I can't claim to be a graphic novels expert. I've read Watchmen, the leading light of the field, made a start on The Sandman, devoured Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and dabbled with a handful of others including Mark Millar's Kick-Ass (yes, that one) and V For Vendetta, but compared to most I'm still a complete newcomer. I've never read any standalone Superman or Spiderman, for goodness' sake!
Which is why anything I say in this review of Marvel's adaptation of the backstory of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series should be taken with a handful of sodium chloride. What I found to be odd may be standard practice in the field, and may be the best way of doing it. Because there were a few things to criticise, but first I need to give some background.
For anyone unaware, The Dark Tower is Stephen King's magnum opus. It is the tale of Roland Deschain, last gunslinger of Gilead, and his quest for the eponymous Tower, which stands at the heart of time and space and threatens to topple under the duress of the Crimson King and his minions, thus plunging the multiverse back into the chaos from which it was birthed. Starting with The Gunslinger, it took King 33 years to write the seven volumes, and millions of readers (including myself) have devoted hours to the quest down the years. Its strength lies in no small part in the character of Roland himself, the cold-hearted gunslinger with a turbulent past, whom the reader comes to love through the eyes of others. His backstory is gradually revealed, culminating in a 500-page flashback in Wizard and Glass which reveals the tragic origins of the quest for the Tower.
It's from this that Marvel have reaped the basic source material for their prequel graphic novels. The first volume, The Gunslinger Born, is, in essence, a retelling of Wizard and Glass. It's an impressive work, but it lacks the depth and complexity of the original novel. Perhaps this is a necessity - there's a scarcity of words that's required in graphic storytelling - but I felt slightly disappointed by the storytelling, much as I enjoyed the adaptation as a whole.
Volume two, The Long Road Home, also lacks depth, with it basically being a story of how the Ka-tet got home from Hambry to Gilead. It isn't until Treachery when things begin to break into Dark Tower virgin territory. All of a sudden, we're seeing things that we haven't seen before, that we've only heard about. This is where the depth of Wizard and Glass really feels like it's missing. There are plots and intrigues that never quite feel as they should - everything feels superficial and lacking in substance. Which isn't to say that it's bad. No one will struggle to enjoy the new chapters in Roland's tale. However what could have been essential reading for all Tower junkies is instead relegated to being an interesting sideshow.
The Fall of Gilead and Battle of Jericho Hill are riddled by the same problems. Things seem superficial. Characters don't feel adequately fleshed out, being cardboard cut-outs of the people whom we grew to love in the novels. But one character stands ahead of all others - Roland's development from duty-bound boy to lovestruck teenager to cold-hearted man is most noticeable. With each casualty of the Affiliation's war with John Farson and the agents of the Crimson King he becomes noticeably more withdrawn emotionally until we recognise the gunslinger who followed the Man in Black across the desert.
This is, to a point, as it should be. This is Roland's tale, after all. Everyone else is incidental, no matter how much of a part they play in his tale. But it would have been nice to see the depth given to Roland also given to Alain, Cuthbert or Aileen in the later stages of the series.
One thing I haven't mentioned is the artwork. And if one thing has to be mentioned, it's just that. Of all the graphic novels I've read, I've never read one with such a bold style as these. It's gothic and dark and detailed in the foreground. It draws the eye to what is meant to be seen. Every character's motivations can be read on their face. Every action seems dynamic. Art buffs would go mad for the style. I'm not an art buff, but I couldn't help but fall in love with it.
The question has to be answered: Did I enjoy the series? Yes, I did. I spent a day working my way through almost 1,000 pages of it, and didn't put it down until I was finished with all five. There's something to be said for something that keeps me reading like that. But is it worth a newbie reading without knowledge of The Dark Tower? I'd say not. It's a series for fans of the novels, which will add to their enjoyment of King's series, rather than something for everyone.