Monday, December 10, 2007

Delayed Reaction: Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born

Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born (Marvel Comics), by Peter David, Robin Furth, Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

Why’d I wait?: It was with some trepidation that I read the first issue of the seven-part series. Marvel’s relentless hyping of the book was a huge turn-off, but it was the sort of case where the publisher saying it was an event so often and so loud genuinely made it an event, and as a critic I felt I needed to check it out for myself.

Despite having no previous experience with the series of novels it’s based on, or any great affection for the work of the artist or the writer (at least, not when he’s in paycheck mode), and despite being sick of hearing about Marvel’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series long before I even cracked the cover, the first issue was pretty enjoyable.

It just wasn’t anything I felt I need to drop a couple bucks on every month, and so I stopped at #1.

Why now?: I recently saw it on a Best of 2007 list from a fairly reputable source, and was surprised to see it there, given the solid-but-unremarkable nature of the issue I’d read (And the complete silence of the comics press and blogosphere on the book).

Of course, now I can’t remember whose list it was, or where I saw the link to the list. So maybe there was no list; maybe it was all a dream.

Anyway, I began to wonder if it was actually great after all, and my local library had a copy of the hardcover, so I was able to read the whole series with zero financial risk.

Well?: Well, it’s not that great, and, despite the obviously high production value and extra care taken in it’s presentation, as a graphic novel, it’s not even a very good one.

But before I get into the story part of the book, I did want to say a few things about the overall package, which is a pretty nice one, especially by Marvel standards. Things that will probably drive this post way off topic, so bear with me (and/or just skim until you hit something that interests you).

Marvel has always been pretty terrible at graphic novel design, and if you’ve ever encountered their books in a big box bookstore, you’ll know exactly what I mean. A shelf or six full of Marvel books, shelved spine out, look almost identical—it’s a wall of black, with the identical Marvel logo and the title of the book on the spine, completely uniform, no matter what the book is or what the format is.

There’s some variation—glossier hardcovers will have gold lettering as opposed to the trade paperbacks’ red and white Marvel logo and individual title logos—but they all bleed together, with nothing jumping out. (The only exceptions are the digests, which are more colorful and often shelved with the manga, and the Essentials, which have a spine fat enough to accommodate a clearer presentation of the books’ logo, although they’re also always black).

Compared to the DC/Vertigo/WildStorm books, in which many series have their own trade dress and design, or the Fantagraphics and Drawn + Quarterly and AdHouse books, in which great care has been put into ensuring that the books look good from all angles, or especially the manga, which is a veritable candy-colored rainbow of eye-grabbing design, Marvel graphic novels look like small press text books for an economic class you have to take if you want to graduate.

Nothing particularly flashy is done on the spine of this trade—other than leading off the title with a bigger “Stephen King’s,” which may actually be all it needs to fly out of bookstores—but the overall package is a nice one.

The cover has the words “The Dark Tower” super-imposed over a much bigger “Stephen King,” which makes his name clearly visible, but without comically eclipsing the title of the actual books (as in Brad Meltzer’s first Justice League trade or Jodi Picoult’s Wonder Woman trade, for example. (Also, if you didn’t really scrutinize the fine print, you might even think King actually wrote the book, instead of serving as its “Creative Director and Executive Director,” as the credits page says).

Inside is a one-page introduction from Ralph Macchio, and an afterword by King, plus a brief How-I-Made-This-Comic-Look-So-Shitty section by Richard Isanove, and 24 pages of covers and variant covers, seemingly by every artist in Marvel’s employ: Joe Quesada, David Finch, Stuart Immonen, Leinil Francis Yu, John Romita Jr., Steve McNiven, Billy Tan, Olivier Coipel, Greg Land and J. Scott Campbell all contribute what amount to cowboy pin-ups.

All the extra material, particularly the text pieces, reminded me of the good old days of Marvel and DC trade paperbacks, when the graphic novel market was barely in existence (back when Watchmen, Maus, The Dark Knight Returns were the only things you were guaranteed to find in a bookstore; anything else was just gravy).

