07 – The Dark Tower Omnibus

dark-tower-omnibusBook Title: The Dark Tower Omnibus (A collection of Marvel’s Prequel Graphic Novels)
Author: Stephen King (original author), Peter David (scripts), Robin Furth (plots, consulting editor), Jae Lee (illustrator), Richard Isanove (colorist)
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adults
Genres: Science Fiction
Page Count: Not marked; At least 650 pages (collects 30 single issues)
Reading time: 5 hours
Format: Hardcover collection (library)

My impressions: I’ve never been an especially big fan of The Dark Tower series; while I know it has a substantial following and is considered by many fans of Stephen King to be his masterwork, I’ve found it to be a heady mix of the best and worst King has to offer, and I was never able to get past Wizards and Glass to read the more controversial books that came after it.

This Omnibus collects 30 Marvel-created prequel comics that were a really big deal a decade ago when they were first published. The collection is massive – it’s actually a 2-volume box set with a 600-page companion book that goes into great detail about the world and background of The Dark Tower. The problem is that the comics (which I read) and the companion edition (which I merely skimmed) are not really standalone works – I’d label them as “for fans only” content in the vein of the various Star Wars and Star Trek expanded universes. There’s nothing here that’s going to greatly appeal to someone who’s never read The Dark Tower novels, and they only exist to flesh out a part of the story that King didn’t tell and which doesn’t add much once it’s all known.

That story is the tale of the gunslinger Roland’s past in Gilead (and in the years following its destruction), which should be really interesting, but which isn’t nearly as memorable as the journey of Roland’s ka-tet in the novels. A big part of the problem is that the reader already knows what’s going to happen, and so the story needs to have strong characters whose stories and fates aren’t known to justify the telling. Sadly, most of the heroes (including Roland) are pretty boring and uninteresting, but I will say that the villains are worth the trouble – the red-masked “Good Man” John Farson, the spidery Crimson King, the Darth Vader-like Captain Grissom and the gang known as the Big Coffin Hunters are all fascinating and memorable, and the evil “Man in Black” known at different points as Walter O’Pim or Marten Broadcloak is extremely well-developed, with much of his own salacious history revealed in the standalone Sorcerer comic.

I didn’t have any trouble getting through this massive collection – the artwork is absolutely gorgeous and the prose, while stylized, is certainly readable. The book clearly has a lot of influence from Stephen King and from his collaborator Robin Furth (who assisted King on the later novels and probably knows more about The Dark Tower than King himself). Marvel made a big deal about the resources they were pouring into this book, and I’m not sure they could have found a more capable creative team.

At the same time, I was bored for a lot of the time. Gunslinger Born is a retread of the flashback told in Wizards and Glass, and Roland never feels like a human in the storytelling; he just faithfully lives through the plotting the story demands and does it with a super-serious intensity with little humor or humanity. I never felt any connection to him, nor did I see any reason to believe he was the greatest gunslinger of all time (despite the story’s desire for me to think so). His fellow young gunslingers Alain and Cuthbert are indistinguishable due to their stilted dialogue and lack of motivations, and I often couldn’t keep straight in my head which was which – a problem made worse by an ill-advised plot device where the characters went by different names for awhile to disguise themselves. A scene that becomes the ultimate Mexican standoff with the Big Coffin Hunters is briefly interesting, but then the story resumes with boring dialogue and a plot where big things are happening but there’s no reason for the reader to care.

That all changes in The Long Road Home, which more closely resembles The Dark Tower because it’s about a desperate journey where Roland is not all-powerful and has to be rescued by his ka-tet companions repeatedly as he struggles against his spiritual enemies. This was the part of the collection I enjoyed the most, and it’s no surprise that it’s also the section least influenced by the narrative of the novels. Even though the resolution of the story is known, the characters are free to develop, and Roland’s encounter with the Crimson King is incredibly memorable.

Once Roland and his friends return to Gilead for the chapters Treachery and The Fall of Gilead, the story reverts back to being one where many things happen to a bunch of  threadbare characters, but the big emotional moments are lost because it’s so hard to care about any of them. Roland remains unlikable and unbelievable, and his friends remain indistinguishable. Every now and then, an interesting character like Aileen (a girl who wants to be a gunslinger and who becomes a second romantic option for Roland) will be introduced, only to disappear before he or she can do anything interesting. There’s a bitter irony in the fact that the story regularly references that a game of chess is being played between Gilead and John Farson; far too many of the characters feel like interchangeable pieces who have no role other than fulfilling specific plot points.

The Battle of Jericho Hill is nice deviation since it’s set many years later and is loaded with great villains (as well as the best art in the collection), but the characters aren’t used effectively enough to make the conflict feel two-sided, and John Farson (who’s portrayed as the big bad guy villain throughout Roland’s backstory) straight-up disappears from the narrative after an initial appearance. Roland’s seeming death and resurrection is also crammed in at the end and lacks any emotional impact – I was left asking myself, “is that supposed to be what leads to the beginning of the novels?”

All in all, it’s hard for me to really feel much positive or negative about The Dark Tower Omnibus; in many ways, it reminds me of the Star Wars prequels (which also manage to wring any excitement out of the backstory of a major character), but it’s high enough in quality that it doesn’t stink. It looks fantastic, it reads well, and it has its moments of engaging content, even offering deeper insights into what the story of The Dark Tower is all about. It’s entirely inessential for anyone but the hardcore fans, and since that’s the audience it was developed for and they seem to exist in great number, I can’t fault the creative team for appealing to them.

As for me, however, I’ve had enough Dark Tower to last me for awhile.  I have no plans to read that 600-page compendium included in the box set. I also doubt I’ll ever finish the novel series (since I’ve already spoiled for myself what happens, and the later chapters sound utterly frustrating), and the comics that follow are based on the novels and short story I’ve already read. If I return to Stephen King’s novels, it will likely be for something like Eyes of the Dragon, a work that’s tangential to The Dark Tower, but self-contained enough to present what I’ve been told is a pretty good story.

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