Friday, 4 May 2012

Books: The Dark Tower


The Dark Tower
Vol 1: The Gunslinger Born
Written by Robin Furth and Peter David
Art by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

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The Dark Tower
Vol 2: The Long Road Home
Written by Robin Furth and Peter David
Art by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

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The Dark Tower
Vol 3: Treachery
Written by Robin Furth and Peter David
Art by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove

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The Dark Tower
Vol 4: Fall of Gilead
Written by Robin Furth and Peter David
Art by Richard Isanove

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Maybe it was watching The Mist again (the black and white version if it do please ya). If you haven't seen it - well - it might just be the best film so far to get that Lovecraftian vibe just right [1] After reading the wikipedia page (I have a habit - or hell - more like a ritual now - of reading the imbd trivia page and wikipedia stuff after watching a film) I discovered that there was Dark Tower connection. Something about the creatures coming from somewhere described in the books or something [2].

Or maybe it was reading the first part of comic book version of the The Stand and really enjoying the Stephen-King-ness mixed with the comic-book-ness plus realising that - cool - sometimes you can read a comic adaptation of a book and still get all the juicy bits without feeling like you're missing something.

Then again maybe it was trying out one episode of Game of Thrones - which became another episode - and then another - and then another - and then another [3]: and realising - hey - you know what? - maybe this whole Fantasy thing isn't as bad as I thought it was (when Lord of The Rings was first published The Sunday Times said something about how the English-speaking world (ha!) is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them: to which I would add - and me: the person that has no intention of ever even bothering to trying to read them - sorry Tolkien) [4].

I don't know what it was. But: it was something. Or a combination of all three. Or maybe just part of my complusive urge to read every single comic book in the Islington stock and write about it on here (a compulsion that is becoming more (not less) crippling as time goes on - but whatever): but I thought - to hell with it - I'm going to read The Dark Tower.

The Dark Tower comic book series that is.

I mean - hey - I've previously expressed my inexpert opinion about Stephen King on these very pages (mainly in the stuff I wrote about The Stand: see below at that "Furthering reading" bit for more). I mean: yeah - guy knows how to tell a story - but it doesn't always seem like he knows how to end them properly (case in point: that genius little dark ending of The Mist film - that was Frank Darabont's idea: the end of the The Mist written-version is a lot less definite) and it seemed a bit much to struggle through 3712 pages (eek! [5]) and I didn't feel like I wanted to risk a ginormous build-up only to be greeted by another giant Turtle (god damn it [6]). And yeah - I was curious about The Dark Tower - it seemed like something that could be - well - very very cool. Because - yeah - ok - I'll admit it: since Lost ended (god how I loved that show) - there's been a part of me that's been hankering for something big and totally capslock: EPIC. Around the time Ridley Scott's Prometheus movie came out [7] - me and my friends (I liked it - they hated it) assumed ourselves by sending each other articles we found lying around the internet that talked about the film in an interesting way (because - hey - even if you hate something: it's still fun to talk about it isn't it?). One of the best ones was an article on a blog called Ruthless Culture called: "Prometheus (2012) – Calvinball Mythology and the Void of Meaning" (written by a guy called Jonathan McCalmont [8]) that began with the contention that: We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories. You should read the whole thing but the basic idea is that: religion used to give us all these big epic fantasies (think of all the stories about all the stuff the Greek and Roman gods used to get up to or - you know - the Mahabharata and the Ramayana [9]) and in recent time - because religion has been pretty much - I dunno - reduced or whatever or however you want to say it there's this spiritual void inside us that craves not spirituality or God-substitutes: but really long and involved stories (so yeah: all those 24 boxsets you've got? That's because your soul is crying out for nourishment) or as Jonathan McCalmont puts it: "The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality." And yeah: I would freely admit that when it comes to the books I read and the television shows that I want to spend my time on: the things that are really starting to hit my sweet tooth are those things which aren't afraid to "go widescreen epic." Small, involved kitchen-sink dramas and love affairs gone wrong [10]? No thank you. Oh no: Space Monkeys are Attacking? Yes please (and pass the popcorn). I mean: I read all four volumes (all four) of the The Book of The New Sun (if you haven't heard of it: it's fantasy in the guise of sci-fi or maybe the other way around [11]?) - but that was - well - pretty hard-going at points - and seems more concerned (especially around Book 3) about making points about ecumenical matters [12] (or whatever - I dunno) than actually - oh say - bringing on some fun actual story stuff).

