Friday, June 22, 2012

The Dark Tower Comics, The Wind Through the Keyhole, and the Canon Question

The Dark Tower -- The Gunslinger: The Man In Black #1

On the stands at your local comics shop this week: the first issue of the new Dark Tower arc from Marvel Comics, The Gunslinger: The Man In Black. This five-issue series will be wrapping up The Gunslinger, which has been a fairly satisfactory take on the King novel.

In this newest issue, series plotter and consultant Robin Furth has an essay titled "Wind Through the Keyhole, Continuity and the Dark Tower Comics."  It's an interesting read, and I wanted to share some of the conclusions Furth comes to with some of you who might be interested in the comics, but not actually familiar with them.  (Incidentally, there is a certain element of Book VII -- the ending of it -- that I will be discussing, so if you haven't read the books, I'd recommend that you GTFO of here for the time being.  I'm doing you a favor; trust me.)

Ever since the Marvel Dark Tower series began, Towerphiles have been wondering the extent to which we ought to be considering the comics to be canon.  Now, for those of you who are not complete dweebs, here's what I mean when I say that: we've been wondering to what extent the comics are meant to serve as a retelling of the events of the Dark Tower novels themselves.  In other words, when we read of the exploits of Aileen in the comics, or when we read of the events which bring about the fall of Gilead, or when we read the story of how Roland survives the battle of Jericho Hill ... are we meant to feel that those events happened to the Roland of the novels (and simply have not been written into the narrative of the novels), or should we assume that the comics are merely an adaptation of the novels -- as a potential series of movies would be -- and are therefore their own, similar but unrelated, entity?

Look, I know: this is a geeky thing to worry about, especially for a casual fan.  However, it's the type of thing that can drive psycho obsessed weirdo hardcore fans like me a little nutso.  If you ever want to immerse yourself in the swampy waters of canon-fights, just become a Star Trek or Doctor Who fan, go to a sci-fi convention, and sit around; you'll find out, and it won't take long.

Stephen King fans have had to deal with virtually none of this.  After all, the man writes books, so, like, anything he says is, by definition, canon.  The worst we've had to deal with is the occasional question like whether Jack Sawyer pops up in The Tommyknockers.

The Dark Tower comics changed that somewhat.  In struggling for an answer, I've more or less adopted the stance that the comics represent either an earlier incarnation of Roland's life, or a later one.  The novels are the novels; the comics are the comics, and while they might be telling a version of the same story, they are not telling a version that takes place in the same chronology as the novels.  Even early on in the first arc of the comics, there were enough small differences that I felt very secure in this hypothesis; it also kept me from having to worry overmuch about the canonicity of the comics.

However, as the series went on, the changes became larger and more prevalent.  Once the series hit its second arc, in fact, the series was going places that the novels never went.  This -- along with the excellent Jae Lee art, and the appendix-like essays that served as backup stories -- was the primary reason for a Towerphile to enjoy the series.  

Personally, I very much enjoyed the second and third arcs ("The Long Road Home" and "Treachery"), both of which felt like stories King himself might theoretically have told.  Given the fact that King was credited in each of these comics as "Creative Director and Executive Director," it seemed like a logical assumption that he was, at the very least, reading the comics and signing off on each issue as being worthy of being called The Dark Tower.  This raised the possibility in my mind that the comics could, theoretically, be seen as divulging hitherto-unknown details about Roland's youth and the larger society in which he grew up.  This meant it was possible that I could then apply that new knowledge to an understanding of the events of the novels themselves.

The next two arcs -- "The Fall of Gilead" and "The Battle of Jericho Hill" -- dramatized events that had been obliquely referred to in the novels, and had been painted by King as extremely important events ... but to me, the comics versions of these stories failed almost completely.  I could probably give you a huge number of reasons as to why that is the case, if I took the time to review each issue, but that's a task for another day; for now, I'll settle for simply saying that those arcs didn't feel like Stephen King to me.  His name was still on them, but I suspected then -- and suspect now -- that he had only the minimal amount of involvement.

Much later, when The Wind Through the Keyhole was released, there were minor details which blatantly contradicted certain events of "The Fall of the Gilead," and as a result rendered its entire storyline -- and, by process of association, the events of "The Battle of Jericho Hill" as well -- irreconcilable with the novels.  To be specific, it is mentioned that Roland, upon returning to Gilead after the events of Wizard and Glass (including his matricide), spends a huge amount of time playing nursemaid to Cort, whom he wounded gravely when he used the hawk David against his teacher.  In the comics, not only is Cort up and ambulatory upon Roland's return, Roland is thrown in jail after he mistakenly kills Gabrielle.  And yet, in The Wind Through the Keyhole, Steven Deschain sends his son to Debaria to deal with the skin-man ... so, clearly, as far as Stephen King is concerned, the events of "The Fall of Gilead" did not happen, at least not as depicted in the comics.

This made me breathe a sigh of relief, because it means I can hope for King to someday write the definitive version of those events.  It may well never happen, but it means at least that even if it doesn't, I don't have to accept the less-than-satisfactory events of those arcs of the comics as THE version of the story.

