Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Knots Tying Knots: Dungeon Zenith, Volume 3

Rob reviews the latest collection of translations from the DUNGEON: ZENITH series, BACK IN STYLE (volume 3), by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar and Boulet (NBM).

The third volume of the english translation of DUNGEON has been long-awaited, but I wouldn't recommend reading it until one has reread the first two volumes. The saga becomes increasingly plot-heavy here and immediately follows the events of the last volume. There are some ways in which the fantasy send-up/homage by Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar reminds me a bit of Jeff Smith's BONE. Both started their series on extremely lighthearted notes and spent a number of pages carefully establishing character relationships. Once Smith spent a couple of years doing that, it was off to the races with a quest, action scenes, plot twists and the like. He had earned his audience's trust before he simply shipped his characters all off into their wars by carefully but casually dropping mysterious clues as well as seeing them interact in a mundane matter. We knew each character's quirks, desires and loves as well as the ways in which they interacted with each other, which made the conflicts they wound up later all the more involving.

DUNGEON's first volume (with each volume collecting two of the original French albums) introduces us to an anthropomorphic duck named Herbert and a peculiar lizard named Marvin. Herbert's a smartass dungeon flunky and Marvin's a fierce but quirky warrior, and the whims of fate throw them together. Their hijinks manage to simultaneously parody sword 'n sorcery stories while at the same time put together a startlingly intricate, straight-faced fantasy epic. Seemingly trivial or even farcical details from these stories either have complicated backstories (explored in the Early Years stories) or have serious ramifications in later years (as detailed in the Twilight stories). The "main" narrative, or the "Zenith" story, mixes humor with action, making neither seem out of place.

That said, there's a certain grimness to be found in the two stories in BACK IN STYLE where one can begin to see how Herbert and Marvin wind up in such dire circumstances in the future. That's felt in the Keeper being kicked out of his own dungeon at the end of the first story (after a series of cleverly designed action pieces that ramped up the tension and the stakes in succession) and Herbert returning to his home city and finding a deadly welcome in the second. Both stories have a downbeat, uncertain ending--a far cry from the more neatly tied-off story threads in earlier volumes. Despite the intricacies of the plot, building on dozens of story developments from prior volumes, these stories work because of the way Sfar & Trondheim found every aspect of the story on character relationships.

Herbert and Marvin are obviously the foundational relationship of the series, but the interactions between Herbert and his oily nemesis Delacor established a delightful, mutual aggravation. Delacor's general sliminess (hiring a lawyer to seize the dungeon) made him a source of friction for everyone he encountered. The ass-kicking princess, Isis, was another interesting catalyst in the way she prodded Herbert and moved so easily in the company of thieves. The dungeon Keeper himself emerges as a sympathetic character, taking on a paternal quality to his minions when he realized he was about to lose it all. Herbert's parents are introduced in this volume, and their complicated relationship with him adds another layer of intrigue to what was once a seemingly simple parody character. Even seemingly incidental characters like the postman Pollyplume, a sad sack thrust willingly into an exciting new life, add
new perspectives to the saga.

The most startling change to be found in this volume is that Trondheim passed on the art duties to Boulet. For the most part, Boulet stays faithful to the character design that Trondheim established. However, the quality of his line is much slicker and clearer than Trondheim's slightly ramshackle line. The effect is a jarring one; the idiosyncratic nature of Trondheim's art was a perfect fit for the slightly off-kilter nature of a saga that was half serious and half joking. Boulet doesn't really try to make funny drawings; even ridiculous scenes have a slickness to them that takes a while to get used to. I almost would have preferred an artist try a completely different approach (like in the Dungeon: Monstres side-series) than this sort of hybrid approach. That said, Boulet did quickly master drawing a cast of thousands and really is a master at propelling adventure stories forward. The sequence where Herbert and his friends escape from a tavern by taking to the rooftops and eventually flying away was a particular highlight, a spectacular and visceral set of panels that perfectly balance drama and wisecracks.

Despite missing Trondheim's line, the Sfar/Trondheim duo did not disappoint in this latest volume, taking crazy story risks and throwing in plot twists and character reversals at the drop of a hat. DUNGEON remains my favorite genre-related series of all time, and anything that helps new volumes appear more quickly is fine by me. If Boulet is going to be the regular artist for Zenith from now on, it'll be interesting to see how he adjusts his style in future volumes.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! Dungeon is my all-time favorite series (I do believe) and I am dying to check out the latest in the Zenith run.

    (Same Hat)