Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Such Ones to Speak of Damnation: "The Little Sisters of Eluria" #5


Well, we've come to it: the final issue in Marvel's "Little Sisters of Eluria" arc.  Does the final issue stand fast and remember the face of its father?



Well, I'm just a lowly blogger, so maybe my judgment isn't the be-all-end-all, opinion-wise, but yeah, I'd say it does; I'd say it with caveats, but I'd still say it.

Let's have us a palaver about it, shall we?



I've had my problems with this arc of the series, and I think that at times, I may have sounded almost entirely negative.  But the truth is, overall, I really enjoyed Marvel's take on "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  Robin Furth and company might have gotten a few things wrong, in my opinion, but they got way more right than they got wrong, and they stuck the landing, and I'd say that as each new issue came out, I was eager to read it.  I was entertained, and I was entertained the second time I read each issue, and ultimately, that's all that really counts.

Issue #4 ended on a fist-pump-hell-yeah moment, with Sister Coquina being attacked by the doctor bugs at Sister Jenna's calling.  Sadly, there won't be too many more such moments in this particular story; a sense of doom hangs over the proceedings like that brownish cloud that always follows Pig-Pen in Peanuts.  Pig-Pen doesn't always seem to know it's there; oh, but it's there, it's definitely there.

I'd like to start off by doing something I haven't -- perhaps unfairly -- done much of in my reviews of this arc: give Peter David some praise.  I think his faux-colloquialism is often a hindrance to the story, and I'll have some complaints about that toward the end of this post.  However, he also has the ability to put that narrative voice to really excellent use, such as in this dialogue, which comes as Sister Coquina is moments away from meeting her demise:
"You can't," Coquina whispers.  "I have," Jenna says back ... and then there ain't nothing more to say between 'em ... although if screaming were chitchat, Coquina would sure be holding up her end of the conversation."  (p. 2)
I like that a lot; it's a good way of keeping the triumphant moment going a bit longer.

As they escape, Roland begins to see that he has been glammered, and that rather than a huge pavilion, he has been trapped inside a mere tent.  "My senses haven't been deceived like this since..." he begins; this recalling (of, presumably, his deception at the hands of Marten's jinni, which led to his killing his mother) is not in King's novella, but it's a good addition, and it makes sense that that would cross his mind in this moment.

I also like the changes that Furth and David have made to the exchange between Roland and Jenna over John's medallion.  In the novella, Roland simply mentions having forgotten it, and Jenna produces it, burning herself a bit as she does so.  In the comics, Roland mistakes her response (Oh.  That.") for disinterest, and begins to chide her.  Then, learning that she has retrieved the medallion herself, knowing he would want it, he says to her "You prove your trustworthiness yet again."

Notice that he does not say that he trusts her; he implies that she has earned his trust, but he does not say that he has given it.  Clearly, he has not given it.  The addition of this brief moment of conflict, mild though it may be, serves as a subtle reminder that Roland's relationships are cursed.  The curse may or may not be of his own making, but it holds true regardless of its origins.

Any of us who have read the novella already know that things aren't going end well for Jenna, of course, but this scene is a reminder that even if she had managed to truly escape, in the end her fate might not have been any better.  Things are always, eventually, going to be difficult with Roland.  Furth and David also use the scene as a way to dramatize Jenna's nature: "I'm not as unlike the others as either of us would wish," she says, as smoke begins to rise from her hand while it clutches the medallion.

Soon after, they have a confrontation with Sisters Michela, Louisa, and Tamara.  I'm not entirely satisfied with how this scene has been adapted, unfortunately.  For one thing, I think Furth and David missed an opportunity by not having Luke Ross depict the shock that the three Sisters evince in the novella when Jenna informs them that Coquina has been subsumed by the doctor bugs ("She's a part of their medicine now," Jenna says).  That was worth at least a panel or two, but here, we go straight from Jenna's dialogue to a far-overhead angle, and get only the Sisters' indignant reply.

