STEPHEN KING’s “The Dark Tower,” a magnum opus about a haunted gunslinger on a quest for a mysterious spire, stretched out over 22 years, seven novels and a staggering 4,272 pages of eerie adventure.
But here’s the really spooky thing: King fans want more.
Now they’re about to get it, although this time around King is taking his readership to a new place that might scare some of them off. “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born,” the Marvel Comics series, launches next week, and more than 100 retailers nationwide are opening their stores for midnight release parties. Despite that intense interest, King knows he will have to persuade many of his longtime readers that comics are now more than juvenilia.
“These comics aren’t junk food; they’re more like delicacies,” King said. “Sushi for the mind, if you like. You have to teach yourself how to read ‘adult comics,’ which are actually comic/novel hybrids.... and even then you have to give yourself to the experience, which means accepting the idea that you’ll need to work a bit as you do with any good novel.”
As with his novels, King’s move into comics is fraught with subplots. One big one: “The Dark Tower” famously finished with a fizzle in 2004 -- many fans complained of a letdown with the saga’s final pages and the fuzzy fate of its hero, Roland Deschain, the nomadic hero armed with Winchester revolvers in the face of mutants and magic.
The new “Dark Tower” project provides a chance for King “to make it right,” noted Jud Meyers, co-owner of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, one of the retailers that will be open Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning to sell the comic.
“With the last novel’s ending, there really was a sense of ‘You must be kidding,’ so that certainly adds to the anticipation for the comics,” Meyers said. “This is Stephen King’s first dip into this pop-culture medium, and there’s a lot of excitement. You haven’t seen anything like this in comics, so we’re getting this ‘Harry Potter'-style event.
“Absolutely, we will be selling to people that don’t usually buy comics. King is part of wave of writers from outside comics who are coming into the scene now, and that’s very exciting.”
Novelists, filmmakers and television writers have been increasingly turning to comics not only as a moonlighting lark (among them “Clerks” director Kevin Smith, bestselling novelist Brad Meltzer, director and BET President Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters such as Miles Millar and John Ridley) but also to take care of unfinished business.
Take writer-director Joss Whedon, whose “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series was canceled in 2003 after seven seasons despite its cult following and unresolved plotlines. Next month, Whedon will finally deliver his “Season 8,” but it will be in the pages of Dark Horse Comics. Whedon did a similar baton-passing trick when the sci-fi TV show “Firefly” passed off its characters to the 2005 film “Serenity” and a comic book series filled the narrative gap in between. The same sort of tactic also let “Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski extend that nixed TNT series into comics.
As popular as Whedon is with genre fans, King is among the strongest brand names in American pop culture, so Marvel and retailers are hoping for a “must read” moment for comics, which have lost ground in the video-game era. “Dark Tower” has a large initial printing, and the first issue is projected to sell well above 200,000 copies, according to Dan Buckley, publisher of Marvel Comics.
For his part, the author promises plenty of shocks in the “Dark Tower” universe in the series, which will be drawn by fan-favorite comics artist Jae Lee.
“This is, in a sense, an ‘origin’ story, and interesting in its own right,” King said in an e-mail interview. “These are not just retellings of books that have already been written. The books serve as a launching pad -- and a resource center, I suppose -- but the flight is into brand new territory. People curious about the Crimson King will find things to interest them here. And give them some nightmares, I hope.”
But how much of the new nightmare was dreamed up by King himself? Comics writer Peter David is credited as scripter, and Robin Furth, King’s research assistant, is also credited. King’s name may be the biggest on the cover, but he acknowledges that the work inside is clearly collaborative.
“They -- Marvel, and especially Robin Furth, who worked with me on the later [“Tower”] books, keeping the proliferating details straight -- broke out a simple story line that might be called ‘Teenage Gunslingers and How They Grew,’ ” King said. “The basis was ‘Wizard and Glass,’ the ‘Dark Tower’ Book 4, the only novel in the series that comes close to being a stand-alone. I modified their outline, and have had a chance to tinker with the dialogue and narration of each issue before it gets graven in stone. I don’t tell anyone what or how to draw, though. I know my limitations.”
Limits don’t seem to apply, however, to the public appetite for King’s craft. He’s working on three novels in various stages of completion (a resuscitated 1970s manuscript called “Blaze,” a new work called “Duma Key” and another installment of “The Talisman” with Peter Straub. He also writes a column for Entertainment Weekly and keeps tabs on Hollywood adaptations of his work, which at the moment include a Frank Darabont film of “The Mist” and a television miniseries of “The Talisman.”
Even with all that, King said it’s something special to revive Roland Deschain of Gilead, the “Tower” cowboy.
“Roland of Gilead was originally seen as a kind of fantasy version of Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name,” the author said. “Gradually, as the books progressed, he became both more complex and more human. Or maybe those things are actually the same.”
To see more images from the Marvel Comics series “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born,” and to see a list of area stores that are hosting release events on Tuesday night, go to latimes.com/darktower.
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Under the dark of night
Stephen King and Marvel Comics will premiere a comic book next week, “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born,” that has stirred considerable fan excitement. About 150 retailers across the country will have “midnight release” parties, as Tuesday turns to Wednesday, to celebrate the release of the first of a planned seven issues. Some L.A.-area retailers that are planning to add late-night hours:
Earth-2 Comics Inc.
15017 Ventura Blvd.
A Hidden Fortress
1960 Sequoia Ave. No.9
Brave New Worlds
22722 Lyons Ave. No.6
7131 Winnetka Ave.
1298 E. Colorado Blvd.
15900 Crenshaw Blvd., Suite B
16509 Bellflower Blvd.
The Comic Bug
1015 N. Aviation Blvd. Suite C