I'm torn on THE DARK TOWER: THE GUNSLINGER BORN, the hardcover collection of which hits comic book store shelves tomorrow. It is, without a doubt, a beautiful piece of work. It is also one that often loses and confounds me. I want to like it a whole lot. There's much to recommend about this book, in its art, its production, and individual moments of the story. There is also, perhaps, an assumption that the reader knows more than the creators considered.
I've never read a Stephen King novel. I've only ever read his inspiring ON WRITING book. My knowledge of the "Dark Tower" series is confined to the fact that there is one, and that Marvel published a mini-series filling in some gaps in that multi-novel storyline. The problem is that while the mini-series might fill in the gaps of a pre-existing story, it doesn't stand up well enough as a story on its own.
Robin Furth, Peter David, and Stephen King did their best to introduce new readers to the mythology. They fashioned a great first issue, in particular, that serves as an introduction to the DARK TOWER world, the people in it, and some of its customs and language. It is an excellent example of world building for all aspiring writers. Nothing is left unconsidered - from the clothes of the characters to the layout of the land to the distinctive vocabulary and the sociological customs. While not everything needs explaining, there's a lot of things strewn throughout the book that will raise an eyebrow and make you want to know more. It's frustrating that the book doesn't often provide it. For a seven issue mini-series so laden with captions and narration, there's a lot left unexplained. It wouldn't be fair to ask for all of it, perhaps. It couldn't fit into such a confined space while still allowing for the major story. There's too much going on in this book for anything but the most seriously attentive and obsessively detail-oriented person to follow. There are too many characters, too many roles, too many subplots all blending in at once. There's a romance at the heart of the book that often provides the most pleasurable reading experience as it is the most universal part. But even that ends quickly and not terribly fulfillingly. (Is that a word?)
On the positive side, that feeling of being lost in a new world is something I don't get much of anymore. There was a time when I used to read a lot more science fiction prose work. Part of the joy there was in getting lost in a new world, exploring its differences from our own, and seeing where they take characters who are otherwise perfectly human by nature, if not looks. DARK TOWER threw me back to those times. It might have been a bit too overwhelming for me at times, but there's a lot to think about in the book and a lot that I'm still curious about. Some of it I could do without -- demonic interests never did much for me, and witchy crones who could divine the future often leave me dry -- but there's a lot in this book that's just plain cool, from the concept of gunslingers to the oil wells in an otherwise ancient-feeling land. The whole western motif of the book is pleasant, complete with horses and bad poker games and bars with swinging doors.
While the narration takes some getting used to, once you absorb the style of it into the reading process, it becomes second nature and informative. It's worth going back and rereading the first couple of issues after finishing the book to see what you might have missed out on the first time. I like that King and David have gone so far as to include bastardizations of uncommon English words (has anyone used "ken" outside of a legal proceeding in the last three decades?) as typical jargon in this world, and even some of the formal manners the characters use in addressing each other.
David's sense of humor shows up here and there, often helping the move the book along at times when the narration starts carrying too much of the story. There's a great scene about halfway through the book with a lineup of characters threatening each other's lives that works very well.
I'm a trained reader of modern comics. The downside is that I tend to read comics quickly. I expect a quick read. I want to be turning a page every few seconds, or I feel like I'm bogged down. There are less words on the average page of a Marvel or DC comic today than there were 15 - 20 years ago when I started reading. Blame decompression, blame cinematic storytelling styles, blame manga. It is what it is.
DARK TOWER is a bit of an odd beast. It's a slower read. I believe I wrote about this in my original review of the first issue, but it holds true throughout the book. This is a text-heavy read, by comparison to most Marvel comics today not written by Ed Brubaker. The story is narrated in with heavy captions. The language is dripping with repurposed and made up words. The world is foreign to our own. That initial confusion combined with the layers of text mean that you're not going to breeze through these seven issues as quickly as you might the latest NEW AVENGERS hardcover. It lightens up in spots as the book goes on, but there are definitely sequences with talking heads and narration galore throughout.
