Stephen King tries comic books

Adaptation of 'Dark Tower' series sees commercial success

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2007

NEW YORK - There are few things Stephen King hasn't tried when it comes to his work. He's already the master of horror fiction, a tour guide through disturbing and fantastical worlds, a writing coach, a nonfiction author, a screen writer and even a director.

He can now claim a new genre with the recent Marvel Entertainment comics publication "The Dark Tower," based on his books of the same name.

"I'm a big fan of the medium," King said of comic books. "A different way to tell stories is always exciting. It's like being a kid with a chemistry set."

It's not that he's a comic book buff. In fact, he hasn't really kept tabs on the medium since his "Sandman" days as a child. But when the idea came up to make his seven-book "Dark Tower" series into a comic serial, he jumped at the chance.

The time is right for the collaboration, as both the genre and the author are being showered with critical and academic success like never before. These days, comic books aren't just for gangly teenage boys or geeky adults, and King isn't just a grocery store paperback writer.

"It asks something more of the reader than an old 'Donald Duck' or an 'Archie' or 'Veronica,"' King says of the new comic. "You have to learn how to read it, and find out you're going to be challenged."

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The "Dark Tower" is part Western, part fantasy and part adventure, centering on the story of Roland Deschain, a man who lives in a futuristic kind of world, and his quest to find the "Man in Black" and later on, the dark tower.

King calls it his life's work - it took him nearly 20 years to complete the series, the final book was published in 2004. But unlike myriad other King stories, it's never been made into a film or TV show.

Marvel gathered its best artists and writers for the project. Jae Lee and Richard Isanove worked together on the drawings and the result is a somber, fluid book in deep red and black tones, very different from the traditional "WHAM!" superhero comics.

The plot, too, is unlike traditional comic books, because writers Peter David and Robin Furth had to start from scratch. They work within King's story, but flesh out parts of Roland's life not detailed in the books.

"Unlike Marvel Comics with 40 years of reference, this world hadn't been drawn," said Marvel publisher Dan Buckley. "There's no movie, no TV show, no place we could go to as a style guide.

Buckley said they worked backward, deciding first how many issues they'd need to tell a story, then plotting the stories loosely for the artists, who were given a lot of independence to create the world.

King was very pleased with the result. "It's a little like a tour of your own imagination," he said.

So far, the title has seen significant commercial success. More than 200,000 issues of the first issue were sold, by far the best-selling non-superhero comic in more than a decade. Marvel executives are hoping the comic will bring in readers new to the genre; King hopes comic readers will find an exciting new story in the "Dark Tower."

"I think this is sort of like a coming-out party for the comic industry, a way to reach out to the mainstream," said Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada. "We're a very serious art form."

There will be an initial series of seven books, and Lee is currently completing the art for the last book. It took about two years to get the idea off the ground, but once the wheels got moving, it's been a faster pace.

King serves as a consultant and has ultimate control over decisions, but he lets the "comic book geniuses" do their work.

"I don't usually think of writing as a collaborative sport," he said. "But to me, the 'Dark Tower' looks more like a movie panel. Little by little, we've created this whole world."

King is known mostly for his enormously popular horror novels, such as "Carrie," "Pet Cemetery," "Misery" and "The Shining," but he's also written a slew of other works, from the personal novella "The Body" to "Hearts in Atlantis," "The Green Mile" and "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft."

He's recently been writing a pop culture column in Entertainment Weekly, and the lifelong Boston Red Sox fan wrote the book "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season" with Stewart O'Nan.

King, 59, lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, Tabitha. He has three grown children: Oldest Naomi King is a Unitarian minister and is working on a nonfiction project; Joseph Hillstrom King recently wrote "Heart Shaped Box," under the pen name Joe Hill; and youngest son Owen King published a novella in 2005 entitled "We're All in this Together."

In 1999, King was hit by a car while walking down the road in Lovell, Maine. The accident affected him profoundly both physically and mentally, and shortly thereafter, he suggested he would retire.

"I didn't feel very well, at the end of the 'Dark Tower' series," he said. "And I thought that anything that I do after this is going to be feel a little bit tired and used up, because that's the way I felt. I was in a lot of physical pain."

He didn't exactly stick to his claim, but he has stopped his usual breakneck pace.

"The pain got better, and I just started to write again. For a long time, I didn't write anything, but then I did 'Lisey's Story,' and it seemed like a different book. It felt like an old book, but in a good way. You never know what is going to happen when you start a project."

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