geography lesson that serves the purpose of explaining to us Dark Tower neophytes the geography of Mid-Gard, a bit of its history, the concept of parallel worlds, gateways, Beams and, of course, the Dark Tower itself. Itís not done too badly at all. I wouldnít have minded just the facts and no story, but this works better than I might have thought it would. Finally, thereís some preview art for the next issue. Not sure this was worth including but maybe some people feel otherwise. Oh, and the ďBig Coffin HuntersĒ? Now thereís a way to inspire fear and trepidation in your opponents.

So, an interesting and visually stunning debut to this mini-series. It is good, and Iíll definitely follow it to see where it goes but only time, and 6 more issues, will tell if this comic really is all that Marvel is making it out to be.

Robert Murray:

Can you believe the buzz that is following this little slice of heaven!? I havenít heard this much hype about a non-superhero comic book since...I canít think of when. I mean, there are midnight opening parties on February 7th, just like book stores would do for the newest Harry Potter book. This is the kind of hype that is good for the comic book industry, so Iím extremely pleased at the attention and the possibility of enticing readers outside the normal comics community. However, this publicity only succeeds if the work itself is imbued with quality and an engaging story, elements that will bring the fringe readers back for issue #2. So does Dark Tower have the goods? Well, considering the talent involved in this project, I would have to say affirmative. Robin Furth and Peter David are perfect for conveying the particulars of Stephen Kingís world. In addition, Jae Lee and Richard Isanove turn out their typically fine work, giving the entire issue a Leone-like texture which King would appreciate. I think my main problem with this first issue is the creatorsí tendencies to wallow in the grandeur of the subject material. I canít blame them: Iíd be excited to work on a comic with Stephen King as my advisor. But the overly staged panels and a general lack of visual excitement brings this first issue back down to earth.

As many of you may know, this series acts as a prequel to Kingís novels, mixing pieces of Wizard and Glass (the fourth novel) with original material to present a look at Roland before he becomes a Gunslinger. Without spoiling anything for the rabid fans out there, this first issue details a confrontation between Roland and Cort, his teacher, as well as a slimy interlude featuring Marten Broadcloak and Rolandís mother (those who have read the series can infer what the sliminess entails). Furth and David do a great job of inclusion in issue #1, making sure that the new reader can easily understand the story without having read the original series. Iíll admit that Iíve only read the first two novels of the seven, so I was a little apprehensive about picking this up, fearing that I may be left out in the cold regarding details from the newer novels. While some of my colleagues might say Iím missing out on a lot of the allusions, I feel I caught just about everything I saw, from the dialogue to the characters (with a little extra help from Wikipedia!). Furth definitely has his head in Kingís world (just like Steve Spignesi) and David is the perfect comic writer to bring Dark Tower to graphic life. He is a master of quirky dialogue, just like King, and his use of High Speech and the unique linguistics of the Dark Tower is perfectly appropriate. To call Furth and David a dream team for Dark Tower might be over the top, but they are probably the best writers I can think of for the job. One piece of constructive criticism, though: in issue #2, I think there should be a little more humor in the proceedings. This first issue was deadly serious throughout, and I think this adaptation would only improve with some occasional humor, the kind that King and David handle so well.

As for the artwork by Lee and Isanove, I think they have done a great job in making this issue look beautiful. All of the fringe readers I was talking about earlier will certainly find much to love about the look of Dark Tower, with typical Western coloring and iconic panels that will further galvanize the story for them. However, for comic book loyalists, the artwork looks very posed and overly formalized. In the beginning of the issue, the formalized artwork is very appropriate, as the groundwork is laid for the story with an opening many Dark Tower readers will be familiar with (ďThe Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followedĒ). After that, the stiff nature of many of the characters becomes a little wearying, combined with generally stoic facial expressions that donít add anything to the story. This being said, there are realistic scenes which do work well, particularly having to do with the physical confrontation between Roland and Cort... Whoops! Iíve said to much!

Regardless of any gripes I may have, this was an entertaining comic book that will surely wow the occasional or novice comic readers out there, thereby causing a positive stir with many mainstream media outlets. Itís the kind of publicity comic books invariably needs, and Iím glad this publicity will be connected to a literary juggernaut rather than a mild controversy or the death of iconic superhero.

Steven G. Saunders:

ďIn a world that has moved onÖĒ

Finally, itís here: The Dark Tower in comic book form. I have to say right off that Iíve been craving a comic starring the Gunslinger for years now. Strangely, however, the last book of the Dark Tower series I read all the way through was The Wastelands. The other four booksÖ well, I never really got to them. I suppose I had lost interest in the story. Too long between books, Stephen Kingís rambling started getting on my nerves at times; I felt the story was meandering too much (much like I do, ironically), and I justÖ lostÖ interest. But The Gunslinger, the novel that kicked off a series that ended up something like thirty years in the making or some crazy amount of time like that, is one of my favourite books to read. I love the setting, the characters, and the overall story. I think Iíve read it a few times since I first encountered it at the age of thirteen, and each time I enjoy it as I did the previous reading. Sure, itís still been awhile, though, and now thereís this here comic bookÖ

Itís like being welcomed back into the exciting realm of Mid-World, of ominous Gilead, all over again. One thing Iíve always wanted to know about Roland the Gunslinger is his origin story. There have been snippets here and there, parts within the novels that touch upon Roland and his make-up, his psychology, where he came from and all, but I havenít seen a definitive origin. Maybe I just wasnít paying attention or something, easy enough to do. The Dark Tower novel series is over, and like I said earlier, I had lost interest.