And: yeah - well - the Dark Tower. I mean - I had heard about it here and there - and of course I'd seen them (and shelved them) around Islington: and read the back covers in only a semi-disinterested sort of way and I would be lying if I said that they didn't seem like a series of books that I would have liked to have been able to have read (maybe just by uploading straight into my brain or something) but the thought of actually taking the time to make my through them all properly - one by one, one page at a time - and I'll say it again: it's 3712 pages long (at least (see [5] again if you have to)). But - it seemed like that they was a way round that: and I could just cheat by reading the comic books and - well hell - I like comic books...

So: Taking into account all of the above - I figured that I was the perfect audience for these books. I was so eager I even put aside a little proper non-lunch-break-type time in order to read them properly: curled up on the couch at home ready for whatever delights and horrors it was prepared to show me.

But - by the time I got halfway through the first book tho - it was all starting to feel like a bit of a disappointment (oh no). So what gives?

Well: first of all - although I really like Jae Lee's stark artwork style (the stuff he's done before for The Fantastic Four has been kinda cool and quite refreshing compared to other superhero artists: like it's halfway between reality and representation - so that everyone is always captured in poses that seem to be most evocative and everything around them seems almost hyper-real: there's a full page panel in the first book where the love interest is standing naked with a branch from a tree covering her modesty and it just looks really nice) - but the dude has a tendency it seems to short-cut drawing people's faces and just putting everything into shadow. With something like the Fantastic Four where (to state the obvious) each of the main  characters has a very distinctive body-type - it felt like it was a tad hard to keep up with who was what and talking to who. This was only compounded when only a third of the way through - a bunch of characters were given aliases - which left this reader even more puzzled about who was what. I mean: I don't normally have a problem with that type of thing mostly - but my main aim with reading these books was to shortcut all the difficulties of reading the actual proper books.

And - oh dear - the further I got with the comic books tho - the more I felt that I was only getting empty calories and the more I felt like I was only getting a small sliver of story. I mean: I know that comic adaptations are nothing more than a summing up - but I don't want to feel like I'm just reading a précis or edited highlights or whatever: and of the bits I read (I'll admit - I eventually started skipping forwards) it didn't seem like a story: more like the greatest hits (in fact: trying to read about the comic books - whilst trying to remain spoiler free (which is obviously kinda difficult) I think I read something about how the comic books aren't actually a straight adaptation - but take bits from all over the books and act a little bit as a prequel (?) or something: which - hey - isn't what I wanted at all).

So - in the end: I thought - to hell with it: maybe I'll stop being such a wuss - and just give the proper books a proper go. I mean - my curiously has been slightly piqued by what I've read so far and who knows - maybe this time Mr Stephen King will be able to deliver an ending that isn't such a horrible horrible let down?

And there. In the space between those two paragraphs (one written back in May and this one written in late September) - I've done it. I've clocked them. All eight books. All read from beginning to end. (Ok - I know that it might not be as impressive as cutting from a bone to an orbiting nuclear weapons satellite: but still: you've gotta be a little impressed - right?)

Thoughts? Damn right I've got some thoughts:

I guess the first thing to say would be that's it's strange reading the Dark Tower proper having read just a little bit of the comics. As regular readers should know by now - I have a thing about reading books fresh and will go out of my way to make sure that I can read things completely unspoilt if I can (like that famous episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads where they're trying to avoid finding out the score to the England match [13]: only with books, films, tv shows and comics instead of football) and so even tho I'd read most of the first comic book (The Gunslinger Born) I had no idea how it fitted into the actual real book series.

Of course having now read the whole thing I was free to go around and read all the stuff that I ignored before and - oooooh: so it turns out that the first volume is actually an adaptation of a story (the main story) told in the fourth Dark Tower book: Wizard and Glass. Of course I realised this as I stumbled into it and realised that I was walking through a house that I'd never stepped into but that I already knew the layout of (which is a bit of strange feeling obviously): so a lot that was just waiting for things to happen that I knew where going to happen (making it feel like I had to re-chew things I'd already digested - but I guess that my punishment for trying to cheat my way out of reading the books via the comics in the first place...).