I’m old enough to remember when Marvel and DC generally only published trades of books that were so popular that there was no way for new readers to find the comic books themselves anymore, and that the trades existed to meet exceptional demand, and/or keep stories in print that were important in some way, stories that new direct market customers would want to read throughout the next several years, and “civilians” might pick up if they saw it in a bookstore or library.

In a way, that’s how you could tell a book was good. Sandman must be a much better series than Shade, The Changing Man or Doom Patrol, because it was in trade. Batman: A Death in The Family and A Lonely Place of Dying must be more important Batman stories than, say, Batman: Blind Justice or Batman: Year Three, because DC put the former out in a trade but not the latter.

These trades were treated as special occasions, and usually had introductions by name writers in other fields, or even other prominent comics writers, telling you how awesome they were in the beginning.

Now, introductions seem rare to the point of non-existent, and trades have lost that sense of the special. In fact, DC and Marvel seem to publish everything in trade now, without much thought for what audience might exist for it. (Teen Titans: Titans East is a trade, for example, and I was genuine surprised DC printed that once as a monthly comic book, let alone again as a book-book. Paul Dini’s Detecive Comics run is being collected along with non-Dini fill-in stories that were only solicited and published the first time to fill gaps in the monthly book’s schedule, not because they had anything to do with Dini’s story). For some reason, often time The Big Two seem to print their trades, like their comic books, for direct market readers who prefer that format, rather than for a wider audience.

So even if I wasn’t aware of all the relentless hype The Dark Tower received prior to the first issue’s release, if I was a customer flipping through this in a book store, it would certainly seem like it was a special occasion, compared to all the other Marvel and DC graphic novels on the nearby shelves.

What’s that?

Oh yeah, I used the word “shitty” to describe the way the book looks a few paragraphs back, didn’t I? Okay, that was pretty crass, and maybe a little mean-spirited, but this is not a very well put together comic book story, something which is even more remarkable when you consider the amount of effort that went into it.

The weaknesses in Jae Lee and Isanove’s art, and their failure to compliment or even match up with Peter David’s script throughout the story, isn’t quite the same as Ed Benes not being able to draw a single background in 22 pages or refrain from drawing a woman’s mostly-bare ass every six panels or so in Justice League of America; it’s not even Steve McNiven not drawing an actual big fight in the climax of Civil War, a story Marvel geared a majority of its comics line around.

This is worse. This is Marvel hyping a book like it was the second coming, this is Marvel garnering almost Death of Captain America non-comics-press attention (at the outset, anyway), this is comic shops opening at midnight to sell the first issue of a comic book!

Now, who actually does what on this book is a little mysterious, as the credits are so weird. What was King’s contribution, beyond the source material? I don’t know. There’s no “based on” credit for King, just the cryptic “Creative Director and Executive Director.” Robin Furth is credited for “Plotting and Consultation.” Third down the line with “Script” is Peter David.

I’ve no complaints on the story side of things really. I’m not a real fan of narration in comics in general, as it’s almost always unnecessary, but the narrator’s voice here is an interesting one—folksy and friendly and conspiratorial, it feels like the story is being told to you by an older relative, or someone sitting on a log across the campfire from you. I’m assuming the voice comes from the novels, as it’s peppered with the same slang that fuels the rest of the dialogue.

The names of places, charachters and conflicts are flung around with little to no introduction, and I felt a bit like I did watching a not very well-made sci-fi movie like, say, Chronicles of Riddick or Phantom Menace, where the characters seem to know a lot more than I do about everything, and I feel like I should know what they’re talking about.

While this happens as much in the seventh issue as in the first, it’s actually kind of almost a sort of pleasure, as I felt my way toward familiarity. I had no understanding of the setting in the first few issues—and kind of wished there was a recap page like in most Marvel comics—but by the end, I began to feel my way toward understanding. Is this in some post-apocalyptic future, I take it?

Part of my wrestling with the setting came down to Lee and Isanove’s art, as there is precious little in terms of addressing the setting. The book is almost devoid of establishing shots, a pretty basic tool in the comic book (or film…or TV) toolbox. It’s especially important in a book like this, set in a time or world not our own.

