It's a fascinating exercise to look at a prolific creator in pop culture and dig through their work to see all the influences therein, the threads of creative stimulus that are women together into a wholly new tapestry. Sometimes the influences are obvious—a dash of Queen in Muse's music here, the fundamental Christianity of his upbringing in Scott Derrickson's films there—sometimes not.
For anyone who has read Stephen King's work, the horror influences are clearly woven throughout his oeuvre. Yet one pop culture element that has shaped King at the fundamental level has often gone unnoticed: comic books. King's love of the medium is long established. As a father, he bought Spider-Man comic books for two of his then-young children, Naomi and Joe; as a kid, his love of comics carried him through childhood in a family too poor to afford a TV. "We used to get Classics Illustrated comic books, which were also fairly bloody," he said in a 2013 interview with Parade. "I still remember the Oliver Twist one—there was blood all over that thing. Comic books were the closest we had to a visual medium."
The visuals imprinted on the future author's imagination made enough of an impact to color his later work as an adult, and nowhere is the comic book influence more evident than in his Dark Tower series and how it's structured. To understand that, you first have to understand how comic book story arcs are built.
The way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been built was something completely unique in modern movies when The Avengers hit theaters in 2012. Its tree-like structure, with the through line of the Avengers movies forming the trunk and individual franchises acting as the branches and characters as the leaves, was ambitious. It was impressive. It was—exactly what Marvel and DC had already been doing for decades and to a greater extent in their comic books.
Comic books, for the uninitiated, are rarely self-contained. Major comic book events involve a larger, overarching main story that is supported with related "tie-in" comics that follow individual characters and their part in the story or fill in pieces of the main story from another perspective. Consider the tie-in comics to be the off-screen action of a film, the "Meanwhile..." of a television series if you will.
The sprawling, interconnected universe of the Dark Tower takes its own shape from that comic book event structure. The main novel series is comprised of seven novels that tell the story of Roland Deschain of Gilead and his quest to reach the fabled tower. The character of Roland owes his allegiance to comic book superheroes as much as he does to old Westerns and fantasy novels—his powers simply come in the form of his trusty revolvers with the sandalwood grips rather than the ability to fly or manipulate metal.
But a world as vast as the one King built for his fabled gunslinger and tower was not able to be contained in those books alone. A few years after completing the series, an eighth book set in the world of the Dark Tower came along—not a direct sequel or related to the events of the main story, but an unrelated tale involving a younger Roland.
More than the eighth novel, however, are the related books that tie into the story of the Dark Tower and help build the mythology piece by piece. That's what it is when an entire world inside your head screams to be let out, to have room to expand. And expand, King has. Sometimes the stories are only tangential and serve to flesh out the world more than add to the main Dark Tower narrative; the novella The Little Sisters of Eluria, for example, is another standalone tale from a time in Roland's life well before the events of the main novels. Others, like the short story "Low Men in Yellow Coats", directly relate to the events of the Dark Tower books. Part of King's Hearts in Atlantis collection, it tells the story of Ted Brautigan, one of the psychic slave "Breakers" who are forced to use their powers to destroy the Beams holding up the Dark Tower.
Roland's earlier years have been explored in yet another way—and appropriately enough, that exploration has been through the medium of comic books. The Dark Tower comic books springboard off the events of the fourth novel in the series, Wizard and Glass, and offer an episodic telling of Roland's transition from an inexperienced and newly-minted gunslinger not yet out of his teenage years to the hardened killer and relentless man we meet at the start of The Gunslinger.
The Dark Tower series' parallels to comic books don't simply end with the stories tying together, however. No comic book crossover is complete without characters from one story appearing in another—it's the entire reason the crossover concept works. Characters a reader might otherwise rarely see coexisting on the same page, whether working together or opposed to one another, is the allure of the crossover event. The unexpected dynamics make a fictional world feel more real, the stakes higher.
Such is the case with the Dark Tower universe. Characters regularly walk off the pages of one tie-in story and reappear in one of the main Dark Tower books. The aforementioned Ted Brautigan, for example, becomes a temporary ally of Roland in the seventh and final book of the series, along with Dinky Earnshaw, a character who first appeared in the short story "Everything's Eventual."
Other characters that made their debuts in novels that, at first, appeared to have no connection to Roland's universe go on to play vital roles in helping him on his quest. Take Father Callahan, the damned priest of Salem's Lot. He leaves both the town of Jerusalem's Lot at the end of the novel after being bitten by vampire and main antagonist Kurt Barlow. It's a departure from presumably not only that novel, but from Stephen King's universe in general. But the scrappy priest reappears in Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in the Dark Tower series. For the final three books, Callahan is so involved in the narrative that he becomes the partial fifth member of Roland's team, his ka-tet.
Strip away the fantasy and the horror and the Western elements of the Dark Tower universe and replace them with spandex and superpowers. View Roland and his main crew as the Avengers, for example, and Callahan as Spider-Man, a loner who becomes a temporary member of Team Good Guy to get the job done. Draw comparisons between the Crimson King, mad and power-hungry antagonist of the Dark Tower universe, and Darkseid, mad and power hungry villain of the DC universe. What you get is something that is looks an awful lot like a comic book event. It's not by mistake, but design, and in that design that owes so much to comic books King created one of the most complex and unique universes in all of fiction.