Robin Furth doesn’t live in Mid-World, but it could be argued she knows it better than the characters themselves. After working as Stephen King’s research assistant, Furth published Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Concordance, has written the graphic novel adaptations of The Dark Tower series for Marvel Comics, and is a consultant for the new film The Dark Tower and the TV series that will follow. As an avid folklorist, a fan of comics and King’s own go-to expert on all things Roland Deschain, Furth is the perfect person for all these jobs. She spoke to Cemetery Dance Online about her books, graphic fiction as a medium, and what she thinks about the upcoming movie and Idris Elba as the lead.
(Interview conducted by Danica Davidson)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: How did you first start reading comics?
ROBIN FURTH: I started when I was a kid. I loved the Archie comics, and Spider-Man, and Peanuts. Then a point came at school when we were told that comics didn’t count, and that if we read them rather than real books we’d never get into college. For a while I left those things I really loved behind me—horror, science fiction, fantasy, all kinds of comics.
When I was really young, I wanted to write but I also wanted to draw. Then I became too embarrassed about my drawings and I pushed that natural combination of verbal/visual aside. I finally rediscovered my love of comics in my early 20s with my husband. We would go into comic book shops and see what was being published. I was especially interested in horror comics.
When I found out that The Dark Tower was going to move into graphic fiction, I started to read comics with more focus. I think it was at that point I discovered just how incredible comics are. I read everything I could get my hands on. I’d published a lot of poetry before I moved into prose, and one of the fascinating things about comics is that you really have to hone the language. There is a limit to how many words you can fit in each panel and on each page, so your prose has to be really tight and punchy. The story is already being told by the visuals, and so the words have to add something new—a twist, or a new perspective. It is always a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge.
While a Ph.D student, you become Stephen King’s research assistant. What did that entail?
When I was fourteen I read my first Stephen King book (which was ’Salem’s Lot) and I fell in love with his work. I thought, I would love to meet this man and work with him. Funnily enough, I made the mistake of telling my family about my future plan. As you can imagine, they laughed. It seemed so impossible.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Maine back in 1999, Stephen King was hit by a Dodge minivan in Lovell. It really shocked both the faculty and the student body, since Steve was (and continues to be) an incredibly generous benefactor of the school. He is also UMO’s most famous alumnus.
About six months later, when Steve was on the mend, he contacted his old university professor and friend, Burt Hatlen. He told Burt that he had a few weeks worth of freelance work available and he wanted to help out a graduate student in need of extra money.
It just so happened that Burt was one of my supervisors. Burt knew I was a published writer and that I loved Stephen King and fantasy and horror. So one day while I was checking my mail in the English office, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Robin, I think I have a job for you.” At first I thought Burt was teasing me, but once I found out he was in earnest, I told him I definitely wanted the job.
The next day I contacted Steve’s assistant, Marsha DeFilippo, to find out what the work entailed. Marsha told me that Steve had received boxes and boxes of manuscripts in response to the story competition he ran in his book, On Writing, and he needed someone to go through them.
The job was supposed to last about six weeks, and came to a close just before the Winter Solstice of 2000. I remember the date well, since it was snowing and the roads were so bad that I almost didn’t go in. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I undertook that journey.
When I arrived at the office carrying the final box of manuscripts, Stephen King was there. I was both amazed and tongue-tied, especially since I’d been without electricity for a week and really needed a shower. However, Steve was a real gentleman. He asked me if I wanted more work and I said, “SURE!” He told me that he was returning to the Dark Tower series and that he need someone to make lists of characters and places so he could check the continuity of events. (It wasn’t surprising, since he’d been writing the series for about thirty years.)
Unfortunately, even though I’d read a lot of Steve’s books, I hadn’t read the Dark Tower series yet. That didn’t matter to Steve, which was a great relief. He took me into the storage room at the back of the office and picked out all the books in the series. I took them home and started reading. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed . . .
I gobbled them up–the four existing novels and one novella–and I thought they were amazing. So instead of making Steve lists of characters and places, I made him an encyclopedia (complete with page references) for all the characters. I did the same for places, although I divided them into Mid-World, Our World, and End-World. I had a separate section for High Speech, and included games, diseases, holidays, cycles of the moon, and everything else to do with Mid-World that I could think of.
