Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This Place Has A Reddish Odor: "The Little Sisters of Eluria" #1

Fact #1: I am a Stephen King nerd.

Fact #2: I am a Dark Tower nerd.

Fact #3: I am a "Little Sisters of Eluria" nerd.

Fact #4: I am a Marvel Comics "Dark Tower" nerd.

Fact #5: I am a Marvel Comics "Dark Tower: The Little Sisters of Eluria" nerd.

Enough facts.  Let's move on to opinions, which are like facts, only slightly more prone to serve as troll-bait.  You might not think so, but YOUR WRONG LOL!

Marvel Comics, along with the core creative team of plotter Robin Furth and scripter Peter David, have been toiling away on these Dark Tower comics for over four years now.  It's been an interesting run, too, and while I haven't enjoyed every decision they made along the way -- I still think the story of Roland and Susan Delgado (the story that comprises the bulk of the novel Wizard and Glass) was told in far too rushed a fashion -- I have definitely enjoyed the series overall.

One of the better story arcs of the series has been "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  That arc was completed recently, and it seems like a good time for me to do some reviews, starting -- duh! -- with issue #1.

I should warn you, if you haven't read the comics, or at least the novella upon which they are based, then you might want to skip reading this post and the five that will follow it.  I will be doling out spoilers aplenty, and I don't want anyone's experience of the comics to be ruined by finding out certain key plot points here.

In fact, I should probably take a moment to do something which I don't believe I have done on my blog yet: issue a blanket spoiler warning.  Most of what I do here comes in the form of essays about specific novels, stories, movies, comics, etc.  Within the confines of those essays, I consider any plot point to be fair game; I tend to proceed from the assumption that if you are reading something I've written about, for example, The Tommyknockers, then you yourself have also read The Tommyknockers.  If I'm posting something less specific --  a news item, or just a random opinion that I happen to feel like expressing -- then I'll probably never get into spoiler territory, but otherwise, spoilers ahoy, most definitely.

Hopefully, that's cool.

Anyways, let's dive into the awkwardly titled "The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger -- The Little Sisters of Eluria" No. 1.

The first thing I'll say is that "The Little Sisters of Eluria" is a welcome relief coming after "The Journey Begins" (which was the first story arc in Marvel's "The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger").  I found "The Journey Begins" to be ... not bad, exactly, but it seemed both uninspired and lazy, and also felt like it was straying a bit too far from the source material of Stephen King's books.  In other words, it felt a bit less like a genuine Dark Tower story and more like Dark Tower fanfic.  As far as fanfic goes, it would probably rank on the upper end of the spectrum, but still, fanfic.

A decent amount of the blame for that probably ought to be placed at the feet of Sean Phillips, who was the penciller on "The Journey Begins."  Jae Lee is a hard act to follow, and Phillips -- whose work I don't know at all, apart from his Dark Tower work -- simply did not live up, in my opinion.  That's not to say it's bad art; it isn't.  It just didn't feel like a good fit as Dark Tower art.  I have no idea why I feel that way; it's just my take on things.  The deficiencies in the storytelling on those issues -- seriously, another lost love for Roland? -- didn't help things at all, that's for sure.

In any case, "The Little Sisters of Eluria" No. 1 saw the introduction of another new penciller to the Dark Tower series: Luke Ross.  I like his work on the series quite a lot.  Again, I'm not familiar with his work outside the confines of The Dark Tower (ah, to have the time, money, and energy it would take me to be the all-out comics nerd I'd love to be!), so I've got no comparisons close to hand.  What I can say, though, is that my initial assessment is that Ross's style is a bit less realistic, and a bit more patently comic-booky, than Jae Lee's style.  But I don't necessarily place a premium on one style over the other; all I ask is that it be good art of its type, and, more importantly, that it work in a narrative sense.

Ross's art definitely works in the narrative sense.  The first eleven or so pages consist of Roland arriving in Eluria, and exploring the deserted town with an ever-growing sense of apprehension.  Once he is in town, the majority of the panels tend to be closeups rather than panoramas or even medium-distance drawings, and this is very effective in terms of building and maintaining a sense of tension and claustrophobia.  Readers familiar with the novella, of course, know where this is all headed: to a confrontation with a particularly aggressive band of slow mutants.  I'm especially fond of a panel on page seven in which Roland's shadow actually looks like the shadow of a slow mutant creeping up behind him; when I first saw it, I assumed that that was exactly what it was.  It's very subtle, nice stuff.