At this point, I suspect that many of you probably have headaches from all the vigorous eye-rolling you've been doing, and I can't blame you; it's easy to get up your own ass a bit when you start worrying about canon.  But hey, someone has to be worried about keeping track of all this stuff, and that isn't what blogging is custom-made for, then color me shocked.

In any case, Robin Furth herself sheds some light on these matters in the backup section of the newest issue of the comic:

"When I think about the differences between the novels and the comics -- and there are many of them -- I always keep in mind Jake Chambers' famous phrase, 'there are other worlds than these.'  The Dark Tower contains many levels, and within those levels are parallel worlds which mirror each other, but which are not exactly alike.
"I always view the Dark Tower comics as existing in one of these parallel worlds. If the Dark Tower novels exist in Tower Keystone, or the central world of the Dark Tower universe, then the Dark Tower comics exist in a spinoff world, one which is very similar to, but not exactly the same as, the one where The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, and the rest of the Dark Tower novels take place."

So, there you have it from Furth herself: these are not the events of the novels (or even a prequel or sequel to them detailing one of Roland's numerous other attempts to gain the Tower) but a parallel version of them.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this revelation, but I will say this: it will definitely keep me from worrying so much about how to read the comics.  They are officially their own entity, it seems, and ought to be considered that way.

Well, that's about all the fanboy-type wanking I feel like engaging in for the time being.  I think there is probably still more to be said on the subject of the comics, but for now, this geek is calling it a day.



After thinking about it for a bit, it occurred to me that I probably ought to give a bit of credit where credit is due for the origins of this particular post.  It was inspired in part by the most recent episode of the Gunslinger Quest-Cast, an excellent podcast wherein the hosts are revisiting the books and offering up their commentary on various issues contained therein.

They've made their way up to The Waste Lands now, and in the latest episode talked for a bit about a line from near the beginning where Roland says -- or maybe just thinks to himself -- something about how he never expected to see a female gunslinger.  This strongly implies that there has never been a woman wearing the guns, a detail which does not jibe with the comics.  I'd totally forgotten about that, and never thought of it while reading the tales of Aileen becoming a gunslinger.  (By the way, for the record: I think that was an excellent addition to the story on Robin Furth's part.  I seem to recall her making the argument that having Aileen become a gunslinger actually makes Roland mentally prepared for Susannah when she arrives.  Works for me!)

I had those thoughts in mind when I read Furth's essay in the recent issue, and the combination made me think there was a blog post in the idea.

So, any of you fellow Towerphiles who have found your way here, go check out the Gunslinger Quest-Cast.  You'll be glad you did!


  1. Wow, so much to talk about. It's sort of a bad idea toraises such issues when dealing with the True Geeks. It just encourages the flood gates to open.

    How much of a Geek am I? I own a kindle version of the life of Forrest Ackerman.

    You raise a lot of issues that I think od have a lot of relevance to all fiction.

    This might take one or more comments.

    First to Furth. I'm also not sure what to make of her claim about the Tower comics. For me, they're just fan adaptations with no real connection to the books.

    If you're obsessed with all this now, what I'm about to say won't help.

    In her intro to the Complete Dark Tower Concordance Ms. Furth her interpretation of the books. Her verdict?

    Roland, his world and the entire cast of characters, right down to Bango Skank, are just fictional creations that have come to life on the fictional Stephen King within the novel as he was trying to write the Tower series, thereby making Roland's quest and the Tower a fiction within an even greater yet smaller fiction.

    By her reading therefore, the only charcters in the Towers series who are real are the fictional version of King, along with Father Callahan, John Cullum, the woman who helps Roland out, and of course the citizens of Salem's Lot, Derry, Castle Rock, Desperation Nev. and of course Boulder Col.and New York.

    As for the Tower in this interpretation? What Tower? There never was a Tower and never will be.

    According to Furth, it's all just one big figment of the imagination that for one brief moment attained a kind of half life before vanishing back into the mind of the author.

    Ms. Furht basically lumps the whole Tower series in with King stories like Secret Window and in particular, Unmey's Last Case.

    In fact, on Furth's reading, the whole series is just Unmey's Last Case writ large to gonzo proportions.

    How's that for a monkey wrench in the machine? I hope you were able to follow all that, and I'm sorry if this means more sleepless nights.

    The punchline? I believe her.


    1. I feel the need to point out that while I was reading it via my email notification on Gmail, I was highly distracted by the fact that my spam folder said it had 19 messages waiting for me. Creepy.

      I'm not sure how I feel about that argument of Furth's. If I understand King's approach to the material correctly -- and I am by no means 100% sure that I do -- then what he would say would be something like this:

      In the reality/universe in which the fictional Stephen King exists, that hypothesis -- that there is no Tower, never was, and never will be is true. Therefore, it is also true that none of the characters associated with it exist. However, there are other worlds than these, so in other realities/universes/levels of the Tower, the Tower DOES exist, as do the people associated with it. If this were not the case, then Roland and Eddie would not be able to visit and interact with the fictional King.