It sure is nice to get that interest back again.

Iím certain that others will break this down into its base components, having read the books and looking at the illustrated offering here with a keen eye honed with wisdom and expertise garnered from a dedication to detail to the series and Kingís writing in general (as Mr. King tends to spread his mythos around like fine seed in his multitude of work). I am not that person. The only thing I have finely honed is a drinking tolerance, and that piddles away with each diaper I change. I can, however, offer my insights as a fan and admirer of the main character and as someone who really enjoyed this issue.

Right off the draw we are treated to Jae Lee and Richard Isanoveís incredible artwork. Itís deep, luscious, haunting, gritty and beautiful all in one breath. I felt as though Iíd been transported to Gilead and was standing there in some surreal form, watching events unfold and such. So, nice job there, guys: This is peak-of-your-careers kind of work. Then thereís the scripting, as done by Peter David, who is no slouch when it comes to superb and masterful storytelling (I also take it that Furth had a bit to do with it too). At first the narration and dialogue seem a bit stilted, but this is only because of the native vernacular and argot of the characters. Itís a great touch, and assists immensely in the engagement a reader will have with this story. The journey to Gilead is complete, and wonderfully so.

The pacing is excellent and nothing is thrown in that jars me from the immersion I was feeling throughout this issue. Art, narrative and dialogue all weave together quite nicely as the story is set up. In brief, we are offered the story of how Roland became a Gunslinger, of his rapport with his mother and a man named Marten Broadcloak, of Cort, the man responsible for Rolandís early training as a warrior, and of his relationship with his father. We get to see Roland take the first steps toward becoming a man, driven even harder in that direction by his motherís liaison with Broadcloak. And so the story begins to unfold. I suppose I could go into this in more in-depth, but I see little point. I think one needs to read this title in order to enjoy its subtle nuances and graceful chronicle. Thatís how itís told, you see, as if it were a chronicle related by a bard or some such in a dimly lit, hay covered tavern.

Iím going to assume that anyone can delve into this book. I havenít read anything Dark Tower related for years and I was able to adjust to this great story very quickly. Thereís also a map and more information in the back of the issue to help with any questions new readers may have. Though nice, itís not really that necessary. Thatís the brilliance, I feel: that this story could concern anyone, in any time or place, but it still doesnít feel like itís been ďpainted on.Ē Do I make sense there? I sure hope so.

Editor Ralph Macchio discusses in the back how this was all a team effort, and to that I say ďbravo!Ē Too often do ďteamsĒ end up screwing things up once assembled. Itís a relief to see that this first issue delivered so well. From the way the story is told to the dark, brooding art (with some terrific backgrounds), I expect this series to pick up then hit very, very hard. It already looks like issue #2 is going to pack a wallop! Was this worth the wait? Hell, yes, it was. Someone at Marvel told me awhile back that this title would be the biggest thing since the 90s. Weíll see how that pans out as the series progresses, but I can say for certain that this is one heck of a good start in that direction.

Caryn A. Tate:

Since Iíve never read the book by this same title by Stephen King, I came into this comic with no real expectations. Whenever that happens, and I enjoy the comic this much, itís always a pleasant surprise.

Issue #1 of The Dark Tower follows Roland Deschain, as he first begins his destiny as someone known as ďThe Gunslinger.Ē The story goes back in time to reveal his training, along with several other men his age, in falconry under the supervision of a man named Cort. Itís revealed that Rolandís father, Steven, is currently the leader of the gunslingers, so Roland feels that he has a lot to live up to. Soon Roland feels that he is ready to carry guns, which means that he has to challenge his teacher (Cort) and best him before heís allowed to do so. If he doesnít beat him, it means his exile.

There are just a few reasons why I couldnít give this book the full as a rating. The first, and foremost, reason is that the script uses phrasing that is a strange combination of classic western and fantasy genre terminology. It took me a while to get used to this; for quite a while as I began reading the comic, this felt awkward and helped to take me out of the story (which is unfortunate, because the story itself is engrossing). The more I read, the more I got used to this wording and even began to like it. But it took a while.

The second main reason I couldnít give this issue is that, similar to the scriptís wording, it took me a while to begin to grasp this worldís customs and culture. This isnít necessarily a bad thing for a first issue; in fact it could probably be argued that in any case of the creators weaving a totally unknown, fantasy type world, there has to be a beginning that immerses you in that world so that you can begin to understand it all. I just happen to believe that itís possible to create a realistic feeling fantasy world without causing the reader to feel confused or lost.

Part of what makes this a bit confusing at first, and what makes it so great, is the fact that the story really is a combinationólike the wordingóof a western and a fantasy. This is an atypical and innovative combination, and as I said earlier, the more I read, the more I began to love it.

