Often referred to as the pre-eminent horror author’s magnum opus, Stephen King’s bestselling prose novel series Dark Tower was more than three decades in the making when it was finally finished in 2004. The story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger who wanders the unraveling fantasy land of Mid-World in search of a mysterious tower, the series is often considered the keystone of King’s body of work, combining not only literary genres like horror, western and fantasy, but also elements from many of King’s other novels.
With the help of Marvel Comics and a creative lineup including comics writer and New York Times bestselling author Peter David, Eisner award-winning artist Jae Lee and Stephen King expert Robin Furth, Dark Tower made the leap to comic books with a periodical miniseries titled The Gunslinger Born, that acts a prequel to the prose novel’s narrative.
After impressive sales that have exceeded 100,000 copies per issue, the seven-issue miniseries will be released in a hardcover collection with extra material that includes a feature on the methodology of colorist Richard Isanove and a message from Stephen King. The second Dark Tower miniseries, The Long Road Home, is slated to begin when the creative team of David, Lee and Furth will reprise their roles in the making of the comic, beneath the watchful eye of King himself. In an interview with PWCW, the Dark Tower creative team discussed the success of the first miniseries, the response from King's fans and the unique challenges of translating fiction into sequential art.
PW Comics Week: There was a great deal of hype, when Dark Tower first launched, about the potential for crossover with the novel-reading audience. How have the Stephen King faithful responded to the comic?
Peter David: With the understanding that 85% of all statistics are made up, I’d say that the response has been about 95% positive. Overall, the King fans have been extremely supportive and enthused. They admire the skill with which Robin has boiled down the story, and they're rapturous over Jae and Richard [Isanove]’s artwork. In fact, there have been many fans [of the comic] who never picked up [the] Dark Tower [prose novels] who have become so enamored of it [the story] that they've started reading the original novels.
Can we please everyone? Of course not. On the other hand, just to give you an idea of how demanding some can be. Several critics have claimed I’ve no ear for King’s voice and quoted lines of dialogue or narrative to underscore their point. Amazingly, the sections they typically hold up as examples of how off base I am... are direct quotes from the original text. So I have to say, if even Stephen King can’t sound enough like Stephen King to please some fans, I take some solace from that.
PWCW: The first miniseries, The Gunslinger Born, drew largely on flashbacks from Wizard and Glass, the fourth book in the Dark Tower series. Will the second miniseries continue to focus on adapting existing stories from the novels?
PD: It will be “adapting existing stories” in that Roland's history after Wizard and Glass has been established in very broad strokes. But whereas King has provided the sweeping canvas, we—well, “we” being mostly Robin, and there's no one better qualified—are now going to be rendering all the details. For instance, we know that Roland obviously returned to [the city of] Gilead after Wizard and Glass, and we know that eventually the battle against the Good Man culminated in the Battle of Jericho Hill. But knowing the end of the journey does nothing to detail the journey itself, and that's what we're doing. The second arc is a further expansion of the Dark Tower epic that sleeves into the continuity of the prior prose novels and gives longtime fans and new readers further compelling story lines to sink into.
PWCW: Will you be on board for the three miniseries planned after Long Road Home?
PD: I'll say the same thing I said when I finished my time on the first seven issues: as long as they want me, I'm there. If it’s Ka that I be there, then there is where I'll be, do ya kennit?
PWCW: Robin, you've worked with Stephen King for some time as a research assistant, but this was your first foray into the comic book industry. What was it like making that kind of cross-media shift?
Robin Furth: The shift was both exciting and scary. I’ve always been a big fan of illustrated books and graphic novels, so working on the Dark Tower comic book adaptation seemed like a dream come true. Weirdly enough, I’d been thinking about illustrated versions of the Dark Tower for quite a few years. Once while I was in Steve’s office in Bangor, [Maine,] I saw a short trailer for an animated version of [King’s fantasy book] The Eyes of the Dragon. The film was never completed, but the clip I saw was wonderful and showed me just how well Steve’s stories work in animated form. That really started the wheels turning in my head. How would somebody draw Roland, and how would they capture the postapocalyptic landscape of Mid-World? By the way, I think Jae Lee has done a fantastic job with both.