As for the rest of them (well - of course this seems obvious now that I've taken the time to actually read about them): but it turns out that apart from The Gunslinger Born the rest of them are actually prequels tie-ins and not "real" Dark Tower stuff at all (it's "real" if it's adapting stories in the actual books, it's "not real" if it's making up new stories about stuff that's only suggested in the books). Yet: because I didn't know that my experience reading the books was kinda thrown a little bit out of whack. I thought that all the comic books were "real" Dark Tower stuff and when I got to Wizard and Glass - well - that just confirmed that. And so: because I'd seen the covers to the other books (The Long Road Home, Treachery and Fall of Gilead (Treachery being a particular favourite I must say)) I just assumed that at some point we'd be getting to the point where a pale skinny white girl with a gun would show up and do a Lando and at some point - seeing how Vol 4 is called Fall of Gilead and the books (especially as the go on) keep making more and more references to the - well - Fall of Gilead I just blindly assumed that sooner or later these things would show up in the non-comic books I was reading (I remember getting to the last book and thinking to myself: well - I guess this is the one where the comic stuff finally happens: but no). And as weird as it is to read something when you've already read the comic version - let me say - it's weirder when you think that you know something is going to happen: that then keeps on not happening...

And apart from the comic book stuff and just talking about them as books?

Ok then: well - reading about their reputation and the general public reactions: most of the talk about the Dark Tower it seems is all about and all over the way it ends - so I'll start there. In fact I'll start with a little confession (yeah? Ok): years back - in order to stop myself from reading the Dark Tower books (which even then were calling out to me it seems) - and hell - because I was curious I guess - I decided to look up the ending online (on the Dark Tower wikipedia page if I remember correctly) in order to see what happened (you get the reasons why right? It was like a form of fiction inoculation: hopefully curing me of any need to bother to make the journey: because - hey - if you know what the destination is going to be: what's the point - right?) At the time of reading the ending: well yeah - I thought it sounded awful and I was glad that I wasn't one of those saps that had invested all their time and effort into it (oh the ironies!). But then: having taken the decision to: set out on my quest (as I kept referring to it to my girlfriend: "No - I can't do the washing up right now - I need to finish this stage of my quest...")  it gave me a nice feeling of security. Of having taken some sort of trip into the future and being able to see how things ended up I was totally insulated from any feelings of disappointment... Do your worst King! I'm ready for you!

The first book - The Gunslinger - opens with a three part mini-essay called: On Being Nineteen (and a Few Other Things) freshly written for the Revised and Expanded 2003 edition of The Gunslinger (when all the books were finally written Stephen King thought it might be a good idea to go back and rewrite all the books to bring them all a little bit more in line with each other (let's just say that when you spend over twenty years writing a book you're bound to get a little continental drift [14]): and man - it's a great advert for the rest of the book: Stephen King coming across as warm and welcoming and  someone that you'd love to spend some quality time with - just (I dunno) sitting around a fire and eating some popkins. [15] And then there's the book itself - which I later learned is actually a composite of five short stories all stitched together into the same thing. Which - well boy: is pretty darn telling especially seeing how throughout the whole of The Dark Tower there's this unspoken quality of things being lumped or haphazardly thrown together (well - maybe not quite unspoken: there's a moment in the Wolves of the Calla where King (who's a lot of things - but is never knowingly subtle) decides to make the subtext into text and has Eddie say: "In our world you got your mystery and suspense stories…your science fiction stories…your Westerns…your fairy tales. Get it?” “And Roland remarks: “Do people in your world always want only one story-flavor at a time? Only one taste in their mouths? ... Does no one eat stew?”): and making my way although each book I couldn't shake the feeling that all it would take would be one wrong misstep for all the parts of the story to just fall apart and disintegrate into total nonsense. Like: good example - as much as I love Doctor Who - it always feels just a little bit cheap and a little bit made-up-as-it-goes-along (which is obviously part of it's charm): but compared to something like - say - well (picking an example at random): the first Terminator movie: which like it's lead character - always comes across as rock solid and unshakable (yeah do you get what I mean?). Which I guess leads into my one big insight which I got reading the Dark Tower (somewhere inbetween Book 3 and 4 I think) which is this: Stephen King writes like TV. That's not to say that you can't use the books he's written to make films (and duh: obviously you can: The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining being two totally obvious examples [16]) but there's something about the quality of his writing (at least in the books that I've read) that mean that when you picture it in your head (or ok - whatever - when I picture it in my head) it seems more like something you'd see on TV rather than something you'd see in a film - you ken? I mean - I dunno - J. G. Ballard (for instance) of the stuff I've read of his: it's always projected itself as being kinda widescreen in my mind [17]. Stephen King - yeah: the production values are always a little lower for some reason. (Maybe there's something of that in Stephen King's own infamous description of himself as: "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries."?) I dunno.