I bound the book in black, and on the first page I drew a magic door labeled “The Writer” so that Steve could re-enter his world. Then I found a key in my grandfather’s study (because as every Dark Tower junkie knows, found keys play an important part in the early books) and I taped it to the front of the book. When I dropped it off at the office I thought to myself, He’s either going to think I’m crazy or he’s going to think my enthusiasm is kind of funny.
Luckily for me, Steve liked the work. In fact, he liked it enough to hire me to continue building my Concordance. Over the next two years, Steve handed me his manuscripts in weekly chunks, and I kept adding to my great big encyclopedia. Each time I returned to the office to pick up the printouts, I handed in an updated version of my own manuscript. It was an incredible experience.
My other love (other than writing) is folklore, so (in my mind at least) I was acting as Mid-World’s folklorist.
As Steve mentions in his introduction, my Concordance was originally created as a writer’s tool; it wasn’t written with publication in mind. However, in either late 2002 or early 2003, Stephen King’s foreign rights agent, Ralph Vicinanza, contacted him and said that it would be great to create a Dark Tower guidebook. Steve replied that one was already being written! Ralph got in touch with me, I sent him my manuscript, and he liked it. So that’s how my Dark Tower Concordance came to be published. The world is a very strange place!
How do your graphic novels fit in the Dark Tower universe?
Dark Tower fans often discuss this question. The way I see it, the only truly canonical Dark Tower works are those written by Stephen King himself. Everything else exists on a slightly different level of the Tower.
The reason for this is to do with the origins of the graphic novels and with how they were written.
It’s a long story, so I’ll begin at the beginning . . . !
Back in 2005, someone asked Joe Quesada at Marvel if there was a popular writer he’d really like to work with. Joe replied “Stephen King.” Word got back to Steve. Steve was interested and so he had his agent, Chuck Verrill, contact Marvel.
When talks began and Marvel asked which book or books he’d like adapted into comic book form, Steve said he’d like them to work with the Dark Tower universe. Once this was decided, Steve King, his agent, and several Marvel editors held a meeting at the Marvel offices in New York City. I’d already been contracted to be a consultant since I knew the world so well, and so I attended via a phone link. (I was living in the UK at the time.)
Anyway, as they were discussing who might do the artwork and who might do the writing, Steve said that he wanted me to be one of the co-writers. He hadn’t warned me ahead of time, so it was like a bombshell went off in my head. I was so shocked that I almost argued myself out of a job, but in the end, I did it. And I am ever so pleased I did.
It was decided that the team—Jae Lee and Richard Isanove creating the art and Peter David and I as co-writers—would begin with an adaption of Wizard and Glass. That made perfect sense because, although it’s not the first Dark Tower novel, it’s the earliest in terms of Roland’s chronology. It’s the book in which you learn about Roland Deschain’s coming-of-age battle against his teacher, Cort, so that he can win his guns. It also chronicles Roland’s first experience of treachery, and his first confrontation with the enemies of the Gunslingers and the Affiliation. In Wizard and Glass, we see the beginning of Roland’s transformation from idealist to hardened killer. We meet Roland the boy, but we also begin to see the character that we will meet in The Gunslinger, a man who is both a hero and an anti-hero.
After transforming Wizard and Glass into comics, Steve wanted us to follow Roland’s journey right to the Battle of Jericho Hill, which is where the Gunslingers are massacred by Farson’s forces and Roland is left as the sole survivor. So, as you can see, as the person in charge of creating plot, I was responsible for chronicling a ten- or fifteen-year period which is only sketchily defined in the novels.
Luckily I knew the books so well that I was able to gather enough information from the original novels to weave the tapestry together, creating five story arcs, or graphic novels. In the first of these graphic novels—The Gunslinger Born—we told the story of Roland’s coming of age and his adventures and trials in the town of Hambry. (This graphic novel, and the much later The Little Sisters of Eluria, were the only direct translations of Steve King’s books.)
