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Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Omnibus is an absolutely stunning collection. It might, in terms of production value, be the finest hardcover that Marvel have ever produced in their prestigious omnibus line. Ignoring the issue of content, it’s hard to think of any collection that looks or feels more impressive than this massive slipcase edition, housing two gigantic tomes of King’s iconic lore. One volume reprints the first six story arcs of Marvel’s Dark Tower series, all written by Peter David and stunningly illustrated by Jae Lee. The second book contains all manner of supplementary material – from interviews with the creators, to sketches, to prose pieces and background information on King’s absolutely monumental fantasy epic. While the comic book itself might have some flaws (some serious, some less so), there’s absolutely no faulting the skill and care that went into crafting this deluxe special edition.

A towering accomplishment?

Reading the volumes collected here – from The Gunslinger Born to The Battle of Jericho Hill – it’s easy to gauge the most fundamental problem with the Marvel comic book series. It’s very clearly a secondary part of King’s impressively epic Dark Tower mythos. It seems to exist not to adapt the story into another medium, but to develop and expand certain plot points. With the exception of The Gunslinger Born, a story crafted from flashbacks featured in the books (The Gunslinger and Wizard and Glass), most of the stories here exist to delve into the early history of King’s emersive fictional universe. It covers the teenage years of his protagonist, Roland Deschain (the eponymous Gunslinger), following the character to the point where he began in the novels.

As a result, there’s something inherently less than satisfying about the adventure. It feels incomplete. We know, for example, that Roland will end up wandering the wastes alone, so we know what fate must lie in story for the supporting cast developed here. More than that, in order for Roland to start at a low point in the first book, The Dark Tower spirals downwards in an increasingly depressing fashion. Not only do we know, ahead of time, that failure is the only option – we know that it will be tragic, brutal and soul-destroying failure. It’s hard not to end the collection feeling like your faith in humanity has been worn down to a nub, as Roland suffers painful emotional setback after painful emotional setback. It’s unrelenting.

Not so young gun…

And, I suppose, that’s the point. It lends Roland’s tale the faintest taste of tragedy, as we recognise the inevitability of any futile attempt to resist the terrors that fate might hold in store. However, this doesn’t necessarily work because the book doesn’t feel like a tragedy. There’s no sense that the entire point of The Dark Tower is watch Roland getting demolished and deconstructed by a hostile and cruel world. Instead, it feels like this is all prologue to a main event happening elsewhere. “What have we escaped to?” Roland asks at the start of the last story. “What sort of world are we left with… and where in it do we stake our claim?” That seems like a strange place for the story to end, witht eh hero finally given motivation, and his journey set-up (but not embarked upon). The final page in this collection ends with the solemn vow,  “And it doesn’t end…”

I know that Marvel’s Dark Tower series doesn’t end here, after all. These six miniseries are just the six stories that feature the wonderfully beautiful and haunting artwork of Jae Lee – which really suits the material perfectly. Maybe there’s be another gigantic omnibus collection that will wrap up the comic book version of Stephen King’s Dark Tower, so perhaps the criticism is misjudged or over-eager. Marvel are, to be fair, collecting a gigantic slipcase edition of Stephen King’s The Stand, so I can’t imagine this didn’t sell well enough to justify another collection. Perhaps that might find a way to at least resolve Roland’s story without feeling like twenty-nine issues of set-up.

King was on fire crafting this story…

And that is, to be entirely fair, the largest complaint one can make. Stephen King’s Dark Tower is a conceptually fascinating fantasy adventure, one simply breathtaking in its scope. There are seven novels in the series, but the author’s complex mythology ripples across his own “multiverse” into countless other books. It’s possible to argue, for example, that the Crimson King is at work in The Shining, while the monster from It is one of a race of creatures featured in The Dark Tower. Even Randell Flagg, the ominous magician featured so prominantly in The Dark Tower, seems to reverberate across King’s bibliography, showing up in a major role in The Stand, for example. For any author to tie together such a diverse range of literature is an impressive accomplishment – it becomes downright astounding when you look at the size of King’s bibliography.

King himself will freely concede that The Dark Tower is the result of a curious blend of influences, from Lord of the Rings through to The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. In particular, one could read The Dark Tower as an Americanisation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s distinctly European modern myth, a fact that King himself freely concedes as part of hisOn Being Nineteen, an introduction to the series:

They were the adventures of an essentially British band of pilgrims set against a backdrop of vaguely Norse mythology. I liked the idea of the quest – loved it, in fact – but I had no interest in either Tolkien’s sturdy peasant characters (that’s not to say I didn’t like them, because I did) or his bosky Scandinavian settings. If I tried going in that direction, I’d get it all wrong.

While King himself has confessed that The Stand was his attempt to transpose Lord of the Rings to a more American setting, one could argue that The Dark Tower is the adventure of an essentially American archetype against the backdrop of a mythology carved from all manner of iconic myths and legends (including, but not limited to, Norse mythology).