I think this is a smart move. This is a book aimed directly as Stephen King's faithful readers, who might not be aware that comic books still exist today. If you took a group of people who made their way through the entirety of THE STAND -- often more than once -- and dropped a comic book in their lap with spare dialogue, lots of large art panels, and a small cast, they'd probably feel ripped off. It might be strictly due to the nature of the story that the book has so many words, but it's a helpful side effect, I think, that it is also something appealing to the intended audience. There are times, though, that it feels more like I'm reading an illustrated prose book than a sequential art story. It lightens up by the end of the book as all the characters and situations are well established and the action takes over, but it's a feeling that sets in early and never fully goes away.
The thing I haven't touched on yet about this book is the art style. This is another visual masterpiece on all levels for Jae Lee. This time, he's accompanied by Richard Isanove on colors. It's a stunning piece of work. The often spare ink line of Lee is complemented beautifully by a rich selection of colors from Isanove, who paints the book more than he colors it. He adds texture and shadows and mood with his lighting. He adds the dimensions to the page, even sketching in silhouettes of backgrounds and hazy drifts floating across pages.
Lee's pages are, indeed, often devoid of backgrounds. Even wide angle shots taken outdoors often lack detail past the mid-ground, with the deep backgrounds being composed of shadows and silhouettes. You don't notice it so much as you're reading the book. Maybe this is Isanove's brilliant job in covering it up, or a clear design choice, but the world shown in the book is meant to have a hazy feeling. You don't often see panoramas in this world. The action happens up front, in the faces of the characters, who are often conflicted, demonic, or hopelessly lost. The backgrounds are almost distractions until used to creative effect. Isanove adds plenty of dimension and shadow in the faces, filling in the negative space with three dimensional texture that a lesser colorist wouldn't bother with.
Combine it all with Chris Eliopoulos' restrained lettering and well chosen fonts and caption box stylings, and you have a finished package that is greater than the sum of its parts. The weak spots are made up for by the stronger parts. And the end effect is that I want to read more. I want to understand more. I want to go further into this world. While I wish the story had been a little simpler to allow for the large cast of characters and the complicated settings, I feel like I took to it by the end. The book leaves me with questions I actively want answers to -- not enough to start reading the novels, mind you, but enough to warrant a sequel.
Given the large sales numbers behind this mini-series, I imagine it won't be long until we hear news of a sequel being announced. I'm generally skeptical of "crossover" titles and "gateway" comics, but I hope this is the kind of book that might fulfill some of those needs for this industry. Now that the story is complete in one book, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the right audience finds it.
DARK TOWER Volume 1 is a prestige format hardcover book, collecting the entire seven issue mini-series with a bonus cover gallery and work-in-progress section for $24.99. DARK TOWER fans will want to jump in. Casual fans will find something to enjoy in the book, although it might not be a fully formed experience for them. Those averse to fantasy or horror or alternative westerns should just stay away.
COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS AND HALLOWEEN
Saw lots of superhero costumes on Halloween this year. In fact, I can't remember the last time they so dominated a group of children dressed up for the holiday. Spider-Man (both red and blue, and black) and Robin were the two big ones, with a few Supergirls thrown into the mix. There was even a Batgirl amongst the barrage.
I'd have been more impressed if I thought any of them had ever seen a comic book in their lives. But it does give me hope and one idea: Maybe Free Comic Book Day should be moved closer to Halloween, so the leftovers can go to new homes on Halloween night.
When I told this story the someone at work the other day, the person looked at me with a blank expression and said, "Do they even make comics anymore?"
PREVIEWS FOR JANUARY 2008
At the beginning of the year, I vowed to discuss PREVIEWS less. Those writeups threatened to consume this column. Look at the 2006 archives and you'll see that it often seemed like every other column centered on the Diamond catalog. The Pipeline PREVIEWS Podcast easily replaced those lengthy write-ups, and so the commentary and review picked back up again.
Lately, PREVIEWS has been completely missing from the Pipeline arsenal. Technical issues -- now resolved and hopefully put into place in the next week -- prevented the recording of any multi-hosted podcasts. Hopefully, we'll see that return this month.
