March 27, 2010

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Dungeon Zenith Volume 1

Written by Joan Sfar and Lewis Trondheim
Illustrated by Lewis Trondheim
NBM

The now flourishing world of Dungeon gets its start here in this book from Sfar and Trondheim. A guardian of a powerful dungeon full of monsters and treasures has a problem--someone wants to buy him out.

He seeks a strong adventurer to solve the problem, and ends up with...a duck? Soon we are following the adventures of Herbert, a duck out of water, and his unintentional guardian, Marvin the Dragon. Watch as they run into all sorts of D&D and Sword and Sorcery cliches turned on their head. Can Herbert survive this chaos and make sure his heart is in the right place?

You know the answer to that last question (sort of) by the end of this volume. I realized the other day that I needed to finish reading the Dungeon books and so I decided to go back to the beginning to see how it all started.

From the first panels, you can see that this is going to be a fun book for anyone who has ever played a role-playing game of any kind, or enjoys the exploits of everyone from Conan to Rincewind. Trondheim creates a patchwork quilt of a castle sprawling over land that has the typical village and inn (with patrons who get more than they bargained for), swamps, deserts, and weird creatures. His character designs may be primitive, but that works here. When you are dealing with characters that are blobs or Cthulhu-like capitalists, there is no right or wrong. You just go with the flow. Trondheim's inspired drawings do that perfectly.

Though I prefer his art style, I'm glad Sfar is only the co-writer here. His more realistic figures and shaky lines would not have worked for this kind of a story. I much prefer Tronheim's angular anarchy. I can't see Sfar making a Pacman ghost on steroids work the same way that his collaborator does.

Primarily, the story is a parody of the idea of a dungeon plot. We have the setup of a dungeon master who needs help and later the student in need of training as our main "quests" and on a basic level, they are solved just like they might play out on your kitchen table, if you threw out the rule book. After all, how many DMs would let a duck be the primary hero, or have a vegetarian dragon blindly follow the advice of a cruel and thuggish trainer?

The situations are similarly hilarious. Swords might have requirements, but to try and get their owner killed and possess a rotating set of spirits called upon when needed? That's almost as good as the joke of varying degrees of Robin Hoods or the idea that the Dungeon Master allows some people to win because it's good for business.

There's all kinds of little things like that in the book. You may prefer to laugh at the idea of a killer feather (think about this when the protagonist's a duck) or that a giantess would love a weakling. Personally, the idea that elephants are really robots is a particular favorite of mine.

It's easy to lose yourself in the fun of this book, and that's perfectly okay. But don't forget some of the serious undertones. Herbert comes from a family that scorns him for being different, for instance, and the way this is revealed is quite touching. Marvin may look gentle, but listen in horror to his speech to the townspeople. The lies behind a guru are a cautionary tale, as is the story of the two island nations.

Sfar's desire to add philosophical issues to his comics shows here in these kinds of scenes. (Trondheim may have serious comics, too--I've just never read them.) I don't know who did what, but these little touches remind me strongly of the questions raised in Rabbi's Cat. They might look out of place elsewhere, but in the hands of these two creators, they fit right in to the world they've created. It's a place J.M. DeMatteis would find comfortable exploring, as he is usually good at this type of tale as well.

I wrote in 2006 that this is a parody series that holds its own, and I think that's accurate. Fans of either Sfar or Trondheim should definitely explore the world of Dungeon, as should those who like a mixture of silly and serious storytelling. It's easy to get locked in this dungeon, and I recommend you join me in it!