April 13, 2010

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Dungeon The Early Years Volume 1

Written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim
Illustrated by Christophe Blain
NBM

You've seen the Dungeon, but have you really met its occupants? Here's the story of Keeper, long before he became the miserly curmudgeon we've grown to know and love. Watch as he leaves his comfortable home and learns that the wider world is full of malice.

As the Keeper tries to learn at his uncle's knee while trying not to to become as corrupt as those around him, the pieces of his future life start to fall into place. Can he avenge by night the wrongs he witnesses by day?

I wasn't sure what to expect out of this, as it's one of the Dungeon books I didn't read a few years ago. Working backward like this can often be a tricky business, as it requires squeezing things in to fit a prior story. I think our two collaborators manage it very well, however, by keeping things set so far in the past it's hard to infringe on the "current" times of the Zenith books.

This book has the same irreverent tone as the others in the series, with a joke about the comic written right into the first few pages. The Keeper is little better than Herbert at being a hero, often falling off roofs and ending up in exactly the wrong circumstances. (So perhaps this explains why he tolerates him?) His attempts to be a hero are touching, but often ill-fated and completely hysterical. I love when he's trying to get a name and the reactions of the other characters.

It's the elves, though, that steal the show here, whenever they appear. More like Gnomes in my opinion (a translation error?), they treat the Keeper like a hero, and honor him just because he tries to be nice to them. His kindness is later his salvation, in more than one scene. The lesson is not lost on the reader, but it's not hammered home, either. I really like how Trondheim and Sfar weave morality into the books without preaching.

Most of the book focuses on the Keeper's problems with the world around him. He can't seem to handle the way things operate in the city. His world is conflicted, as he must partake of the corruption by day and try to make it right (as best he can) by night. He's the avatar of a lot of us, I think, who want to make the world a better place but often feel unable to do anything. His Zorro-like conversion in the evenings a fantasy, of course, but who hasn't wanted to take maters into their own hands?

The main difference here is that Sfar and Trondheim know that doing so is really not possible, and make it as hard on the Keeper as they can. He might be able to win some victories (after all, this is a fictional world with magic, to boot), but they're never complete. The Keeper must learn that sometimes, evil wins no matter what. It's just the sort of complication that makes the Dungeon series rise above the level of a parody and shows how good they are at putting together a modern story.

Like other Sfar characters, the Keeper loves the wrong woman, and she's sure to harm him badly in the end. She's part of the immoral cast that surrounds him in the city, and yet he cannot see how bad she really is. I'll be curious to see how that plays out in future installments of this part of the Dungeon series. There's a lot of relationship issues in this volume, and I tend think of that as being Sfar's territory. Unlike Vampire Loves, however, I think it works better here because it's part of the story, not the primary focus.

Christophe Blain does his best to keep the art consistent with Trondheim, though his style is definitely of a better quality. Our characters have more of a three-dimensional feel to them. I really appreciate them trying to make the world look similar, however. As with Vertigo's Fables series, I think the artistic connections help make imagining the world a lot easier.

One word of warning to those who've read only the main books: This chapter, at least, is a lot more vulgar than its predecessors. The Sexual innuendo is blatant and the tone is far darker, possibly even more than in the Twilight volumes. If you're reading this with a younger audience, you might want to preview it first.

Dungeon The Early Years is every bit as good as the rest of the books in the series that I've read so far. If you like the main books, definitely give this a look-see. You can even start here, if you want, because there's not a lot of connections between this and the Zenith world, at least not yet. Sfar and Trondheim are innovative and imaginative creators. Those who like stories with both humor and a point will find a lot to love in The Earl Years.