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REVIEW: DARK TOWER #1

I’m not a voracious Stephen King reader. I’ve never touched any of the DARK TOWER novels. The only book I’ve read of King’s is his ON WRITING book, which is a masterful piece of work and one I plan on re-reading this year. But I’m not really a horror fan, so his style of writing is one that’s never excited me much.

It also means I come to DARK TOWER #1 either completely blindfolded or wonderfully impartial. I have no built-in assumptions about what this book is supposed to look like or sound like. I don’t have an existing connection to the work to color my review. Instead, I review this comic as it stands on its own merits, and not as a comics adaptation of a novel series.

On that basis alone, the review will be mixed. It’s mostly positive, but — well, I have enough nitpicks to make it sound otherwise.

First of all, there are chunks of this book that aren’t sequential narrative. It’s pretty images accompanied by prose text. That’s the part that introduces you to this new world. It’s a problem with all sorts of science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories, though; you need to spend some time learning about the new world. The best of writers make it seamless, and show you as you go along, never making you feel like they cheated you by adding in one more twist to the world’s definition to solve a tricky plot trap. But it’s also one thing that’s kept me away from so many science fiction novels lately. I used to read them voraciously. Nowadays, it’s just too big a bother to jump into a brand new world and learn about it thoroughly enough for the story to make sense. I think that’s part of the reason that sci-fi novel series sell so well. Once you get to know the world, the following books can rely more on character and less on setting.

That’s probably my biggest qualm about this book: by the time I’m starting to understand this world and the characters in it, the book is over. I got over the hump of dealing with new vocabulary and an alien culture just in time to put the book down. Count this as one strong reason to wait for the hardcover. I’m sure if I had the entire series in one binding, I wouldn’t be making such a big deal about this at the top.

And make no mistake about it. A book this big will show up as a hardcover first, not a trade paperback. It’ll make the perfect Christmas present, don’t you think?

On the bright side, there is a complete story in this first issue. Sure, it ends on a cliffhanger, but you don’t get the feeling like the authors are stringing you along. This is the story of one character and his participation in a rite of manhood, basically. It’s a bit disgusting and medieval to our modern eyes, sure, but that’s the world. I can deal with it. Besides, it’s written by Stephen King. If fictional eyeball destruction and animal endangerment bother you that much, you’re probably not the right audience for this material. I’m just happy to meet some players in this story, get a sense of their relations to one another, and then see a couple of major changes that progress the story.

Jae Lee and Richard Isanove’s art is stunningly gorgeous. Submit it to whatever comics award committee you wish to right now. It deserves an award or two. The thing that will grab you about the book even if the story fails you is the overall visual appeal. Jae Lee is a wonderful designer, with a strong sense of placing moments on a page. He has a cinematic eye that comes out occasionally in his page design, but can both tell a story and stage a moment masterfully. When the script calls for a two page shot of our lead standing heroically, you can feel the place he’s standing. The camera angle is just low enough to puff his chest out. The wind blows up his brown coat just enough to the side. And the look on his face is pure machismo.

But it’s Isanove who takes it all and makes it look like a painting. Isanove has done some amazing work at Marvel in recent years — from 1602 to ORIGINS and more — but this book gives him even more room to spread his wings. Lee’s art is often very open and favors shadows and silhouettes. This gives Isanove the chance to show off his intricate textures and tonal work on every page. The aforementioned page with the heroic pose works as well as it does because Isanove’s colors behind the figure give the reader a sense of light, climate, and dimension. Let’s face it — it just looks cool. This is a fantasy world — there’s nothing wrong with it being cool to observe.

I admit right now that this is something of a slight review. It’s not going to be easy to judge this series until it’s over. We’re just stepping into this world now. The story has been set in motion, but I’m interested in seeing where it goes from here. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, and I have enough faith in the writers behind it — specifically in Peter David’s scripts — to come back for more. I hope we see more things happening in future issues, and less prose excerpts. I hope characters dictate actions more than plot devices. And I hope I’m comfortable enough in the world now to understand why people act the way they do. The second issue will be the true acid test.

The story in this first issue runs about 30 pages. There are also maps of the Dark Tower world included, a new prose short story by co-author Robin Furth (spot illustrated by Jim Calafiore and HELLSHOCK’s June Chung), and a text piece by editor Ralph Macchio explaining the roles of the creators in the story and how this comic intersects with the novels’ continuity. It all wraps up with far too many full pages of previews for the next issue. But for $3.99, you’re getting your money’s worth on this one. Marvel has packed the book solid, and the issue is not a quick decompressed read.

DARK TOWER #1 will be available at comic shops everywhere on Wednesday, February 7th. Some stores will even be opening at midnight the night before to sell the issue, though I doubt that will cause too much commotion, aside from being a nifty publicity gimmick.

For more on “Dark Tower,” click here. To read Augie’s column from Tuesday, click here. And you can discuss this review with Augie on the Pipeline Message Board.

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