Lee’s panels are all pretty sparse, and I never really got a sense of where anything was taking place, or what if anything differentiated Roland’s home town from the city to the east he spends most of the adventure in, or the wilderness around it, or the trails between them. Likewise, the interiors all looked the same, be they hut or witch’s house or mayor’s house, rough roadside bar or classy inn, Roland’s mom’s bedroom or hell itself.

The result was a little like watching a stage play, with much of the setting left to the imagination of the reader. That approach may not always be wrong for comics, but I think it usually is—one great and oft-cited advantage of comics over film, for example, is the ease with which the set is built. A Dark Tower movie would have had to build all these locales, scouted landscapes and sent helicopters with cameras into the air to capture them, while Lee could have delineated them with pencil and ink, if he so chose.

Compounding the problem is Lee’s relatively weak sequential storytelling abilities. I don’t know if it’s peculiar to this project, which likely had more cooks in the kitchen and higher production demands than some of his past work (fewer folks had to vet his Fantastic Four: 1, 2, 3, 4 or G. I. Joe/Transformers crossover, I’m sure), but Lee chooses extremely close shots of his characters in every scene, with long shots being few and far between. All are horizontal, perhaps going for a cinematic feel, and closely cropped, cutting out backgrounds and other characters.

It’s a bit like watching a movie composed completely of close-ups—when new characters enter a scene, it’s disorienting, because you’ve no idea who else is in the room or how many of them there are (There are a few times where this is particularly noticeable, as when our three young heroes attack a supposedly vastly superior force, and we see no more than two or three of their foes at a time, or when they supposedly face 200 men, and we see no more than ten or tenty).

While great comic book art will tell a story, even a large part of the story, through the imagery alone, Lee’s art makes no sense without the words, and in a lot of cases makes little sense with the words, or even seems to contradict them in little ways here and there.

Many of the panels seem like the covers of comic books or prog rock albums or cheap mass market paperback novels, but they don’t flow into one another very well, or at all. They’re highly posed, and don’t reflect the passage of time in the same way that the dialogue does.

In other words, it’s really beautiful looking terrible comic book art, if that makes sense.

Maybe it's easier to show some weak bits rather than simply describe them.

In the above section, the middle panel states that the two characters kiss. In that panel, however, they seem like they're about to kiss, or, perhaps, have just finished kissing. But in neither the preceding or following panel do they kiss. Lee apparently chose to draw around the significant event of the page, which the narration explicitly points out.

What happened to the dude on the right's horse's head? Or did he dismount, run over, jump up and punch the other dude? And given how much time it would take him to clear the distance between them, on his own horse or off, why was the other dude still caught off guard?

According to the character, he's holding a "long" knife, which appears to be about the size of his thumb in that panel. We don't see any other images of the knife in the scene to indicate it is, indeed, a long knife.

The script makes clear within the next few pages what just happened, but it's impossible to tell from the part of the comic in which the event acutally occurs. Does that dude say "No, Dave?" because Dave is crumpling from an unseen, unheard blow from the person in the hat and coat? Or does he say "No, Dave" to keep Dave from maybe attacking that person?

What Isanove does to the art exactly isn’t entirely clear. Instead of being listed as colorist, he’s credit under “art” with Lee, and this seems in large part due to the degree of his contribution. Is he digitally inking Lee’s pencils? Trying to interpret the four-page “The Painted Process” segment at the end, that seems to be the case.

In eight steps, that feature demonstrates how Isanove constructed the first two-page spread on pages three and four from Lee’s “line art.” He starts with a photograph, tweaks it, adds Lee’s art, tweaks that, and keeps tweaking aspects until he gets to the finished product. That finished product is simply the grown-up Gunslinger posing on a rock, with a vulture flying nearby. It’s apparently dawn or sunset, as the sky seems aflame. It’s not a bad piece of art, but it’s damaging to the book as a whole, since almost every image is so luxuriously covered.

In that opening shot, for example, the sky seems to be aflame. In the book’s second-to-last panel, also a two-page spread, a character is burned to death at the stake, I think. The background looks identical to the original one, though, and the only reason I think the character is on fire is because the words mention her hair and clothes being in flames, which is not the case in the art itself.

