Since their inception, The Dark Tower comic books have been a raging success for the House of Ideas with no sign of slowing down. I recently got a chance to chat with Robin Furth, the mastermind behind the project, about everything Dark Tower. Discussing everything from the genesis of the book, its creative process, and what’s coming in the future, Robin gladly spilled the beans to us here at Comics Bulletin. So sit back, relax, and welcome to Mid-World.
Robin Furth: We’ll have to go back to the autumn of 2000. At the time I was a graduate student at the University of Maine, doing an individualized PhD in supernatural fiction. One of my supervisors was a great man named Burt Hatlen. Burt was really supportive of his serious students, and was especially supportive of writers. He had been Steve King’s professor when Steve was an undergraduate, and the two of them had remained friends.
Anyway as you know, Stephen King was hit by a Dodge Minivan in June of 1999 and had been pretty seriously injured. By 2000 he had started writing again, but needed to hire a temporary research assistant to help sort through the backlog that had accumulated while he was ill. Top of the list was helping to sort through the thousands of short stories Steve had received for a competition he’d run in his book On Writing. Because Steve is really committed to helping people in the State of Maine, he contacted Burt Hatlen and asked him if he knew of a starving graduate student who needed to pick up some extra work. Since Burt knew that I was a committed writer and a fan of Steve’s supernatural stories, he recommended me. (Lucky me!)
That first job lasted about six weeks. By the time Steve had sorted through the stories and had picked the winner, it was about December 21st. The University had shut for the holidays, which was lucky since Maine had been hit by an ice storm and the road I lived on had been without power for a few days. Since I hadn’t showered for a while (splash baths were the best I could do since I was reduced to hauling water from an old hand dug well), I felt pretty smelly, but dropped in to the Bangor office anyway to pick up my last paycheck and to wish Marsha (Steve’s personal assistant) a Merry Christmas. But when I arrived, who was sitting there by Marsha’s desk but Steve himself! Boy, was I embarrassed. I finally got to meet The Man in the flesh, and I felt about as fresh as a bag lady.
Steve must not have minded though, because he asked me if I was interested in picking up some additional work. He wanted to finish his Dark Tower series, but he needed someone to go back and write down page references for all the major characters and places in the four books he’d already completed. Since those books had been written over about a thirty year period, and since so much had happened in the intervening years (never mind the accident!), he was worried about making continuity errors. He figured that if he had an index, he’d be able to double-check all of his details.
I set to work right away, and within about a month and a half I’d created a huge index that was a lot more detailed than Steve had expected. I had it bound in black and on the first page I drew a magic door which said “The Writer.” That was Steve’s door back into Mid-World. Then, on the front of the book, I taped an old key so that Steve could open the door.
I guess Steve liked my enthusiasm, because he asked me to stay on. He would hand me the new manuscripts in installments, and I could continue expanding my index. At first I called that work-in-progress my Dark Tower Dictionary, but Steve renamed it The Dark Tower Concordance. During those years that Steve was completing the last three books of the Dark Tower series, I basically lived in Mid-World too. I’ve been traveling with Roland pretty much ever since. I have a few good Roland ghost stories, which I can tell you some time if you’re interested!
Norris: How about the actual genesis of the Dark Tower comics? How did this whole project get started and how were comics selected as the preferred medium for telling these stories?
Furth: Believe it or not, the Dark Tower comics came into being because of a chance comment made by Joe Quesada during an interview. Somebody asked him if there was one particular writer out there in the world that he’d really like to work with, and he said it was Stephen King. Well, news got back to Steve’s office, and so Chuck Verrill, who is Steve’s editor, got in touch with Joe. Steve had been a fan of comics for years, and so he was really interested in collaborating with Marvel.
Steve and Chuck discussed possible projects, and they settled on The Dark Tower. Steve thought that it would be great to make a comic book out of the fourth novel–Wizard and Glass–since it deals with Roland Deschain’s coming-of-age battle, his first love, and also his first encounter with the treachery of Mid-World. He also thought that it would be great to continue Roland’s tale from there, and if possible, tell Roland’s story right up to the Battle of Jericho Hill, which is the gunslingers’ last stand.
That’s where I came in. Since I’d been living in Mid-World for so many years, Steve really wanted me to be part of the project. I was thrilled since I thought the Dark Tower would make a great comic book, but I was also really nervous. I had a lot of respect for comics, but I’d never written them before, and so I knew I’d have a hell of a lot to learn! Luckily for me, Steve had tremendous faith in me, and so I took a deep breath and jumped into the water. I’m so glad that I did, since this has been a fantastic experience.