There's also a curious deletion that happens.  King writes thusly just before Jenna threatens to sic the bugs on the Sisters:
"Now, cramming the mouth of it" [the tent] "in a black, shiny tongue, were the doctor-bugs.  They had stopped their singing.  Their silence was somehow terrible."  (Chapter VI)
Unfortunately, Ross does not depict this, presumably because it was not in David's script.  I don't know if this was a concession to limited page-space, or if it was decided it might prove difficult to carry off the notion of a mass of bugs all formed together but standing still.  Could be either of those things, or some other that I'm not thinking of, but I kinda wish it hadn't been cut.  It would have been even more chilling when Jenna says "Or I'll have them on you" if she had been pointing at the ominously silent bugs, massed anticipatorily, waiting perhaps for the soft jingle of dark bells to set them into motion.

Ah, well.

It's still a good scene, and the Sisters' accusation toward Jenna that she is damned due to the actions she has taken against Coquina ("Such ones to speak of damnation!" she replies derisively) intrigues me.  We don't really know exactly why Jenna is different, why she is good and kind whereas her Sisters are evil and monstrous.  Nor do we know why the others would, upon hearing what she has done to Coquina, call her damned for her actions.  Robin Furth's story "The Dark Bells" clears a bit of this up, but only a bit.  Ultimately, we are forced to speculate, and my speculation is that any wielder of the dark bells who uses them not to heal but to destroy must pay the price of losing her identity as an individual.  The Sisters know this means that "Jenna" will soon be returning to her state of being as a colony of doctor-bugs.

I think Jenna herself knows this, too.  I think she knew that it was a certainty way back in issue #2; I think that was why, in that issue, she reacts with shock to Roland's saying "Time belongs to the Tower."  This is why she has never before interfered with the Sisters, and in fact has, at times, joined in their supping.  The Sisters wear the symbol of the Tower -- a red rose -- on their habits, and for Jenna, who has somehow escaped total corruption, the symbol still has meaning.  When confronted by one who clearly still serves the Tower in an active sense -- a Gunslinger -- she is snapped back to a sense of her own duty, and she knows in a moment that the only way Roland's imprisonment can end is in her "betrayal" of her Sisters.  This, she knows, will lead to her own demise.

That's how I read it, at least.  Moving on...

Next up, we get the final confrontation with Sister Mary, which is a powerful and creepy scene.  Mary is clearly the most pwerful of the Sisters; I see no reason to doubt her assertions that Roland's revolvers cannot harm her (which, perhaps, serves to explain how Jenna was able to get them away -- perhaps Mary really didn't have them hidden away, assuming they could be of no use against her), nor do I see any reason to doubt her assertion that the doctor-bugs would take no action against her.  Mary's confidence has to come from somewhere, and my reading is that it comes from security in true knowledge.

Ah, but she didn't count on that cross-dog.  Mary is powerless against the sigul of the Jesus Man, and the cross-dog tears her head off.  This, of course, is another example of ka at work; Roland's decision not to kill the dog when he first encountered it has proven to be a good one, and has proven that he, too, is simply an agent of ka ... or of the Tower.  I'd say they're one and the same, of course.

From here, we get the resolution of the story, with Roland and Jenna sharing a tender moment in the grass, and Roland awaking to find that she is gone, split into thousands of component pieces.  This is all rendered beautifully by Luke Ross, and especially by Richard Isanove, whose coloring is exquisite during the last few pages.  They also do a lovely job depciting Roland's dream of the Tower; I especially love the visual of the cross-dog sitting on its haunches, gazing up at the Tower as if it were its master ... which, of course, it is.