Clearly a ton of work went into putting this book together, and it’s really a shame that so much work must be done in the eye and the mind of the reader to make sense of it.

Would I travel back in time to buy it off the shelf?: No, this is actually a much better package to enjoy the story in than the monthly installments would have been. Each of the seven issues is structured so that there’s a cliffhanger at the ending, and an awful lot occurs in each issue, so I imagine it would have read just fine in monthly installments. But this version is free of all those super-irritating ads Marvel runs for Spider-Man fishing poles and Wolverine candy action figures or whatever, and includes what appears to be every single version of the one million variant covers.

I don’t know if this is the case or not, but it seems to me that variant covers encourage waiting-for-the-trade purchasing in direct market customers. I’m sure there must be a segment of the consumers who do actually speculate on variants or collect them (or at least, retailers speculate that such a segment exists, and thus buy enough copies to justify publishers continuing and increasing variant cover publishing), but to the rest of us whose only interest in variants might be seeing different artists draw the covers, it certainly makes more sense to wait for a trade which is more likely to have all the variants.

Take the Marvel Zombies series for example; the fresh variant covers on each new printing was a large factor in each issue selling out. But why re-buy each new printing for a new cover, if you can just wait a few months and get them all at once in the trade?

Anyway, this is hardly a must-own graphic novel for me, and I don’t think it’s a must-own for anyone who’s not a Dark Tower fan already, but, in retrospect, if I were going to have bought the series, I’d prefer to have the graphic novel, where I can at least get a neat John Romita Jr. pin-up of the Gunslinger in the back, without having to pay extra for it.


Anonymous said...


I think you might be alone in not liking Dark Tower. While you are still entitled to I suppose.

I enjoyed the narration, and the unique job Peter David did in adapting a novel to sequential art. And though I don't always like Lee's artwork, I thought it was bad-ass here.

Patrick said...

I loved this series, but as someone who read the books, I came to it with a completely different perspective. For me, the lack of detail, in both the script and the art, helped the work because it played more like a half remembered dreakm of what happened than a literal attempt to retell the story.

I think the art looked a bit static and CG at times, but it was moody and beautiful too, and really grew on me as the series went on. I wasn't expecting that much, but came away really happy with it.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Exactly! I mostly enjoyed the books and was really looking forward to this, but I didn't like it nearly as much as I wanted to and that's exactly why. The art does a poor job of telling the story. It's pretty enough but it just doesn't quite match the script. And what's the point of making the reader imagine the world in their head (thanks to the close ups and lack of background details and no establishing shots like you mentioned) if they do that when they read the books anyway? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of putting it into the comic format?

Anonymous said...

Despite typically enjoying Peter David's work, and even most of Jae Lee's (despite the occasional lapse into void-space backgrounds), I have no interest in this book.

It's just the Stephen King connection. Though I enjoyed some of his books when I was in junior high school, I've lately found all of his work painfully turgid to get through, with the Gunslinger being the most tedious of the lot.

The comic might be well done, but it's just not important enough to fit into my budget or free time.

Anonymous said...

I didn't care for the source novels, so I was never tempted to check this out.

I did kind of wonder how much Stephen King was actually involved, since he's written about the Sandman and Dark Knight Returns and other "big" comics. But I kinda figured he had as much input in this as Brian Singer did in the Superman Returns comics.

Unknown said...

I read all the issues of the series, and thought it was okay. I think I liked the art a bit better than you did, but you make some good points as to its weaknesses. I'm also a Dark Tower virgin, so I was coming in completely fresh; however, each issue had a bit of a recap on the back, and extensive text pieces by Robin Furth describing the mythology of the series. This added quite a bit to the story, and actually made me somewhat interested in the books, since it's a pretty big, expansive fantasy world. They're on my "maybe someday" list of stuff to read. Overall, I was a little bit disappointed with the series, and I'm really not sure if I want to read the next miniseries or not. This one is kind of fading quickly from my memory anyway, so I probably shouldn't, unless I do like you did and look for it at the library.