While I don't have the patience to do a full write-up, I thought I'd mention some of the curiosities and highlights of the latest catalog. For now, let's take an abbreviated look at what January 2008 has to offer:
The highlight of the month is from Sterling who, on page 312, slips in two new ASTERIX OMNIBUS volumes. Each collects three books from the great series at a new lower price. Paperback editions are only $20, with the hardcovers coming in at $30. As the paperbacks are normally $10 a book, it's a great offer. If you've never read ASTERIX before, I can't recommend Volume 1 of this new series highlight enough. It collects the very first three ASTERIX volumes and would be a perfect introduction to the book for a new reader. They might not be the absolute strongest stories in the series and the art hasn't yet settled down, but I think the raw energy is there to hook you.
I would recommend avoiding the second omnibus, though. It collects the last three books in the series, long after original writer Rene Goscinny's death. Artist Alberto Uderzo has written all the volumes since, to variable results. The last book is an odd statement/satire on the state of comics today. The one before that, ASTERIX AND THE ACTRESS is a sequel to a much earlier book, though perfectly new reader-friendly. All in all, they're worthy reads, but I don't want to scare a potential new reader away with less than prime material.
Platinum Studios can now be found in the back of the catalog. It looks like their distribution deal with Top Cow is over.
Big City Comics is trying a unique way to bring in new readers. They're offering variant covers by Alex Saviuk. Nothing against Mr. Saviuk, who was a regular Spider-Man artist when I first started reading comics, but I just don't see "the kids today" running to their local comic shop to ask for this particular rare duck.
Gemstone's EC Comics line of titles continues apace. The beautiful oversized hardcovers have come out nearly every month since the line launched last year, and the quality hasn't dropped one iota. It is odd, however, to see their particular method of creating a new collector's item. As if $50 for a hardcover reprint wasn't good enough, now they're offering a "limited leather bound" hardcover edition for $150.00 of WEIRD SCIENCE Volume 2.
I'm still working my way through the two TWO FISTED TALES volumes. . .
Fantagraphics is offering up WILLIE & JOE: THE WW II YEARS SLIPCASE. This 650 page two volume hardcover edition will collect all of Bill Maudlin's timely cartoons for $65. Given the price points on similar Don Martin, FAR SIDE, and CALVIN AND HOBBES volumes, that's not a bad deal at all. That's due to the smaller 7 x 9 inch format, I'd assume. (FAR SIDE ran roughly 14.5 x 10 inches.) I've heard great things about these cartoons and enjoyed the samples I've seen here and there. The promised scholarly text running alongside the cartoons means that they'll be more accessible to anyone interested in a nice piece of cartooning and world history.
NBM is publishing LITTLE NOTHINGS Volume 1: CURSE OF THE UMBRELLA, a graphic novel compiling 128 pages of full color cartoons from Lewis Trondheim's personal blog, with small snapshots of his daily life. French cartoonists have developed a great tradition, already, of cartoonist blogs. They're not always text. They're image-based. There are comic book creators over there who delight in telling short stories in comics form for their blog. They're often a little sloppier and a little more rushed than their typical for-print output, but they're still amazing to behold. My limited French knowledge keeps me from fully enjoying them, so this translated book will be a great look into that world. It's $15.
And don't forget to check out Trondheim's MISTER I and MISTER O, while you're at it. Both books are resolicited on page 297 alongside the blog book.
TwoMorrows has an abundant slate of magazines coming out in January, including BACK ISSUE #26, focusing on "Spies and Tough Guys." Underneath the Paul Gulacy cover, there's an article/interview with the original gang of creators on the 80s SUICIDE SQUAD series.
ROUGH STUFF #7, meanwhile, goes in depth with Tim Townsend, while showing prelim art from Dan Jurgens, Craig Hamilton, and Howard Porter. And don't forget the spotlight on Marie Severin, with contributions from a bevy of artists including Dawn Brown.
From the front half of the catalog:
Dark Horse brings us EMPOWERED Volume 3 already! I haven't even started reading volume 2 yet, but this is very good news, indeed. Adam Warren's art has never looked better than what this straight-from-pencil reproduction gives us. And the book is often laugh-out-loud funny.