Wrap it up: well - I'd say (unless you've already read the proper books maybe) then I'd give these comics a pass. As for whether you should bother to actual read the proper books? Well: I'll leave that one for you to decide.

[1] Quoteth one guy (from "Reel Views"): "The Mist is what a horror film should be - dark, tense, and punctuated by just enough gore to keep the viewer's flinch reflex intact. ... Finally, after a long list of failures, someone has done justice in bringing one of King's horror stories to the screen." And if you want to know what watching feels like without spoiling yourself with any trailers of stuff like that - then I recommend you listen to this song.

[2] From here: "The creatures that inhabit the "todash" space in the Dark Tower series resemble those that are in The Mist, [citation needed] which could possibly mean that Project Arrowhead opened a door into the "todash" space." Having now read entire The Dark Tower series yeah: that [citation needed] is pretty telling seeing how you never really get a good sense of what sorta of creatures lives in "todash" space apart from the fact that they're all nightmarey and bad: so basically - you could say of any horror movie ever made that - "hey - maybe they're from todash space!?" So: yeah - blah.

[3] Basically just acting this like: "One more! One more! One more! One more!"

[4] Oh oh - and while we're here: looking for that quote I found this one from some guy called John Rogers: "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

[5] According to this at least. Although I'm not sure if that include the Wind Through The Keyhole: the Dark Tower "bonus" book that was published in the summer of 2012 (eight years after the publication of the final book) - and is supposed to slot into the space between Book 4 and Book 5 (so: "Book 4.5" or "Book 4 and a half" if it do please you): although (disappointingly): it's not the snuggest fit in the world: seeing how there's a moment in Book 5 where one character is all like: "Well - I'm sure bored at how nothing interesting happened in between the end of Book 4 and now!": but then I guess that's The Dark Tower in a nutshell: it's all very rickety and tied together by not much more than duct tape and hope (which hey! - reminds me of the one of the best lines from another long-running fantasy science-fiction saga that also had a few people up in arms about the ending).    

[6] I don't wanna say which book exactly that refers to - but let's just say that people who've read it will know what I'm talking about...

[7] Yes: obviously I realise that Prometheus didn't actually hit the cinemas until mid-June. I don't want to rock your world too much: but just ignore that date at the top there because I'm actually writing this in the future: the first version of this post basically was like: well: maybe I'll read all the books! And this redo is me coming back round having now read them all. (Got that? Good). 

[8] You can read it here. (And hey - Prometheus, Lost and Calvin and Hobbes all in the same article? What could possibly be better?).  

[9] Ok: I'll admit it - I know about those because of Grant Morrison's 18 Days thing. But whatever.

[10] Or - as Eddie Izzard puts it better: A Room with a View with a Staircase and a Pond: "I'd better go." "Yes I think you'd better had."

[11] Mainly I guess because I once discovered this little Guardian article which said stuff like:"it could be argued that The Book of the New Sun is science fiction's Ulysses" and described the premise in the following way: "Set a million years in the future on a world with a dying sun, where the moon is green and irrigated, daylight is red, and "rotting jungles" circle "the waist of the world", it follows the story of Severian, a torturer in the decaying Citadel who shows mercy to a prisoner he's fallen in love with." and "The story is recounted by Severian himself from a position in the future. He is, I suspect, brilliantly unreliable; as well as the challenge of picking through his statements, this is a world which Wolfe never explains directly – the reader has to piece its realities together, which is hugely satisfying." I mean - million years in the future? satisfying reading experiences? It's hard to resist for me something like that. (Although by the end I found that it's the kind of series that you need to read four or five times to properly "get" - to which I say: balls. Life's too short. Sorry).

[12] 1. That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter 2. Yes.

[13] It's called No Hiding Place: I haven't actually seen it for years and years and years: but if you want to you can watch the whole thing on youtube here, here and here. (Fun fact: This episode was remade by Ant & Dec for ITV in 2002!). Oh and yeah: I know The Libertines made a song called What Became of the Likely Lads: but don't let that put you off ok?