Sadly, I'm less thrilled by David's narration of this dream:
"Does Roland dream, you might ask?  Judging by his muttering as he slumbers, he does indeed.  And if ya have to query just what it was he might be dreaming of ... then I swear to the man Jesus, you obviously ain't been paying attention to a dmaned thing I've been telling you.  What else would he dream of, save the Dark Tower?  In his own way, he was as damned as Sister Jenna, caught up in the net of Ka and unable to escape its hold.  Hell, perhaps we're all damned by Ka and just don't like to think about it."  (p. 18)
There's nothing terribly wrong with this, in and of itself; it's a bit on-the-nose, but that's no mortal sin.  I just don't cotton to the tone David is striking.  Depictions of the Tower, in my opinion, ought to be a bit more awestruck and reverent; here, David's narrator sounds merely resigned.  It's very much in keeping with the narrative voice David has established, and that, of course, is part of the problem with having chosen that particular voice; when narration is needed -- as it clearly is during this scene -- then it's got to either be in that tone, or be inconsistent with the rest of the series.

Compare with how King depicts the drean in the novella:
"He dreamed of the cross-dog, barking its way across a great open landscape.  He followed, wanting to see the source of its agitation, and soon he did.  At the far edge of that plain stood the Dark Tower, its smoky stone outlined by the dull orange ball of a setting sun, its fearful windows rising in a spiral.  The dog stopped at the sight of it and began to howl.
Bells -- peculiarly shrill and as terrible as doom -- began to ring.  Dark bells, he knew, but their tone was as bright as silver.  At their sound, the dark windows of the Tower glowed with a deadly red light -- the red of poisoned roses.  A scream of unbearable pain rose in the night."  (Chapter VI)
This isn't necessarily some of the strongest prose King has ever written, but the mood it sets is vastly superior to the mood David sets in his narration.  Even worse, David gives the second paragraph of the above King description not as narration, but as even more dialogue Roland speaks aloud (the dream-Roland speaks it aloud, at least).

Luckily, Luke Ross and Richard Isanove are doing terrific work in these panels, so the missteps in the writing department -- which, I will grant you, do not by any means kill the issue, and are wholly consistent with the rest of the series of comics -- are quite capably offset.

I've not said my last word about this scene.  I'll have more to say on that subject, but it makes sense to me to hold off on it until it can be a part of the discussion of Furth's "The Dark Bells."  That will likely be in my next post; I may or may not devote an entire post to Furth's essay about the relationship between The Little Sisters of Eluria and Desperation, in which case I'll save "The Dark Bells" for the post after that one.

I'll end this post on another mixed note of praise and castigation, which does incresingly seem to be the tone I've (unexpectedly) struck here.  Ross does a fantastic job of depicting the doctor-bugs forming Jenna's ever-escaping curl of black hair, which may or may not be Jenna asserting one final moment of individuality in a gesture of tenderness toward Roland.  This was a powerful moment in the novella, but oddly, Furth and David have elected to make no specific mention of it; perhaps they felt that Ross's art would be sufficient to clue the readers in to what the implications of this scene were.  Me, I'd have tried to make a bit more out of it.  King writes:
"Yet she had come to him one last time, imposing her will over a thousand verious parts that should have lost the ability to think when the whole lost its cohesion ... and yet she had thought, somehow -- enough to make that shape.  How much effort might that have taken?"  (Chapter VI)
I don't want to be that guy who continually complains that Tom Bombadil was cut out the original was better, but that's part of the problem with adaptations, isn't it?  This is especially true with Stephen King adaptations, and even one as relatively faithful as this one can make missteps.  This final one may seem like a minor one, but it's indicative of how with King, tone is often crucial.  To me, a major part of the power of the novella was in Roland's realization that Jenna was able to somehow still be herself, even if only for a moment, despite being split into thousands of individual parts.

This puts me in mind of the notion that all things serve the Tower -- all things serve Ka.  In this fictional universe, we are perhaps each no more than a single bug, yet as that individual bug, we are also part of a greater whole, one which encompasses all of existence ... and one which can, and does, summon us to move in service of its own unknowable individuality.

I wish the ending of the arc had had more of that sense of awe with which King invested the final moments of the novella.  But it doesn't do much to change my mind about feeling that "The Little Sisters of Eluria" is one of the best arcs yet in Marvel's fine-so-far take on The Dark Tower.

A huge part of that, of course, is due to Robin Furth's prose contributions.  I'll be back soon to delve deeper into those essays and stories, and put a bow on this look at "The Little Sisters of Eluria."

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