After all that claustrophobia, then, it comes almost as a relief when the menace finally materializes, and Ross -- along with colorist Richard Isanove, who does his customary terrific work -- doesn't merely open things up, he explodes them:

If that doesn't look like the dimensions of a normal comic-book page, well, there's a reason for that: it's actually two pages, side by side.  I'm a sucker for art that spans across two pages in a comic, and I love that top panel of Bowler Hat and his green-folk cronies advancing on Roland.  Part of what's cool about it, though, is how it works on a character level.  I mentioned that after all the claustrophobic closeups of the foregoing pages, it is a relief to the reader for the panels to open up a bit, and this mirrors Roland's own attitudes: a gunslinger who knows there is a menace lurking about is always going to be relieved when that menace finally shows itself, because that is the first step in conquering it.


There is another two-page series of panels on 18-19, and I'll go ahead and drop it here also:

Things aren't going to well for Roland on those pages, and I love the way Ross and Isanove depict the chaos.  (By the way, just so credit is given where it's due, I found both of those images on Stephen King's website, on this page.  Normally, I just do what other bloggers do, which is steal images from wherever they can get them.  But I'll be damned if I'm going to steal from King's website and not at least link back to it!)

Well, let's move on from talking about the art and get a bit more into the mechanics of the storytelling.  One element of the comics that has always struck me as a bit curious (though not in a bad way) is the narration.  This narrative voice is a necessary element of the exposition of each issue, but it may or may not have a more specific function, as well.  Consider this bit, which comes after some of Roland's dialogue ("I'll be damned," Roland says, looking down on Eluria from the Desatoya Mountains.  "I wonder what town that is."), to which the narrator responds, to us:
It was Eluria, in case ya wonder and are starved for patience.  And if ya heard of it, then you're no doubt shuddering at what Roland's in for.
The narrator here is addressing the reader as an individual, and on a storytelling level, this means one of two things: either the author of the comic book is directly addressing the reader(s), or the story is being narrated in the first person by a character within that story. 

I take the latter to be the case here, although that's not a definitive reading, by any means.  In any case, the narrator is obviously holding out the possibility that we have heard of Eluria before.  Combined with the omniscient viewpoint -- the narrator obviously knows what is going to happen to Roland well before Roland finds out for himself -- and the rural dialect (which King uses at various points in the novels, such as in Hambry or in Calla Bryn Sturgis), the feeling I get is one of a man or woman telling a story to people who live in a version of Mid-World someplace in the future.  Could be only a few years after Roland's time, or could be hundreds, or even more; there's no way to know.

In any case, the way I interpret it is that we are hearing a story being told that, in Mid-World, is equivalent to the type of fact-based legend we, in 2011 America, might hear about, say, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or even John F. Kennedy.  This might be pure whimsy on my part; the narration may represent nothing like that sort of storytelling at all, but in fact might be merely a way for Peter David to deliver exposition in a way consistent with the established Dark Tower universe.  But delivering that exposition would have been just as easy to accomplish using standard English; using King's rural Mid-World dialect seems like too deliberate a choice, too deliberate a style, to not have some sort of greater significance.

And given how crucially important the theme of storytelling is to the entire Dark Tower mythos, well ... I don't think it's a matter to simply shrug off.  This, of course, is an element of the comics that was present from the very beginning; it is not a new element that is being introduced in "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  Longtime readers will probably have had many of these thoughts long before now.

The rural dialect, as I've mentioned, is a crucial element of the comics' exposition, and it works pretty well in that capacity.  However, there is a decent amount of exposition in this issue that is delivered in the old tried-and-true (and decidedly lame) comics device of having a character talking aloud to himself so that the readers understand what is going on in his mind.  Presenting a character's interior life is a persistent, nagging problem for writers in visual media such as comics and film.  After all, it's easy for the prose writer to tell the reader what is going on in a character's head: that's what the italics are for, baby.  Or, if you don't want to resort to font tricks, you can just use a carefully-chosen point of view.

But it's a little trickier for the scripter of a comic book, who might find himself forced to have a character delivering aloud a piece of dialogue such as this: "The silence is all wrong.  Even from here, with the air so still, there should be something.  But there's no clip-clop of horses.  No rumble of wagon's wheels.  No merchants' huckstering cries from the marketplace.  Just crickets ... or some sort of bug."

Jesus fucking Christ, did Marvel re-hire Stan Lee?!?  That could have come out of an old issue of Journey Into Mystery; it's like Thor, not Roland, is riding ole Topsy into Eluria!