[14] Although - now I think of it: shouldn't the opposite be true? I mean - if you have so long to write something: then shouldn't it all be kinda cohesive and well put together? Like: if you spend a few weeks building a house then you'd expect it to be a little bit shaky at the seams but if you spend twenty years then... actually. You know? Doesn't matter...

[15] Although that "hey - come in: get something to drink - take a load off" attitude stands in marked contrast to the afterword in the final book where he's a lot more "get off my land!": "And if you feel a need to drop in and say hello, please think again. My family and I have a good deal less privacy than we used to, and I have no wish to give up any more, may it do ya fine. My books are my way of knowing you. Let them be your way of knowing me, as well. It’s enough."

[16] And as far as I noticed (even tho I've only ever seen the films and never read the books) seemingly the only two of Stephen King's stories not to get some kind of shout-out in the Dark Tower series. (I could have sworn that I read a long while back that there was some Shining reference in there somewhere (the image I had was that the ka-tet (don't ask) ended up at some point in the Overlook Hotel): but I guess I must have missed it...

[17] In fact - a much better example widescreen literature would be Stephen Baxter. I think of his stuff I'll only ever read The Time Ships (an official sequel to H. G. Wells' The Time Machine) - but that alone I got the impression that he only kinda deals with giant movie level concepts (also - yeah - Arthur C. Clarke's stuff too - particularly Rendezvous with Rama (and I don't ever really care if or not books are made into films - but man: I would pay lots of money to see that on an IMAX screen - especially if they ever get to make it with David Fincher directing - it's been in development hell for a long time - but who knows? Maybe one day - right?).

Links: The Graphic Novel Reporter: The Gunslinger Born Review / The Long Road Home Review / Treachery Review / The Fall of Gilead ReviewGraphic Novel Reporter Interview with Author Peter David and Stephen King's Historian Robin Furth on Journey to the Dark Tower, The M0vie Blog Review: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Omnibus (Review/Retrospective).

Followed by: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.

All comments welcome.


Tam said...

I gave up on Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun and I speak as someone who NEVER usually gives up on a book and has even made it through Gravity's Rainbow...

Shame really, it's clearly good stuff, but it just didn't quite connect with me somehow

Islington Comic Forum said...

I'm on to the last 100 pages of Book 4 and it has been a long, hard, tough slog (not sure if it's the kind of book I would really recommend to anyone). Book 1 started off so nicely tho - nice momentum, cool little details - but then - and then well: it kind of loses it's propulsive drive. I mean - not all stories need to have cliffhangers on the end of every chapter - but I do like to be given reasons to keep reading......

Islington Comic Forum said...

Yay. Finished reading it last night. Gets much better towards the end (think I might have actually enjoyed those final 80 pages).
Turns out tho (from reading various things on the internet) that it's less a story and more a puzzle to be unlocked (great) and apparently it doesn't really start to make sense until you read it for the second and third times... (oh brother):
I mean: with something like Lost (god I loved Lost) I was willing to take the time to get into it and deconstruct the ideas and blah blah blah because it was so goddamn entertaining: BOTNS however. Well. I'm just glad I finished it.
If there's any Grant Morrison superfans reading this - I think you should try it. Seems like the kind of thing you'd be into.

Tam said...

If you're looking for another meaty read, have you read any Neal Stephenson? Cryptonomicon is 1200 pages of WW2 codebreaking and various other geek (and slight fantasy) stuff and if that whets your appetite there's the 3000ish page prequel set in the 17th century.

Islington Comic Forum said...

Yeah - Neal Stephenson. I've done some paddling around in the shallow end: Snow Crash and Interface and then went straight into the deep end with Anathem and only made it about 60 pages in before I bailed... Cryptonomicon seems a little bit daunting - altho maybe it's the type of thing I'm looking for. I guess what I like are stories that are about something. Most popular stuff is just stories for stories sake - and Book of the New Sun seemed like it was more about what it was about than about it's story (if that makes sense?). So: how good is Cryptonomicon? Is it much of a page-turner or what?

Tam said...

Personally I think Cryptonomicon is far and away the best thing Stephenson's done and it's my favourite modern novel. I liked Anathem but that's much harder going. Cryptonomicon's definitely not for everyone but if you like maths, geek stuff and books which have something funny or thought-provoking on every page then you'll enjoy it