Over the course of 20 years and seven The Dark Tower novels, horror writer Stephen King wove an incredibly rich narrative that blended high fantasy and sci-fi elements with a spaghetti western. Influenced by literature and cinema, from Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" to The Wizard of Oz and Clint Eastwood's cowboy films, the story of Roland Deschain was an epic undertaking. Taking inspiration from such a wide swath of stories and popular culture, the books evolved into a far-reaching meta-narrative, seeding themselves into many of King's other novels and short stories. In hindsight, it seems only natural that the series would so casually, so naturally lend itself to the comic book medium and carry on the engrossing tale of Mid-World's last gunslinger.
In their previous five volumes, writers Robin Furth and Peter David chronicled the origins of Roland Deschain and his rise from boyhood to gunslinger. The Gunslinger-The Journey Begins marks the start of a new story-arc, which plans to show how the boy introduced in their first volume becomes the deadly wanderer introduced in King's The Gunslinger.
Whereas previous volumes focused on the camaraderie between Roland and his band of gunslingers, with plots driven by a series of increasingly urgent events that led to war, the depth in this volume comes from Roland himself. Twelve years after The Battle of Jericho Hill, Roland, the last of the gunslingers, the last of the Line of Eld, is alone. What remains are ghosts—ghosts of the past, ghosts of the dead. Returning to Gilead to bury a dying gunslinger, Roland finds that what little remains of his home are haunted with memories and regrets. After the unrelenting grimness and violence of the previous two volumes, The Journey Begins takes a slower approach. Although there is still plenty of graphic violence, it is largely a psychological character study as readers are reintroduced and reoriented to Roland in the wake of his life's defining moment.
In a framed narrative, Roland relates his story to a farmer named Brown, recounting to him the events that followed the battle between Gilead's gunslingers and the war party of John Farson. In this fashion, the book is both a direct continuation of what has come before and also a path toward a new sequence of stories centered on an older, embittered Roland. Near the book's opening he describes his mule as a "Poor creature…at the end of its endurance, only living because it was a habit." It's a telling outlook that speaks exactly of where Roland is at in this point of his life, as he doggedly seeks the Dark Tower and the evil that lives there.
Peter David constructs a strong script from a story plotted out by Robin Furth, King's longtime research assistant and the definitive authority on all things Dark Tower. David writes in a unique, evocative fashion. His words are poetic in their rhythm, styled with an old-world twang of a time long since passed, which manages to be both distinct yet familiar.
The artwork is handled by Sean Phillips and Richard Isanove. While Isanove continues on as the series color artist, Phillips is a new contributor, taking over pencil duties from Jae Lee (who illustrated the majority of the previous volumes), and acquits himself well. Although his imagery is not quite as haunting or beautiful as Lee's, there is certainly nothing to detract from the man's work here, or the continuity established by the previous book's style. Phillips gets in some beautiful panels, giving plenty of heft and weight to the book's important moments, and he handles the more shocking moments of the script nicely without being gratuitously exploitative of the horror elements that exist in the overarching story.
Stephen King's The Dark Tower was a complex, layered series, and quite possibly the high-water mark of the vastly prolific author's career. By entrusting it to a group of artists who care about and love the material, who are as clearly enamored with Mid-World and Roland Deschain as King's most devout Constant Readers, Marvel's The Dark Tower have grown into a fascinating, consistently readable comic book series. Over the course of six volumes, readers have been thrust into a world rich with politics and warfare, romance and bloodshed, heartbreak and grotesqueness. It is every bit the equal of King's masterpiece, and has grown into essential reading for the fans of those prose novels. As time goes on and the illustrated series continues to grow, it may even eclipse the original work it is inspired by.
Reviewed by Michael Hicks on January 26, 2011
Stephen King's Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, Vol. 1—The Journey Begins