And as far as choosing comics as the medium for telling Roland’s story . . . in my opinion it was and is the perfect form for it. Illustration is so versatile, and so full of enchantment. It really is magical. As Steve said when he saw Jae [Lee] ‘s first sketches, it’s like his imagination stepped onto a page and took on life. Films are wonderful, but whatever happens in the future, I really think Roland had to have a life in comics first. And not just Roland. Alain, Susan, Cuthbert, Cort, the Crimson King . . . they all look just like I imagined they would. The magic of comics and the magic of the Dark Tower fit together perfectly.
Norris: I’m not going to argue with that (laughs). Now what is the process to which these Dark Tower comics get made? How does the collaboration process work between Peter David, Jae Lee, Richard Isanove, and yourself?
Furth: Basically, I’m the gal that starts the ball rolling, both in terms of the over-arching project which encompasses five story arcs as well as each individual issue, of which there are going to be thirty. After the
initial meeting between Stephen King, Chuck Verrill, Marvel, and me back in 2005, I created a thirty issue overview which started with the events of The Gunslinger Born (which were adapted from the novel Wizard and Glass) and ended with the gunslingers’ final stand against John Farson and the followers of the Crimson King. (For those of you who don’t know the novels, I won’t tell you who wins! If all goes well, you’ll find out in a couple of years’ time!)
After that really large outline was approved by Marvel (and even more importantly by Stephen King!), I focused on the first three story arcs—The Gunslinger Born, The Long Road Home, and Treachery. In each case it was my job to expand upon the original outline; creating the stories as they appear in each individual issue (seven issues in the case of The Gunslinger Born, five for The Long Road Home, and six for Treachery). Once these were approved by Steve King, Chuck Verrill and the Marvel editors, they went to Jae Lee.
Although the stories I handed over to Jae were broken down into individual scenes, it was (and is) Jae who sculpts the story you see on the page. As Jae breaks the scenes down into individual panels and pages, he gives the book its visual pacing. He’s the one who decides where one page should end and the next should begin, how many panels belong on a page, etc. While illustrating, Jae also interprets the characters and the action. He dreamed up Susan Delgado’s face from a mere description, and he gave Gilead a concrete architecture. It’s because of him that Dark Tower has such a distinctive visual style. He’s the person who catches the broodiness of Roland’s world–that sense of a place full of the wreckage of old wars . . . and of wars yet to come.
But art, too, is collaborative. Jae’s wonderful inks are colored by Richard Isanove, who brings to Mid-World that amazing palette of his. He puts the reds in the sky, the flush in peoples’ skins. He takes the intense detail of Jae’s drawings and brings them to life.
And it’s not over then either! As Richard works on the color, Peter David takes my 30 issue storyline, my scene-by-scene breakdown of the individual story arc, Jae’s art, Steve’s novels, my Concordance (which contains a dictionary of Mid-World lingo) and weaves a dialogue that brings readers into the heart of Mid-World. And once Peter has worked his magic, the dialogue and captions are lettered by Chris Eliopoulos. After that, the comic book goes back to the editors who give it their stamp of approval, and also to me, so that I can double-check for Mid-World consistency. Finally, it goes to Steve King and Chuck Verrill, for final approval. Only after all of that does it go off to the printer so that it can be shipped to stores. Pretty arduous, huh? But even while that process is going on, we talk to each other. For example, if Jae or Peter has an idea about an alteration to the story that would increase the pacing or deepen the emotional impact, then we alter the tale. I think that intense collaborative effort is was gives the Dark Tower depth and strength.
Furth: To tell the truth, this really varies from story arc to story arc! As you know, The Gunslinger Born was based on Stephen King’s novel Wizard and Glass, which is number four in the seven novel series. Unlike the other books, it is predominantly told in flashback–hence we learn about Roland’s youthful adventures, though he’s much, much older than that. I was glad to begin with Wizard and Glass since it had a storyline already in place, which was great. The problem was that I had to find a way to condense a 670 page book into seven issues which had to weigh in at about twenty-two pages each! As you can imagine, it was a challenge!
Having lived in Mid-World for so long, I really wanted to get across the richness of that world to new readers. In order to do this, I ended up including some scenes that actually don’t appear in Wizard and Glass at all but are flashbacks that take place in other Dark Tower novels. For example, the hawk lesson which happens in the first issue of The Gunslinger Born actually comes from The Gunslinger, which is the first book of the Dark Tower cycle. I ended up borrowing scenes from other books on a number of occasions, since I wanted to give comic book fans a taste of life in Gilead, as well as a sense of the treachery that lurks there.