      The argument could probably be made that spanning the infinity of universes that compose the multiverse, there would exist many different versions of Roland. In one, Roland is the "creation" of Robert Browning; in another, evidently, he is the "creation" (via adaptation from King) of Robin Furth and Peter David. Somewhere else, he might theoretically exist as the creation of Joe Hill, or even Bryant Burnette or Chris C.

      In a way, this way of looking at the story makes it possible to view ANY fan interpretation/adaptation of the story as completely legitimate. If I, for example, don't like the way Furth and David wrote the "Fall of Gilead" story, it's simple for me to shrug it off: I just say to myself, "Well, that version of the story takes place on a completely different level of the Tower, so it's got nothing to do with the REAL version of the story" (i.e., Stephen King's version). Same goes for the Ron Howard movies when and if they ever get made.

      Taking that argument to its logical conclusion, the argument can then be applied to all other stories, as well. Since King's Dark Tower universe holds all other universes, you can make that argument that "The Lord of the Rings" exists on a level of the Tower J.R.R. Tolkien was able to channel and chronicle. By the same token, the events as shown in the Peter Jackson movies simply take place on another level of the Tower, one which is close to the one the novel takes place on, but not the same. Hence the differences between the two.

      This is, of course, only true when viewing everything through a prism colored by the Dark Tower novels. It is also an incredibly nerdy way of looking at things, but to be frank, I'm not sure I fully trust anyone who reads the series and doesn't begin wrestling with the concept in some way. Honestly, how can you not?

      So, now I depart, with the thought jokingly -- well, MOSTLY jokingly... -- in my mind that on some level of the Tower, Bryant Burnette exists as a character created by some other version of Stephen King, who created that version of him as a way of putting forth numerous probably-incorrect interpretations of his own work.

      On this level of the Tower, I think I'm probably just a dude writing about his interests. But I can't QUITE be sure of it...

  2. I'm beginning to think I know how Philip K. Dick must have felt on those nights when his imagination really ran wild.

    At the same time you can't deny the fun of theorizing about this kind of stuff. Like I said, when the floodgates open.

    One thing I think helps is to clarify whatever literary First Principles it is you judge a work by. Me, I take the basic Jungian route. I'm with King when he says stories are found things. for more on this subject see Jung and his theory of Archetypes of the collective unconscious.

    Real stories being archetypes also mean real stories having a definite fixed form and structure it must adhere to in both sequence of events and character. Granted I also agree with King when he says there's always fossil breakage, Jung himself said archetypes are often poorly received into consciousness.

    Still, it's nice to know there's an order to stories and that they have a fixed structure. I still say the fixed structure of the Tower series is as outlined above, and all the talk of "More worlds than these is just that, talk, and the fictional character of Stephen King finds himself in the same position as Morton Rainey (Secret Window)and Sam Landry (Unmey's Last Case). I also believe that even if, on this reading, the Tower and other worlds aren't at all real, that doesn't mean that the fictional Stephen King universe isn't in some ways Thin or have Thin spots.

    In this reading, the Thin spots don't lead to other worlds, but they do allow the supernatural into the fictional natural world, and cause strange and sometimes horrific happenings. The Micmac Buriel Ground is a good example.

    In that sense then, to take the case of Father Callahan, on this reading he and King have both stumbled upon a thin spot and together find themselves caught in a story come to life.

    Like i said, floodgates. Incidentally, if you ever feel up to it, try tackling the "Exegesis of Philip K. Dick". If you can, it goes on pretty much like these posts, only he goes out there, waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy! out there.


    1. That's my cue to say "I love Dick" (to much general merriment).

      It's true, though; I do love the small number of books by Dick that I've read, and he's one of the many authors whose work I intend to read from top to bottom at some point in the next decade.

      By the way, I don't think there's anything wrong at all with the old floodgates being opened by a seemingly nerdy issue like this one. I think it speaks volumes about King's work that it can -- and does -- spark thoughts of that nature.

      My thoughts on the concept of thinnies and thin places is that on the one hand, it is a great storytelling device. On the other hand, sometimes I'd kinda like for a ghost story to be a ghost story; I don't need or want my ghost stories to be explained away by the idea that ghosts are malevolent entities worming their way in from todash space of whatever. I mean, it's a cool idea and all, but I also like for the supernatural to just be, you know, supernatural.

  3. Well, when it comes to the reason why in horror stories, i wasn't thinking about it. I was just giving an overview, mine anyway, of how the SK universe must be like. Apparently it's sort of like what would happen if EC comics ruled the world...sort of.

    Still there is such things as overexplanation. For all that, it's fun to imagine King having his fiction come to life on him.

    It gets even more interesting when you think he's inadvertently giving, say, Callahan his second chance. One other group of characters I think are real as opposed to come to life fictions are the vampires (and here a draw a line demarcating them from the low men and taheen, to me they're ficiotns made temporarily real. In the SK verse Vampires always were real).

    It was just the idea that a writer's fictions can become so powerful that a bookish kid from Maine can memorize an entire group of vampires (I don't say all of them) into obeying a figment of his imagination.

    You talk about power.

    At least that's one way of looking at it.


    1. Are we absolutely positive that EC Comics DON'T rule the world?