Stephen King's 'Dark Tower' Saga, Illustrated Horror guru Stephen King talks about The Long Road Home, the latest installment in the comic book series inspired by his Dark Tower epic. Gunslinger hero Roland Deschain is on the run with his posse in the continuation of the saga, illustrated by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove.
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Stephen King's 'Dark Tower' Saga, Illustrated

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

There are few more maligned genres than those of horror, fantasy and, yes, comic books. They're related to the nerdiest corner of the bookstore. There are also few more beloved genres. You don't own just one graphic novel or horror tale; you read thousands of them.

Last year, Marvel Comics combined all three genres onto the watchful eye of the master of horror, Stephen King, releasing a series of comic books inspired by his "Dark Tower" epic. The next installment, "The Long Road Home," came out just this week.

Stephen King joins us by phone today. Thank you so much for being here.

Mr. STEPHEN KING (Author): Oh, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SMITH: If you have questions for the master about the "Dark Tower" series or specifically about the comic books, especially if you're read the first set of series, "The Gunslinger," our phone number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our blog, it's all at npr.org/blogofthenation.

So Steve…

Mr. KING: Robert, you've got the waterfront covered there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Absolutely. So Stephen King, look, people have read your novels, they've seen your movie work, but maybe don't know what you're doing with comics. So tell us about the "Dark Tower" graphic novels.

Mr. KING: Well, I'm just somebody who's always been interested in how things work in different media. And I have a tendency to say yes to projects rather than to say no because I'm curious. I want to see how things turn out.

SMITH: And people have been coming to you for years, I'm sure, to do comic books based on your many novels.

Mr. KING: Well, you'd be surprised. They haven't exactly been beating down the door.

SMITH: They probably couldn't find your door, that's why.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: Well, it could be that they couldn't find my door. But Marvel actually came to my agent, Chuck Verrill a few years ago and said, is there anything that he would be interested in? And at that time, "The Dark Tower" story was done, and I - people have asked me all the time, is there going to be a movie of it? And I never thought that there would be because it's very, very long. And to do something like that, it would almost have to be a trilogy. And the chances of actually doing that, I think - you know, a thing like "The Lord of the Rings," New Line Cinema pretty much bet their studio on that, and they succeeded. But other trilogies - hmm - just haven't been trilogies. They've been like one-shots and then it just kind of goes away and like, "His Dark Materials," the Philip Pullman thing.

But comic books are almost like movies on paper, particularly the new graphic novels. They can be really fabulous. And they came to interest me as a medium because they exist in their own category. And I'm talking about the way that a reader has to approach them. They're not really comic books anymore, but they're not really novels either. They exist on a different level. And the thing that they come closest to are good, you know, summer blockbuster movies, only you don't have to wait that long and do all the special effects because of talented artist, like Jae Lee, does that.

So when Chuck came to me, I said, ask them if they have any interest in adapting "The Dark Tower." And as it turned out, they did.

SMITH: Well, you might be selling it short a little bit. I've never seen a movie quite as beautiful as the illustrations Jae Lee did for this. It's really a gorgeous book. Obviously, you don't draw them. You don't even write them. So what is your role you see in the comic books?

Mr. KING: Well, we sat down at the beginning and they said, we really want to do this. What should we do? And to me, the respect that I got from these people at Marvel was terrific. Because when you're involved with Hollywood, sometimes people will ask you what you want to do. You give them your two cents worth and they go away. And if you're lucky, the check doesn't bounce. So that's the way that it works. But these people really wanted direction.

And I said, I think that the best way to go is this is a long, long story but the fourth volume of it it, "Wizard and Glass," is a flashback to when the main character, Roland Deschain, was a teenager, and this is about his first real quest after this pink ball that you can see the future in. And that also has the effect of fascinating whoever owns it and drawing it in until they're just a husk of themselves. And he falls in love and he has this first real love with this girl named Susan Delgado.

In other words, the seven novels of "The Dark Tower" form one long ubernovel, but that particular book was a standalone almost. You could - it was a complete story in and of itself. And I said to these people, if you start there, then you could go on, if you wanted to, and explore all the adventures that Roland and his two friends, Alain and Cuthbert, have following this, because I never wrote those down.

In other words, adapt the first one and use it as a launching pad and go on from there, which is exactly what they've done. First...

SMITH: To fill in the spaces.

Mr. KING: I'm sorry?

SMITH: To fill in the spaces between your stories.

Mr. KING: Yeah. Right.

SMITH: Yeah.

Mr. KING: They're coloring in places where I hadn't gone before. And they, at my suggestion, they hired a woman named Robin Firth that I originally hired many years ago when I got to about the third volume of "The Dark Tower" and realized how complicated all this was going to be. And I said…

SMITH: She helps you keep track of the world, yeah.

Mr. KING: …come and help me out.

