Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Post: Tomb of Horrors: Dungeon Quest, Volume 2

Joe Daly's comics are an unequivocal delight. The second volume of his role playing/video game send-up and tribute, Dungeon Quest, is a visual feast from beginning to end. Of course, this feast may be mere junk food, but his sheer commitment to the adventurous reality that his characters encounter makes the reader care about the most ridiculous of scenarios. This volume is actually far more straightforward as an adventure story than the first volume. It's much less meta, for one thing; a new reader would have no clue that the story began when main hero Millennium Boy blows off his homework in search of adventure in his suburb. By the time we reach the forest depicted in volume 2, it's as though he and his party have entered a completely different world.

Dungeon Quest is visually exciting for two reasons. First, Daly lavishes a tremendous amount of attention and detail on action, backgrounds and setting. The forest is densely hatched and cross-hatched, the vegetation is given loving detail, the monsters are vividly drawn and in constant motion. Second, the characters themselves are drawn in a cartoony style that draws the eye to them immediately. Their faces in particular couldn't be any simpler: dots for eyes, a line for a mouth, and a squiggle for a nose. That simplicity leaves lots of white space in the area of the characters' faces, naturally drawing in the eye to focus in on them. That one technique makes every fight easy to follow, no matter how dense the action.

While there's less of the languid, stoner sort of humor in this volume, that's not to say that there's not a lot of laughs to be found. Daly likes to employ a matter of fact and visceral crudeness in his stories, from a message capsule flying out of one character's anus during a fight to basic bathroom humor presaging a clash with giant spiders. In-between combat, Daly has his characters engage in information-processing in the form of stoner/slacker humor. The party gets stoned one night while contemplating their adventures, hoping that they will get even better weed and more elaborate pipes in the future. After another fight, one character gets high on cocaine and starts bullying another party member, until Millennium Boy talks him down. The dialogue is incongruous with the deadly seriousness of the fights themselves yet fits in nicely with the world Daly has created. At heart, every adventurer in a RPG is a bored person who's looking to explore their world.

World-building and exploration of a space is at the core of Dungeon Quest. In an excellent and revealing interview with Tom Spurgeon, Daly reveals the debt he owes to Fort Thunder cartoonists like Mat Brinkman and Brian Ralph. Books like Climbing Out and Teratoid Heights feature simple characters with simple motivations who explore spaces and deal with the creatures they find. By fusing this idea more deliberately with the video game aesthetic that's also a driving force behind this comic, Daly creates an experience that mimics the experience of driving a character or characters through their world, down to the acquisition and cataloging of objects as well as "leveling up" after a major fight. While the characters are experiencing the rush of exploring ancient ruins and completing quests, there's also the sense that they are experiencing and commenting on this experience the way a video game player might. While the encounters and fights are serious, Daly infuses the whole comic with a sense of absurdism, from the nature of one of their quests (to assemble an Atlantean resonator guitar), to the silly name of the objects they pick up. That interview notes that Daly wants each volume to have its own distinct feel, with some being devoted to fights and others indulging in more humor (and one would guess, meta-humor). It's clear that this volume is one that was all about fights, and there are indications that the next volume will be more talky. While there are a number of alt-comics fantasy series being published these days (with Trondheim & Sfar's Dungeon the best), Daly's fusion of underground comics sensibilities with the blunt directness of the video game playing experience is unique and leaves the reader wanting more.

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