However, after The Gunslinger Born was over and the tale told in Wizard and Glass was complete, I had a really big responsibility . . . I had to continue spinning Roland’s story. During our initial meeting with Marvel back in 2005, Steve had outlined how he wanted the comics to progress, so I knew where I was going. Thanks to my Concordance, I’d also documented many of Roland’s early adventures with Cuthbert and Alain, both on their trip home from Hambry and after their return to Gilead. However, for the day-to-day, moment by moment, plot-twist by plot-twist progression of events, I had to turn to my own imagination . . . and to my knowledge of Roland’s world. Long Road Home and Treachery are what resulted.
Furth: Yes and no! I tend to know what is going to happen, but sometimes the road to that place has quite a few potholes, or a few obstacles which I have to leap over! Every writer is different, but I tend to write, rewrite, and rewrite. Occasionally I have to abandon one particular subplot–or path through the woods–and strike out afresh. As long as I get to where I need to be in the end, I’m happy. Though sometimes when I can’t see the path for the trees, I feel like snapping my pencil in two!
Writing is a weird art. As Steve King has said on numerous occasions, it’s not always predictable. You think you know who a character is and what they’re going to do, and then poof! They go and trick you. However by the end, you usually discover that the character or situation that was giving you trouble was just trying to share some information with you, and for some reason or other, you just couldn’t hear them.
Specifically with the Dark Tower comics, there were a lot of false starts at first, but I’ve known these characters intimately for almost a decade, and many of them have been whispering their tales to me for years. I love Cuthbert and Alain, so The Long Road Home was a way for me to explore what happened to them after Roland’s mind was sucked into Maerlyn’s Grapefruit. They were the true heroes of that period, and without their devotion to Roland, he never would have survived. I felt that their story needed to be told, and so The Long Road Home came into being. Likewise, in Treachery you meet Cort’s niece Aileen, who in the novels plays a really small part (she’s the girl that Roland’s parents want him to marry). But since in the Dark Tower novels there is a female gunslinger–Susannah Dean–I really felt that that female energy, and that part of
Steve King’s vision, needed to be in the comics. I love playing with the boys, but women play a really big part in the novels too–especially the later ones–so I wanted to include that in the comics. I also wanted to show Roland’s respect for women. After all, in Wolves of the Calla a group of female fighters known as “The Sisters of Oriza” save his bacon!
Norris: You actually just touched on one of the aspects I enjoy most about these Dark Tower comics; their focus on Mid-World’s other inhabitants such as Alain and Cuthbert. I noticed a much heavier focus on them with The Long Road Home and again in the newly launched third mini-series, Treachery. Was this the plan all along; use these comic mini-series to build and delve deeper into Roland’s supporting cast?
Furth: It definitely was the plan for The Long Road Home, and also for the beginning of Treachery. I have always really loved Cuthbert and Alain, and I really wanted to tell their stories. Besides, their fates are twined with Roland’s, so to understand his destiny we need to know theirs better. In the novels, Steve King relates extensive back story for all of the members of Roland’s American ka-tet, so I felt it was in keeping with the books to tell more about Alain and Cuthbert. In fact, in The Drawing of the Three, there are whole sections of the book where Roland is really ill and the plot is pushed forward by Eddie Dean and Detta Walker/Odetta Holmes. Hence, I felt okay about using a similar plotting device.
Furth: Though my heart belongs to Roland, I’ve always had a bit of a crush on Cuthbert. Must be those jokes! I love Alain’s skill with “the touch”–a form of psychic power–since this gives him a depth of character which is quite profound. But I suppose the character that my heart breaks for–no matter how often I return to the story—is Susan Delgado. Her tale is so tragic. She loves Roland, and she is (in Mid-World speak) trying to remember the face of her father, but it all goes so terribly wrong. She becomes her community’s scapegoat, and is killed. Her tale has always felt very real to me… and very sad.
Norris: Do you plan to work on comics outside of the Dark Tower books once you and the rest of the creative team tell your story?
Furth: Oh yes! I am hooked. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few other projects already. I’ve adapted Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Lords of Avalon novels to comic book form, which has been great fun. I also wrote “Satana and the Electric Pentacle” for Legion of Monsters. Working with Satana was hilarious–I must say that she and her brother Daimon Hellstrom are favorites of mine. I’m also working on a story about the 80’s character Spellbinder for Marvel Comics Presents.
Norris: Very awesome. Okay, one last question. You mentioned before that there is a plan of thirty issues, 5 mini-series, for Roland and his ka-tet in comic form. Now once completed, will these comics tell their own story or will they kind of serve as a lead-in to King’s novels?
Furth: Oh yes! We’re going all the way to the Battle of Jericho Hill, which is the gunslingers’ last stand against John Farson and the forces of the Crimson King. This is what Stephen King wants us to do, and that’s the perfect place to end. Readers who finish the comics will know a lot about Roland the boy, and will understand what made Roland into the man he is at the beginning of The Gunslinger. So if we do our jobs right, the comics and the novels will dovetail together. I hope so!