SMITH: She helps you keep track of this world. Some might say she might know more about it than you.

Mr. KING: I think she probably knows a lot more about it than me because there are little stories in the backs of the graphic novels, the various segments, where she's expanded on some of my ideas that I just barely touched on and fleshed them out. She's a very, very good writer herself. And she's written something called "The Dark Tower Concordance" which has everything in it you can possibly imagine. It's a real book for anal retentives because it has everything. You know, it has everything.

SMITH: We're talking with Stephen King about the world of comic books and graphic novels. And your fans would not forgive me if I didn't immediately start to take some phone calls.

Andrew(ph) is on the line from Charlotte, North Carolina. Go ahead, Andrew.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, Mr. King. First off, I just wanted to say that I'm really thankful that you got to finish "The Dark Tower" series.

Mr. KING: I am, too. Because if I died, it never would have gotten done I guess.

ANDREW: Yeah. I actually have been following the comics, and I just got the new one. And I noticed that the art style had changed a lot. In the "Gunslinger Born," it was more towards, like, Asian-style character design.

Mr. KING: Mm-hmm.

ANDREW: And now, it's more Western-styled. Like the art in the books. I was wondering if you had any input on that or…

Mr. KING: Well, one of the things about the books that was so wonderful was that there were seven volumes from "The Dark Tower" and we were able to use a number of different artists. My only request was that they would come back and use Michael Whelan, the artist Michael Whelan, to do the last book because he did the first book. And whether or not any of that art had an effect on Jae Lee I can't say. I know what you're talking about, and I think that it's kind of a natural progression. I sort of saw that going on…

ANDREW: Yeah.

Mr. KING: …from issue to issue of the first - the first - what they call the first arc.

ANDREW: Yeah.

SMITH: Well, thanks for your call, Andrew.

Stephen King, does it ever surprise you when you see what the comic books look like? Does it seem like a whole different world sometimes or does it immediately seem familiar to you because they're drawing it the way you wrote it?

Mr. KING: It usually feels completely familiar and strange - a little bit strange at the same time. It's the same thing as movies where it seems like somebody comes into your head and starts picking things out that were just, you know, mental pictures in your mind, and all of a sudden they're real in the world. And in some cases with "The Dark Tower" comic book, there are things that I like very, very much that are much fuller and more fleshed out than what I had imagined. Like the character of Jonas who looks a little bit like one of those Italian Western bad guys. Or there's a witch, Rhea of the Coos, who looks like every witch that you were ever afraid of when you were a kid. I just love her.

SMITH: Let's talk with Mark(ph) now. Mark joins us from Tallahassee, Florida.

MARK (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I was wondering if, you know, at the beginning of the graphic novel series it seemed kind of dark, most of the faces were obscured, a lot of the main characters seemed to be kind of obscured, and a lot are shadowy, I know that's kind of Jae Lee's style. But I was wondering if it kind of added the mystery and, you know, if you think that it helped readers adapt a comic book format who might have read the novel format.

Mr. KING: I don't know if it does or not. But - and I don't know very - I'm like one of those old bourgeois guys who said, I don't much about art, but I know what I like. And I just always thought that the art in "The Dark Tower" books was terrific, the Jae Lee was a terrific choice. And the one thing is, I always thought there was a real moody, dark feel about the art in the first stories because it is a tragedy. It was based on "Romeo and Juliet," that particular volume. "Wizard and Glass" is the book and the comic series is the "Gunslinger Born." But either way, it's a story about a tragic love affair among young teenagers, then I think that the art fits that. It does have a dark, shadowy, contrasting look.

SMITH: Thanks for your call, Mark. Let's got to Sacramento, California now. The caller is named Carrie(ph). Are you really named Carrie?

TERRY (Caller): Yes, Terry.

SMITH: Terry. There you go. What's your question for Stephen King?

TERRY: Oh, I was going to ask him what he thought of the anime format. Has he considered doing something in that kind of format?

SMITH: Yeah. Why not? Another medium to master, why not?

Mr. KING: Well, I don't know about it. I know a little bit more about the graphic novel version, so I felt a little bit more confident about giving a go-ahead. But there's so much anime out there that it's very difficult. There are things like "Akira" and "Steamboy" that I've seen, that I absolutely loved. But it's tough to know who's good and who's just simply mediocre in the field. Because you go to a video store, man, you get overwhelmed with how much there is. And this goes to something, Robert, that you said originally in your lead-in to the thing, and that is that - to the segment, and that is that graphic novels exist in their own little universe. And it's a very chaotic place to be.

I know that I got turned on recently to a graphic novel called "Y: The Last Man," written by Brian K. Vaughan. And it's terrific. It's a great, great piece of work.

TERRY: Really?

Mr. KING: Awesome.

TERRY: What is it called again?

Mr. KING: I'm sorry?

TERRY: It's called what, again? I'm sorry.