The next graphic novel was The Long Road Home, which told the story of Roland and his ka-mates returning to Gilead. The third graphic novel was entitled Treachery. True to its name, it related the secret betrayals taking place in Gilead’s court. The fourth volume was called The Fall of Gilead, and it chronicled the defeat and capture of Roland’s home city, which also happened to be the gunslingers’ seat of power. The fifth and final graphic novel in our first run was Battle of Jericho Hill, and it told the terrible tale of the gunslingers’ final defeat, the collapse of the Affiliation, and the triumphant rise of John Farson, Walter O’Dim, and the Crimson King.
For each of those story arcs, I broke down the plot, which was given to Jae Lee who further broke the tale down into panels and pages. Richard Isanove created the color and Peter David wrote the captions and dialogue you see on each page.
After the first story run was done, we got permission to write five more graphic novels. They were: The Journey Begins, The Little Sisters of Eluria, The Battle of Tull, The Way Station, and The Man in Black. Although these books were in large part based on The Gunslinger and the novella The Little Sisters of Eluria, in many of the comics I ended up filling in back story, turning to the original novels as much as I could, and asking Steve King for direction whenever I got so lost that I didn’t think I could find my way back to the Path of the Beam again.
We have recently completed another five graphic novels: The Prisoner, House of Cards, The Lady of Shadows, Bitter Medicine, and The Sailor. These comics are based on the second novel of the Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three, but once again I filled in some of Eddie and Susannah’s backstory, though I based as much on flashbacks in the books as I could.
It has been an amazing journey, and I have learned a tremendous amount about transforming fiction into graphic fiction. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with a tremendously talented team.
The Gunslinger Born did exceptionally well: we were nominated for several Eisner Awards, a Harvey Award, and both The Gunslinger Born and The Long Road Home received YALSA Awards.
We’re taking a hiatus from the graphic novels for a while, since Steve wants to focus his energy on the upcoming Dark Tower film.
Are there going to be graphic novels about the movie?
To tell you the truth, I’m not certain. However, there are plans for a TV series if the film is a success, so hopefully fans will get to see a lot more of Mid-World!
What did your job consulting for the new Dark Tower movie entail?
My job was to provide information whenever it was needed: details that could be used in various scenes, or for sets. I talked with people creating costumes and scenery, and I had many fascinating email conversations with (The Dark Tower director) Nik Arcel. Unfortunately, I can’t say too much else, except that I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen.
Is there anything else you can tell us about the upcoming movie?
I think it’s going to be wonderful! It’s not a straight adaptation, and it really brings together the Gunslinger with parts of The Waste Lands and even The Dark Tower. You’re going to see some old friends in there. One of the major differences is that in the film, Roland will have the Horn of Deschain with him. (In the books, this horn was lost at the Battle of Jericho Hill.) Since Roland has his horn, longtime Dark Tower fans will know that the film is telling a new iteration of Roland’s journey.
Some fans have expressed concern that Idris Elba (the actor cast as Roland) doesn’t look like Roland in the novels, since in the book Roland is a black-haired, blue-eyed, tall, lanky Caucasian guy. But I agree with Stephen King: the color of Roland’s skin doesn’t matter. What matters is how fast he draws, and how he treats his ka-tet!
To me, Idris Elba has the strength of character and regal but hard-bitten air it takes to play Roland Deschain magnificently. He’s going to be great.
Do you know anything or have any involvement in the TV series that’s going to be coming out?
I’ve been asked to be a consultant for the TV series, which is really exciting!
What are your other graphic novels and works?
I’ve done two graphic novel adaptations of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Lords of Avalon novels. We started The Talisman, the Stephen King/Peter Straub book, but that one we didn’t get to finish, which is a real shame. I’ve also written quite a few one-shot comics for Marvel, Vertigo, and other comic book companies.
My main creative energy right now is being funneled into fiction. I just had a story accepted by Fantasy and Science Fiction, which makes me very proud. Not only is it one of the best magazines in the field, but it was also the first place that the early installments of The Gunslinger were published. My story is called “The Bride in Sea-Green Velvet” and it’s due to come out in July. In addition I’m trying to finish up a novel, which has been on the back burner for years!
Where can people find your work?
Danica Davidson is the author of how-to-draw book Manga Art for Beginners and the Overworld Adventure series for kids, consisting of Escape from the Overworld, Attack on the Overworld, The Rise of Herobrine, Down into the Nether,The Armies of Herobrine and Battle with the Wither.