One way to get ahead…

The tower itself is an archetype that feels like an affectionate homage to Tolkien, casting a shadow over the whole series. While the protagonists in The Lord of the Rings aren’t specifically journeying to the tower, Sauron’s tower is iconic enough to warrant a place in the title of the second book in the trilogy. Similarly, the Crimson King’s standard – that of a red eye – can’t help but evoke the Eye of Sauron. One can feel the influence of Tolkien wafting through the pages, and King’s affection for that epic fantasy is clear. While it’s more likely a happy quirk of chance, there’s the wonderful coincidence that Tolkien apparently originally envisaged his saga spread across seven books, while King’s saga runs across seven books (with a post-script “interquel.”)

In fact, one can spot any number of references to the Norse mythology of which Tolkien was so fond. The most obvious is the name of the Earth itself, called “Mid-Earth.” (Itself seeming like a shout-out to “Middle Earth.”) Dialogue and supplemental materials explain that the realm is also known as “Middle-Garden”, or just “Mid-Gard, like the Norse name for Earth. Our hero, Roland, often finds himself conversing with ravens in his visions – ravens, of course, being associate with the Norse god Odin.

Caught dead to rights?

Of course, being a distinctly American (as opposed to European) mythology, the iconography is quite a bit different. Like the nation that inspired it, The Dark Tower is a melting pot of different religious and pop culture imagery, all blended into an exotic amalgam. Technically, The Dark Tower appears to take place in a world “after the end.” There’s the implied after-effects of nuclear war, along with old relics (mostly war machines) of some earlier and almost-forgotten culture. However, the eponymous tower seems to stretch the breadth of both time and space, populating the realm with all manner of trinkets of cultures that were and those that are yet to be. The result is a sort of a “neverwhere”, a world of concurrent impossibilities, as much Mad Max as The Magnificent Seven, with a healthy dose of more traditional myths and legends thrown in.

The Dark Tower draws from all manner of archetypes, even those predating the Untied States of America itself by millennia. We are told, for example, of King Arthur Eld, obviously modeled on the King Arthur of British legend. The trinket that the cast spend most of the collection fighting over is “Maerlyn’s Grapefruit”, named for the wizard of legend. There are several references to “the will of the Man Jesus”, and “the lying bastard” in The Fall of Gilead goes by the name of “Justus”, sounding quite close to “Judas.”

A murder of crows…

However, King makes sure to filter these through a distinctly American lens. The archetype driving the story is, after all, a cowboy. The Gunslinger, as the first book tells us. Indeed, the opening issue makes it clear that Roland is just an archetypal gunslinger. He’s the archetypal gunslinger. “If the gunslinger looks familiar to you, well, that’s as may be,” the narration tells us. “Echoes of him have been seen in tales spun across many other places in many other ways. Just as stories of a great flood, for instance, cut across the consciousness of mankind, so too does the gunslinger.” To King, the cowboy is as iconic as any biblical myth, and it’s hard to disagree.

Befitting the attempt to tell this story using distinctly American archetypes, Excalibur itself has been forged in the form of a gun rather than a sword – the weapon used by the pioneers to “tame” the country that would become the United States of America. “Do you see these guns, my friends?” Roland asks. “They are the oldest symbol of Mid-World’s law. Law that John Farson spat upon. Arthur Eld, whose mark they bear, fetched them from the Tower and used them to forge a civilised world for the likes of us.”Those guns, looking like revolvers, are clearly as iconic and important to the forging of a Mid-Earth identity as they were to the formation of a shared American identity.

Jump in!

Appropriately, his opponent is just as much an archetype. Though he takes the form of Randall Flagg, a recurring foe from countless King stories, he identifies himself as something more primal. “Who am I, you ask?” Randall addresses us directly. “I am the prophet, the snake, the giver of knowledge and delight, and I have as many names as there are worlds. Walter O’Dim, Marten Broadcloak, The Man in Black, Randall Flagg, Rudin Filaro, The Walkin’ Dude… these are but a few. But there is no truer name for me than that which exists on this card. I am the magician.” Different names, different forms, same essence.

The result is breathtaking. The Dark Tower is a visual feast. It provides the exotic and bizarre mix of oil fields and horses, guns and magic, tanks and talking ravens, “slow mutants” and “high voltage” signs and cyborgs. Where else would you be treated to the sight of cowboys in medieval armour. It’s all wonderfully ethereal and stunningly rendered by Jae Lee. The artist makes everything look perfectly unnatural, as if the entire world were ready to collapse. Hazy backgrounds and impossible physics make for a wonderfully treacherous – and yet eerily familiar – landscape against which our drama can play out.

Electric dreams…

Lee’s work here is honestly better than it has ever been – several of the splash pages look like classic paintings in their own right. I think it’s hard to separate The Dark Tower from Lee, and perhaps that justifies the decision to publish this incomplete absolute. This is a wonderfully, stunningly, beautifully consistent tome. It’s little wonder that King himself drafted Lee to illustrate the eighth book in his Dark Tower series. It’s hard to really describe how the powerful atmospheric artwork makes the series, but you can get a good feeling from the screenshots above and below.