I kid ... a bit.  I can accept a small amount of this sort of stuff; after all, it's a comic book, so eventually you're bound to encounter some comic-booky type shit.  Still, would it have been too much to ask for that dialogue to be thought, rather than spoken aloud?

One of the prominent themes on display in this issue -- and in "The Little Sisters of Eluria" as a whole (the comics, but also the novella) -- is the theme of Roland as a tool of fate.  Or ka, if you prefer; or just plain luck.  In this issue, though, Roland makes at least two decisions that carry with them a sense of being irregular to his nature; and in both instances he recognizes them as such, but proceeds despite the recognition.  First off, he balks at gunning down the cross-dog, even though he knows he should; "a dog that's gotten a taste for human flesh is no good to anyone else," he thinks says, but he doesn't want to risk the bad luck of killing the only living inhabitant of the town.  This is a decision that will prove to have been a very sound one indeed, although it won't be until issue No. 5 that the dog appears again.

Similarly, Roland takes the cross-bound gold medallion from around the neck of the drowned boy, on the admittedly unlikely chance that he might run into some of the boy's kin one day.  This, too, will prove to be a very good decision.

In both of those cases, Roland's decision-making skills, intuitive and unguided though they may be, are what ends up saving him later on down the line.  But he is also the beneficiary of some more immediate good luck.  His horse, Topsy, which has been wheezing and producing huge, painful sneezes (obviously on the verge of death), finally gives up the ghost and topples over, dead ... and the noise of the animal's fall is the only thing that alerts Roland to the oncoming of the slow mutants, who might otherwise have crept up on him and killed him outright.

The Dark Tower is often at its best when dealing with the immense force of ka, and that force is powerfully present in this particular issue.

The only thing I've got left to say about #1 is to point out the manner in which Robin Furth diverges a bit from King's story toward the end.  In the novella, when King is beaten by the green folk, he blacks out and knows nothing else until he awakens in the healing tent of the Sisters.  As such, we readers have no notion of what happens in the meantime.  However, in the comic, we see Bowler Hat and pals rough Roland up some more and begin to drag him about the town with one of their mutie horses, and then the Little Sisters show up ... in their true, vampiric guises.  In a way, this seems like a bit of jumping the gun, as it robs the rest of the story of a bit of its intrigue.  Perhaps Furth is assuming that most of the comic's readers already know the story; or, perhaps she felt that it would be a narrative mistake for "The Little Sisters of Eluria" #1 to have precisely zero appearances by the titular characters.  Then again, given the omniscience of the comics' narrator, it seems both permissible and even appropriate for the story to step outside of Roland's ken once in a while.  Does the decision sacrifice more of the mystery than it ought?  I don't know.

Either way, I don't know how I feel about the decision.  I think I'm okay with it.  However, I'll be a bit more firm about saying that I wish the issue (the graphic component of it, at least) had ended on the image of the Sisters in the street.  It's a strong image, and would have made a fine issue-closer.  Instead, we get a page of Roland's nightmare, and a page of him slowly coming back to consciousness in the healing room.  They're perfectly good pages, but they seem to have come out of another issue: specifically, out of the next issue.  Here, they're anticlimactic, and the absence of them actually weakens the beginning of the next issue a bit.  These are minor complaints, and for anyone reading the issues one after another, it's a completely moot point.  Still, it struck me as a bit odd.

All in all, though, a very good issue, with great art and a good story based very closely on the original King story.


  1. "seriously, another lost love for Roland? -- didn't help things at all, that's for sure."

    I'm not sure how you meant that. If you are referring to Aileen she has actually been in the story all along. Her name is mentioned in Book 1. Sai King gave her no back story at all, but on page 86 of the Plume trade paperback the name Aileen is mentioned at the same time Marten is mentioned for the first time. This also includes a few lines of "Careless Love".

    I tend to go with that version over the revised version. I think of that as the first time Roland went through the cycle, the revised version as one of his subsequent trips back through time.

  2. Dustin, I was referring to a character -- whose name I've forgotten -- who appeared in the comics during the "Journey Begins" arc. I found that arc to be rather lackluster, and the attempt to add in another lost love interest for Roland was one of the elements that gave me that opinion.

    My intent in referencing that was to illustrate the fact that I appreciated the comics returning to established DT lore, as opposed to "The Journey Begins," which struck me as being akin to DT fanfiction in quality.

    Thanks for reading! (And by the way, we're on the same page with original Book 1 vs. revised Book 1.)