May 20, 2010

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Dungeon Monstres Volumes 1

Written by Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar
Illustrated by Mazan and Jean-Christophe Menu
NBM

The wily William Delacour gets out from under the curse of the Sword of Destiny while working with a band of hungry monsters and two of our friends from the Dungeon go on an adventure to help fix the broken heart of a crying giant. It's trouble times two as we see some stories behind the stories in this part of the ongoing Dungeon series by Trondheim and Sfar.

I really like the clever idea of putting together a spinoff series for Dungeon featuring the minor characters. Not everyone is going to want to read every single Dungeon story that Sfar and Trondheim want to write (I do, of course, but I'm a completist and I love the world they've designed), especially if it doesn't feature the most prominent characters. Moving them to their own book, where fans of the series can choose whether or not they want to read these side adventures, while allowing the creators to explore things like the ramification of "buying" a giant's eye, is a brilliant idea.

Neither of these stories are important to the main cannon, but they are a lot of fun. The first story is filled with the absurd humor that makes this series so enjoyable to me. A group of monsters run an inn, where they kill whoever wanders by to stay the night. The problem is that they put it too far away from anything else, and now they're starved for food. Oh, the problems of being a monster!

Meanwhile, Delacour is shown to be a swindler and a blowhard, always trying to finagle a deal out of someone, from the sword to the demon to the Dungeon Master himself. He's a horrible human being duck, but because he always loses in the end, we can laugh at him. My favorite example of his inability to see reality is when he says that the people who bought his fortune telling book (the excepts we get from it are classic) should have used it to know they were in danger. The truth of the matter is far more tragic, and gives us one of the most poignant scenes in the story.

The book itself bills the first story as that of John-John the Terror, a mild-mannered monster who gets abused for being too kind. It's very much a Sfar plot, and the more I read his stories, the more convinced I am that he, like Will Eisner, has some serious issues with women. I'll get into that further below, when I go over the second story. John-John is in love with a monster who resents him for being so nice, and I just wasn't all that interested in the concept.

After all, when one of the monsters worships a being that's a merging of Conan the Barbarian with Babar the beloved children's story figure, there's no time to waste on angst.

The second story is the first time I've read a Dungeon tale where the artist did not try to ape Trondheim's style exactly. While Mazan keeps the look and feel of the other Dungeon books I've read, Mr. Menu's work is more open. The lines are smoother, more polished. His characters emote through their faces in a way that Trondheim's cannot. They also feel a bit more solid, as though the artist is trying to make them more realistic. After so many stories in the other format, I just can't help but say that seeing the Dungeon folk look "normal" was really, really weird. I'd be curious to know what others think.

Unfortunately, I can't say that I like the story itself. There were a few moments of silliness (our pair of magicians allow themselves to die in order to escape a trap, for instance, because they lack a better idea) but the general tone of the piece falls back on the fickleness of women, a theme that Sfar has used over and over again. This time, it's Queen Sonya, who refuses to love any man who wants to treat her right. This ensnares the giant, whose eye at the Dungeon is crying because of his emotional pain.

By the time we get to the end of the story, Sonya is portrayed as a horrible person who refuses to do domestic chores (they're the perils of her castle that men must beat to be with her if they play by the rules), rebuffs actual affection, and only accepts Marvin (who gets a bum deal here I think) when he opts to love her and leave her on a regular basis. It's a frankly horrible portrayal of women, and in the end, Sonya's actions lead to multiple deaths. I didn't care for the overarching theme of this one, and I think that makes it the first Dungeon story I've disliked.

There are a few good moments, however. A set of demented smurfs make good use of a crying giant to water their fields. Alcibiades ends up with a love potion that makes him say hysterical things about himself at all the wrong moments. And Marvin's pacifist quirk does get put to good use, even if I wish he'd been left out of this one. Those moments, however, just weren't enough to save it for me.

No longer running series is going to please every reader, every time. Despite not caring for the second story in this book, I'd still recommend reading it, because the first story is good. Dungeon is a very strong concept that is still being explored. I look forward to reading more side-stories in the volumes of Monstres to come.