If that's not enough for you, there's also AL CAPP'S COMPLETE SHMOO: THE COMIC BOOKS. It's presented in the Nexus hardcover format -- $50 for 176 pages of black and white insanity.
Yeah, COMPLETE SHMOO. I really did just type that.
DC Comics gives us two issues of JLA CLASSIFIED, beginning a new five part storyline by Roger Stern and John Byrne. Never saw that one coming. It's inked by Mark Farmer, whose smooth line ought to be an interesting match for Byrne's pencil line these days. I enjoyed Nelson's smoother line before this, so I have hope here. The odd thing is that Josh Middleton is drawing covers. Never really thought of him as an artistic pair to Byrne.
SPIRIT #14 begins the new creative team: Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier writing. Mike Ploog drawing. Jordi Bernet covering. That's one all-star team.
The DC Hardcover of the Month runner up is THE KILLING JOKE SPECIAL EDITION HC. The one-time thin prestige format book will now be, well, still thin. But it'll be a hardcover now! Whoo! It's only 64 pages with a relatively high $18 price point. It would seem Bolland redid the coloring, and a story from BATMAN: BLACK AND WHITE will also be included. I haven't read this book in 15 years. I'm curious to see how it holds up.
The DC Hardcover of the Month Grand Prize Winner is JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL HC. This collects the first seven issues of the classic Giffen/DeMatteis run on the series, with all the art by Kevin Maguire. (Terry Austin and Al Gordon inked.) This is a fanboy dream come true for me, and I hope they continue down the line with these reprints, even if I wish they went with 12 issues at a time instead of six. The price point here is $25. Again, it's a little steep.
Rich Johnston pointed to a second hardcover in his Lying In The Gutters column this week. That's good news, indeed.
Image Comics gives us a blast back to the past, as YOUNGBLOOD #1 is coming out again. I'm not sure how many YOUNGBLOOD #1s we've had over the years, but I hope this one sticks. Joe Casey is writing and Derec Donavan is drawing, so the book has a strong creative team, which will be mixing both Liefeld's characters and Alan Moore's.
INVINCIBLE #50 is a $5 "blockbuster" issue, with a cover of Invincible holding a beaten and bloody Cecil Stedman. Shocking!
HOW TO MAKE WEBCOMICS is the new (text not sequential art) book by Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, Kristofer Straub, and Brad Guigar. You may know them better now as the Halfpixel gang, or as the hosts of Webcomics Weekly, the webcomics podcast of choice for the past four months or so. They're promising 290 packed pages of, uhm, well I suppose it'll be How To stuff. The solicitation text is short and doesn't say much.
They've done it. So can you. That's about it.
$13, black and white. I'm in.
There are a ton of interesting trades coming out of Image in January. You can start with NOBLE CAUSES ARCHIVES Volume 1, collecting the first four series -- almost 600 pages! -- worth of Jay Faerber's Superheroes Meet Soap Operas epic. Then, move to Robert Kirkman's THE ASTOUNDING WOLF-MAN Volume 1. Jimmie Robinson has another BOMB QUEEN trade, this time up to Volume 3. SAVAGE DRAGON ARCHIVES Volume 3 gets you issues #51 - 75 of Erik Larsen's romp. And we're likely only another month away from a BRIT trade paperback solicitation. Start saving your pennies.
Good news: Doug Tennapel's Image graphic novels are getting fresh printings: GEAR, EARTHBOY JACOBUS, IRON WEST, and TOMMYSAURUS REX are all included, and well worth a read.
Marvel Comics leads off their solicitation with a giant red throbbing-veined Hulk with a giant green question mark over his crotch. Maybe they should rename the series INC(RED)IBLE HULK and sell t-shirts at The Gap.
As to the rest of their catalog -- I lost it. If I find it, I'll recap it here next week. There are likely more hardcovers to buy than any of us could hope to afford in one month. And so it goes. . .
Thanks for all your e-mails in the last week answering my request for pointers to blogs reviewing comics. I'm in the process of compiling them all and browsing the sites now. Hopefully, I'll have more to report on next week.
More than 800 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.