Mr. KING: "The Last Man," "Y: The Last Man."

TERRY: "Y: The Last Man"?

Mr. KING: Yeah.

TERRY: How does that…

Mr. KING: And if you to the graphic novel section of my bookstore, anyway, it's very difficult to find because it looks like Kosovo, you know, after the civil war.

TERRY: Uh-huh.

SMITH: Thanks for your call, Terry.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We have an e-mail from Paul(ph) in Elk River, Minnesota, who touches on something you touched on, Stephen King, which is that, yes, graphic novels are actually an easier way to get a story to market.

Mr. KING: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: They are. They - it's quicker and easier and - certainly than a movie, but - than the novel-writing process.

Mr. KING: Mm-hmm. I think it's a little bit easier to get something like that to market because the field is a little more wide open.

SMITH: Yeah. We also have an e-mail from Philip(ph). And Philip writes, "The Gunslinger" series has been my favorite since reading "The Stand" when I was 10 years old. I always thought Roland is the reluctant antihero, and I really love the circular nature of the ending. My question for Stephen King is this: Does he still have dreams of Roland's exploits, and what changes might have happened in Roland's next go-around?

Mr. KING: That's an interesting question. I don't have the sort of imaginative channel into that world that I did once. And I've tried to find it, actually, I thought it might go - be fun to go back and write more about Roland. And it might even be fun to take a more active role in the graphic novel since Roland's going to march along for a while under the Marvel imprint. I thought to myself, well, you know, I ought to be able to find something else. There's a lot of fertile territory there.

Let me see what I can come up with. And so far, I'm a total blank on that. But I did go to Marvel and asked them since he mentions "The Stand," if they would have any interest in adapting "The Stand" as a graphic novel, and they are going to do that. Marvel is going to do "The Stand" as a graphic novel.

SMITH: Oh, your fans will love that. Let's talk with Brian(ph). Brian joins us on the line from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello, how are you doing today?

SMITH: Doing great. Go ahead.

BRIAN: Thank you for taking my call. Mr. King, thank you so much for "The Dark Tower" books. My friend let me borrow them and I read all 7 in three months. Absolutely fantastic.

Mr. KING: Oh, that's terrific. Thank you.

BRIAN: My question is is that, I really love the little stories, "The Little Sisters" story and "Everything Eventual" about Roland. And I was curious whether or not that was being considered to used as the basis for a future comic.

Mr. KING: I hope that they'll use that as part of the graphic novel series, you know. The arc right now, "The Long Road Home," is planned out. But I think at some point they should actually get to "The Little Sisters," which is the story about, I think, as I remember, Roland is hurt and that the little sisters are nurses who turn out to be not nurses at all, but something a lot darker.

BRIAN: Yes.

SMITH: Thanks very much for calling, Brian.

BRIAN: Thank you so much.

SMITH: Mr. King, I'm somewhat amazed as you talk about the different projects in the works, and people have come to you. How many projects would you say you're working on - novels, movies, graphic novels - dozens, do you have in the works?

Mr. KING: I used to have a lot more about more balls in the air than I do right mow. I'm writing a novel now and I'm overseeing what the plans are for the "The Dark Tower." But right now, that's about it. Oops, I forgot. I have a Broadway play that I'm working on.

SMITH: You are joking.

Mr. KING: A musical. It isn't in Broadway yet. It's a musical with John Mellencamp, and…

SMITH: I would have said that as a joke, that the only thing unconquered was musicals. But tell me a little bit about it.

Mr. KING: Well, it's just something new. It's something that I hadn't done before. And John came to me and said, do you have any interest in this? And he told me a little story about - he bought a camp in the woods, you know, and there was a story behind it. Any old building has a story behind it. And I got kind of taken by it. And I said, well, let's have a go with this. And it's the same real impetus as "The Dark Tower," the graphic novel. You say to yourself, well, I've never done this before, let's see what this is like.

SMITH: Just amazing. You have to come on and talk about that if it comes to fruition.

Mr. KING: Oh, ask me. I'll be happy to.

SMITH: We can actually have people sing and dance in here.

Mr. KING: Well, John is being, you know, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, so…

SMITH: Will there be dancing?

Mr. KING: …it's a good year for both of us.

SMITH: Will there be dancing, too?

Mr. KING: Yeah, there is a little bit of dancing. It's set in the '50s, so it's that kind of jitterbug thing.

SMITH: I look forward to seeing it. Stephen King is author of countless books. He's currently providing creative direction and guidance to the Marvel comic book series inspired by his "Dark Tower" epic. He joined us by phone. Thank you very much, Stephen.

Mr. KING: It was a pleasure. It was too short.

SMITH: You can see images from "The Dark Tower: The Long Road Home," and hear previous interviews with Stephen King at our Web site, npr.org/talk.

Tomorrow, it's Thursday, and "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson will be here, and join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith in Washington.

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