The characterization is effective, and the main character, Roland, is portrayed like the classic ďgunfighterĒ in some of the greatest westerns. He seems to be something of a loner; heís strong, quiet, thoughtful, and confident. In just a few pages I had realized these things about him, and it was thrilling to see this level of characterization in any comic, but especially one that is part western. (So many westerns, unfortunately, lack the quality of which I believe the genre is capable.)

The art is gorgeous. At first I thought it might be a bit unclear in the action sequences, but as I continued I got used to the style and realized that itís not a lack of clarity that it possesses, but a use of shadows (and the two are not the same). The colors are rich and almost luscious, and the pencils and overall style really helped to create this unfamiliar world in my mind.

For an extra long comic book, this issue used the page count to its full advantage. I actually felt, unlike many comics, that this title needed this many pages to start us off right. In a world like this one, we need to be able to see how it works and what it looks like so that we can begin to feel its reality, and thatís what issue #1 has done here. I really hope they keep it up throughout the seven issues, and that each installment is a necessary piece of the puzzle (unlike so many comics out there that, for instance, have 12 issues and you only really got any story out of four of those issues).

Overall, this was an excellent comic. Iím looking forward to issue #2 a lot more than I thought I would, and itís always so great to be pleasantly surprised like this. The creators have given us a lot more than just another western comic.

Dave Wallace:

People are probably going to approach this comic from one of two ways. The first is that of the comics reader who will probably have more interest in the high pedigree of the creators involved than in the Dark Tower setting itself. The second will be that of the devotees of Stephen Kingís series of fantasy novels, many of whom will be eager to see what this title can add to the Dark Tower story (and some of whom may not have even picked up a comic before). Granted, thereís probably a fair bit of crossover between those two groups, but if youíre thinking of buying this book, one of the elements is bound to be more attractive than the other.

For me, itís the artwork of Jae Lee and Richard Isanove which is the real draw, and the equal billing thatís given to the penciller and colourist in the bookís credits should clue readers in to just how much of a collaboration this book is for the two artists. As with Wolverine: Origin and 1602, Isanove is colouring directly from the pencils, but whereas the look of those two books had a certain looseness (with some sketchy pencil strokes left intentionally visible), Isanove has really tightened up the part of his contribution which would normally be accomplished by an inker here. His sharply defined linework really makes Jae Leeís characters stand out from their painted backgrounds, and the more solid feel that Isanove brings to the figures is a perfect fit for his pencillerís style: Lee is an artist that has always exploited the power of solid areas of black and a high-contrast approach to lighting, and that power is really accentuated by Isanoveís colours.

If Marvel is looking to attract a new audience to comics, the bookís visuals should go a long way to convince them of the sophistication that is possible in the medium today. My non-comic-reading girlfriend read a few pages over my shoulder and commented that every panel could stand alone as a work of art, and itís true. Thereís a high level of detail in Leeís illustrations, and thatís important in conveying both the similarities and differences between our world and the world of the Dark Tower. Thereís an authentic medieval feel to the charactersí clothes and the environments they inhabit, and it helps to sell the realistic yet other-worldly setting of the book. Isanoveís richly painted backdrops make use of a colour palette which is warm and vibrant, and the sometimes unusual hues underline the slightly fantastical nature of the bookís setting. Put simply, this comic looks great, and visually thereís nothing else quite like it on the market today. Peter David has quite a difficult job to do in adapting Stephen Kingís story, as he has to cater for those of us who are completely new to Kingís fantasy epic whilst also offering enough new material that the bookís story isnít redundant for longtime Dark Tower readers. He makes the story of a young boyís coming-of-age dramatic and compelling, defines his characters economically but effectively through the narration, and includes many idiomatic turns of phrase which I assume are lifted from Kingís books, but which will be easily understood by the uninitiated thanks to their use in a clear context here. Whilst there are many elements of the book which are still something of a mystery to me, the core story is involving, and the details that are provided about the titular Gunslinger hint at a number of possible directions in which David could take the character. The cliffhanger makes me eager to learn more, and itís almost enough to ensure that Iíll pick this book up on a monthly basis rather than waiting for the inevitable hardcover collection later in the year.

In truth, the book will probably be more successful for you if youíre already au fait with the Dark Tower series, as the familiarity with the characters - combined with the thrill of seeing them brought to life in a new way - will make the book more accessible and will likely make this first issue an easier read. Still, itís difficult to imagine this first Dark Tower comic accomplishing the difficult balancing act of catering for both sets of readers any better, and the wealth of bonus material in the form of text and illustrations at the back of the book serves to fill in a lot of interesting detail for those of us who havenít immersed themselves in Kingís world before. The higher-than-usual price tag may raise a few eyebrows, and the sales gimmicks (midnight store openings et al) are pure Marvel, but letís be honest: this book was always going to achieve high sales. More interesting for me will be whether this Dark Tower title can serve as the Holy Grail of comics that will attract a whole new audience to the medium whilst keeping longstanding fans entertained too. On the basis of this first issue, it certainly deserves to be given the chance.

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