Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dream Team: Dungeon The Early Years, Volume 2

Rob reviews the second volume translation of the Dungeon: The Early Years, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar and Christophe Blain (NBM).

Twenty-four volumes of the various DUNGEON books have been translated into English by the stalwarts at NBM, reprinted at smaller size in twelve editions. That leaves thirteen volumes still to be translated, with the Trondheim/Sfar team at this point writing the books and leaving the art to a variety of people. In addition to the three main storylines (Early Years, Zenith and Twilight), most of the untranslated volumes are in the miscellaneous "Monsters" category--stories that fill in cracks between other stories. Trondheim and Sfar love playing around with time jumping; indeed, in this translated edition, we go from volume -97 (of a lighthearted series that began at -99, reflecting the "early" notion of this story) to volume -84. That second story, "After The Rain", is a much more grim depiction of our hero, Hyacinthe, the future Dungeon keeper of the Zenith books.

One of my favorite trends in comics over the past five years has been the concerted effort made to translate Sfar and Trondheim's work into English and the way in which audiences have responded. Kim Thompson at Fantagraphics tried to do this a decade again with full-color translations of two books in the Lapinot (in English: McConey) series and then several issues of a Trondheim grab-bag series called THE NIMROD. The latter had some of Trondheim's best and most unusual work, but with the decline in the overall comics market and comics that didn't have any kind of genre-related hook, that series didn't do well. For the McConey books, it was proof that Americans just don't like the French album format. Those slice-of-life books were easily approachable and witty, but simply didn't draw readers in.

NBM took up the torch first with a black-and-white series that translated DUNGEON, ASTRONAUTS OF THE FUTURE and some McConey stories. With the rise of the graphic novel in bookstores and libraries, they switch over to smaller-format, full color translations, a strategy that has worked wonderfully. First Second came along and has translated close to a dozen works involving Trondheim or Sfar. Fantagraphics will be getting back in the game by finally publishing Trondheim's autobio classic APPROXIMATIVEMENT, most likely next year. There's still a ton of Trondheim work to be translated: VENETIAN BLIND, more LI'L SANTA, more TINY TYRANT, comics involving monsters & dinosaurs, and some more cutting-edge material. It's become clear that Trondheim & Sfar's genre material has found an audience, one that continues to grow.

A highlight of the Early Years story is the third member of this artistic dream team, Christophe Blain. With his SPEED ABATER, and ISAAC THE PIRATE books, he's proven himself as an artist who creates imaginative and exciting action scenarios. His art for DUNGEON combines the charming character design of Trondheim with a fluidity of movement that results in a work that's both funny and thrilling. Trondheim's art in the series was always better suited to more satirical stories (even when they were darker in tone), but with Blain we get the rush of adventure along with affectionate jabs at genre.

The first story in the volume, the aptly-titled "Innocence Lost", sees the ramifications of Hyacinthe's romantic dalliance with the serpentine assassin Alexandra. Manipulated into killing a man, Hyacinthe starts down a slippery slope from being a noble avenger of wrongs (as The Nightshirt) to a cynical aristocrat leading a double life as the head of the assassin's guild. Through it all, his real concern is his doomed romance, and this is another area where Blain truly excels. His GUS AND HIS GANG book was a similar mix of action and dead-end romance, and Blain was able to create pathos with a character who had been a mix of walking comic relief and hubris. The character's design, as a diminutive and cute anthropomorphic bird, made this especially challenging for Blain. By the end of the story, when we see Hyacinthe dress up in his Nightshirt outfit but see him visit Alexandra instead of going after criminals, it's clear that our protagonist has allowed his entire moral code to lapse for the sake of his love.

The second story is a much grimmer one and covers the eventual ramifications of his actions. Hyacinthe and Alexandra don't marry, and he keeps up appearances by marrying someone that his lover murders. As the story opens, the human price just paid for his double life suddenly become much clearer, and is complicated by a plot contrivance that forces him to deal with the woman he now both loves and hates. That contrivance (the potential destruction of the city thanks to faulty construction) is an entertaining side-story of its own, thanks to the almost robotic ruthlessness of Professor Cormor. He's the man trying to stop the construction who turns to Alexandra, who in turn agrees to help him if he'll help her get back with Hyacinthe. Things eventually go horribly awry, winding up with a downbeat ending that signals the beginning of what would become Hyacinthe's rule as the Dungeon Keeper.

This volume marked the first time I wished that NBM could have kept the larger page format. There are some spectacular action scenes that felt cramped shrunk down to a smaller size, and other pages crammed with panels that felt similarly claustrophobic. A lot of darker colors were used in this volume, which made those pages feel a bit muddy at times as well. In an ideal world, we'd get an "absolute edition" of DUNGEON on oversized pages and nice paper, but as a reader I'm grateful that we're getting this much Trondheim & Sfar in English. Trondheim and Sfar have taken the series into greatness by refusing to repeat themselves and have instead upped their degree of difficulty with ever-more complex plots and nuanced characterizations. DUNGEON has gone from being a bit of a lark to one of the greatest genre series of all time, affectionately spoofing and celebrating not just fantasy, but the investment of a reader into a world of fantasy.

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