What’s so exciting about this project is that I get to watch these characters that I know so well take on weight and dimension and color. As Steve King said while we looked over some of the pencils together, it’s like seeing your thoughts step onto the page. As a writer, I’ve loved the challenge of writing for comics. It was a whole new ballgame for me and there was a lot to learn, but I think I’m a much better writer for it. I’m a big fan of narrative, and in a comic book, narrative is all-important. You have to really pay attention to that old adage “show, don’t tell.”
PWCW: When it's necessary to expand beyond the text of the Dark Tower novels and add to the mythology of the world, who generates those ideas—you, Stephen, Peter or some combination? How does the creative interplay between the three of you work?
RF: Mid-World is Steve King’s brainchild, and everything we do is based on his vision. When this project was first proposed way back when, Steve laid the groundwork for the series. He saw it beginning with Roland’s coming-of-age battle with Cort, and then progressing all the way through to the gunslingers’ final stand against the forces of the Outer Dark on Jericho Hill. A lot of the individual scenes we’ve created for The Long Road Home are adapted either from Steve’s original vision or from parts of the novels. For example, in The Long Road Home Cuthbert and Alain have to carry an unconscious Roland over a collapsing bridge that spans the Xay River, and Sheemie finds an unusual way to follow them. (I can’t tell you any more than that or I’ll ruin the surprise!) This tale is adapted from one that Roland recounts in Book VII of the Dark Tower series.
Since novels and comic books are very different mediums, we occasionally have to adapt something old or spin something afresh, just to keep the comic book moving forward in an exciting way. If it’s a bit of mythology—such as a monster that our tet [group] might encounter—these are always Mid-World monsters that fans will recognize from the series. In other words, we have the rules of our world so we stick with them! As far as plotting goes, I always try to run ideas and changes by Steve to make sure that he feels okay about them. And at the end of the day the entire comic book has to get Steve’s stamp of approval, which is as it should be.
PWCW: Do you have any comic book projects on deck beyond the Dark Tower series?
RF: Oh, yes—I’m hooked! I don’t think I should say too much now, but it’s another novel adaptation, so I’m excited about it.
PWCW: Jae, as a Stephen King fan yourself, drawing this book gave you the unique opportunity to bring your particular vision of the characters to life. How have people responded to your artistic interpretations?
Jae Lee: I knew going in that was going to be one of the toughest aspects. These are characters that readers have been following for several decades. They already see them in their own mind’s eye. It’s amazing how some people react. Instead of being open to a different approach, if it doesn't gel with their visions, it’s automatically all wrong and I suck. Some people expect me to read their minds and get a general consensus on how these characters should look from the millions of Dark Tower fans, and put it all into a blender and pour the contents out and mold the characters to their wishes. The best I can do is offer up my interpretations of the characters and if Stephen likes them, that’s all I need.
PWCW:Your artwork on Dark Tower has been highly praised as your best and “prettiest” work, but you've also said it was your most difficult. Looking back, what did you learn during the course of the first series, and what are your goals for the next series, The Long Road Home?
JL: I really needed a project like this to get me excited again. My art had stagnated and I was starting to lose interest. But then Dark Tower came along, and I saw this as my opportunity to try out a new style and throw everything I have into this. This project was truly a once-in-a-lifetime project. In order for me to deserve a project like this, I had to completely overhaul my style. But changing my art wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was choosing what to leave in the comic and what to leave out.
Of course, I wanted to stay as faithful to the novel as possible, but then The Gunslinger Born would be 487 issues long. I found myself asking Robin if we could put this scene back in and that scene, which ended up causing me more headaches later, because then some issues would balloon up in page count. These were all intended to be standard 22-page books, but I wanted to add some scenes in and expand other scenes and give the art some room to breathe, so a couple of the issues ended up being over 30 pages. But with the Long Road Home, we’ll feel less like hatchet men cutting up a story and more like storytellers expanding upon what was once only a dream. As I make my way through this second volume, I can’t believe we’re riding once more with Roland and his ka-tet.