Gunslinger Born is the debut of the Dark Tower series in comic form. Does it set a good impression, or is this flashback over before it begins?
The Dark Tower is the crowning epic of Stephen King’s career. The series – consisting of seven primary books and encompassing much more of the author’s universe – is all the more notable because, unlike the majority of King’s work, it is not horror in and of itself. There are a lot of horror elements to the series, particularly in the later chapters, but they are not the main focus of the series, which started with 1982’s The Gunslinger and ostensibly ended with 2004’s The Dark Tower. Since 2003’s Wolves of the Calla, the series has ceased to be a story being built up in the background when King isn’t working on something else and has become a major project.
From 1982 to 2002, four items titled The Dark Tower were released. All of them were novels. Since 2003, however, four more novels were released, not to mention the birth of a comic series of at least 11 collected volumes. This is, of course, ignoring links between The Dark Tower and other Stephen King work set in the same universe, some of the most notable being IT, The Stand and The Talisman.
Since the “end” of the novel series in 2004, much of the work has focused on prequels. Roland’s story was largely kept a mystery, until the popular comics recounting a flashback told in Wizard and Glass, the fourth book of the series, continued further. The eighth Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, is much in the same vein, recounting a story of Roland’s youth and a fairy tale he heard as a child.
Today, though, we’re here to talk about the first Dark Tower comic: Gunslinger Born. Originally told in the pages of Wizard and Glass, this tells the story of how Roland Deschain became a gunslinger. The story introduces to us the concept of ka-tet, going on to include a story of star-crossed lovers. Stephen King knows what’s disturbing, and it’s filled with innocents getting abused. For example, let’s look at the tragedy of Susan Delgado:
Her father is murdered (by the villains of the story). Her aunt sells her as a sex slave to the mayor. She’s sent to an old witch (in the most archaic, negative meaning) in order to have her virginity checked, which is as invasive as it sounds, though not visible in the comic. She proceeds to fall in love, and then be treated like a whore when the person she fell in love with when he finds out her station in life. He repents, and when he takes her virginity, she almost falls victim to a spell placed on her to cut her hair off the night she loses her virginity, which seems to have been placed on her for shits and giggles. Susan later discovers that her and Roland’s romance has not only caused a schism between him and his friends, but put all of their lives at risk. She discovers she’s pregnant, but before she gets a chance to tell the father, she is beat up, dragged away, and burned at the stake.
Mixed in with all this is a lot of world-building, action, and all of the emotions implied in the above story. Gunslinger Born is, at its heart, a dramatic story about how good wins because it’s better, but it takes a hell of a thrashing in the process. This is only made more dramatic by the realization to anyone who has read the novels that evil is going to win for a long time after this. John Farson is not around by the time of The Gunslinger, sure, but neither are Steven Deschain, Cuthbert, Alain or Gilead.
Unfortunately, the comic format does force the story to be somewhat abbreviated. The comic actually draws attention to this: twice, toward the end, the words “Charyou tree” are uttered – once by the disembodied voice attributed to the “thinny”, and once as Susan is burning. “Charyou tree” became an important concept during this point of Wizard and Glass, and its several meanings are stressed at this point in the original flashback. In the High Speech, charyou tree is used to usher in the harvest, as well as to indicate a human sacrifice for the sake of harvest. In addition to this, it refers to a specific tree used for this purpose. Finally, because it is a word in the High Speech rather than English, it has relevance in English: specifically, that “char” is another word for “burn”, the manner in which the sacrifice is usually carried out.
It would be almost impossible to fit this kind of word-play in the last issue of a seven part comic story – particularly if you’re trying to keep the story from being too wordy. In creating this comic, everyone involved was fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the comic and novel structures, and writing endless paragraphs about the way a word itself manipulates the reader and the story is, sadly, not one of the comic’s many strengths. To this end, it’s rather baffling that the comic draws attention to it, by using the word “charyou tree” without any sort of description.
The Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born stands right up there with the best of the Dark Tower series. It doesn’t have the long, drawn out feel of a series that didn’t find its footing until it was twenty years old, and it combines the world-building of several volumes into one volume that fits perfectly for it. This is a story written with the clarity of hindsight, and a great story for adult comic fans that are new to Stephen King, new to Dark Tower, or serious fans of both.