That’s not to say that the writing it is weak – it’s just hard to measure up to the ethereal beauty of the world that Jae Lee builds. Still, King is a keen world-builder, and Peter David has a wonderful knack for playing within other writers’ sandboxes. (And, as with any mention of David, here’s the mandatory request for more of the writer’s work in a snazzy oversized hardcover – X-Factor, Hulk, take your pick, Marvel.)

A nice run indeed…

David does seem a little bit awkward during the opening arc, The Gunslinger Born, but quickly finds his feet with the more character-orientated second arc, The Long Road Home. Free on the constraint of King’s firmly tied-down continuity, David manages to give the cast their own set of voices, and – the fate of all involved pretty much set in stone from the moment the comic was conceived – David is free to let character drive the stories that follow. That’s a great thing, because David is a fantastic character writer.

As befitting the story’s status as an attempt to weave together some gigantic American mythological tapestry, The Dark Tower is always keenly aware of its nature as fiction. The narrator doesn’t just document events, but addresses us directly, reflecting on the stories that he’s telling us. “It gets bad now, I have to warn ya,” he tells us before one especially bleak chapter in the saga. “Real bad, do ya kennit?”The story reads like an oral history, affirming its status as a story about stories. The whole thing seems like a rich mythological history as recounted by a kindly old man in a tavern over a friendly drink.

Angels wept…

It becomes clear, early on, that while the world of The Dark Tower may contain the trappings of our own, it is powered by metaphysics. That’s true of any story, of course, but The Dark Tower is remarkably candid about it. Reflecting on a minor character’s decision to flee the bedroom, our narrator tells us, “At which point the whore departs her bed and our tale. I’ll warrant Roland wishes he had that option. I do.”

He acknowledges that once the prostitute leaves the scene, she pretty much ceases to exist (at least as far as we are concerned) and that Roland is pretty much doomed to a life of suffering by virtue of ending up the protagonist of an epic story like this. The suggestion is that it has nothing to do with Roland, save the fact that he happened to be the character caught up in this particular story. The law of narrative seems to trump all others. At one point, when a sleeping Roland is attacked by a pack of wolves, the narrative caption pretty much tells us that he’s not going to die here because the story isn’t finished yet.

Till death do us part…

“After all, what point is there in great villains attempting evil deeds… if great heroes aren’t around to stop ’em?” our narrator asks. “And Roland, well, he was the greatest of his age, and great heroes don’t die in their sleep gutted by wolves. They just don’t.” It’s a clever idea, and a smart way of making the story seem self-aware. After all, any attempt to craft a modern mythology inevitably seems a bit pretentious.

Even the characters allude to the nature of the metaphysics that drive Mid-Earth. Reacting to Roland’s declaration of love, Susan replies, “On the basis of one single meeting? One single kiss? Such things happen in stories, but in real life? I think not.” Of course, as ourselves and our narrator know, this is not real life – adding a delicious layer of irony to the dialogue. Roland will of course fall in love on the basis of one single meeting, because that is what romantic heroes do. Within the story, the characters acknowledge the power of myth and stories. “Let the word and the legend go before you,”Roland’s teacher advises him.

In the red…

The Dark Tower is a lavish and fantastic collection. Indeed, as far as the production side of things goes,I’d make a solid argument that The Dark Tower is probably the finest of the Marvel Omnibus line. That said, however, the story itself can’t help but feel a little incomplete and a little secondary. Maybe Marvel might put out a second collection to cover the remaining issues, that would be nice and it might allay some of the problems with this set. Still, The Dark Tower is a fascinating look at an attempt by a great American author to construct his own fantasy landscape, populated with landmarks harvested from a vast pop culture history. This alone would make it worth a look, but the superb and evocative artwork from Jae Lee is what really makes this set something truly special.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for this detailed analysis. I remember the first time I learned of the Dark Tower series years ago, how I was at first disappointed that someone had already done my just-conceived idea of a epic fantasy-western, and then kind of happy that someone had apparently pulled it off. I still haven’t read it, but especially after reading your review here I just may have to. I’m tempted to go straight for the graphic novels, but that they seem to function more as supplements for those who have already read the books. And it’ll be quite awhile before I can devote that much time to another series! But still, fan that I am of epic fantasy and spaghetti westerns both…

    • It’s a great blend. I don’t think King gets enough credit as an American storyteller, and The Dark Tower blends both a classic European fantasy with more American archetypes to great effect.

      The comic is, with the exception of the first arc, definitely a “between the pages” affair. It’s an interesting approach. Marvel did do a more straight-up adaptation of The Stand, though. I’m not sure which approach I really prefer though. The Dark Tower comic doesn’t really have an ending, because that has to be saved for the books, but it’s also a bit newer and more vital than The Stand, which I think is one of the definitive American fantasy novels of the past few decades.

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