Friday, May 8, 2015

Tying Up Knots: Dungeon Twilight Volume 4

The Lewis Trondheim/Joann Sfar epic series, Dungeon, was finally tied up with a frenetic, over-the-top conclusion that lived up to the many prior volumes. These books are best read back-to-back, because there are so many characters and plot twists that it's hard to crack open a new volume and be expected to remember everything--especially six chapters into this story. Dungeon has always been Sfar and Trondheim's fantasy playground series, wherein they get to play around with genre conventions while gently tweaking them at the same time. The heart of the series surrounds lazy duck Herbert and badass dragon Marvin; their ascent began in the "Zenith" series of the Dungeon books. The origins of the fully-stocked Dungeon were told in the "Early Years" series. While the authors jokingly noted that there would be a hundred volumes in each series, they wound up producing a still incredibly-impressive forty volumes, when you throw in the various Monstres, Parade and other affiliated series.

The first of two collected volumes in the 4th volume of NBM's Dungeon Twilight collection is titled High Septentrion. Essentially, Sfar and Trondheim caused the end of the world in previous volumes, seemingly as a way for them to come up with one of their never-ending storytelling solutions to thorny plot twists. The genius of the Dungeon series is that each chapter's plot-dependent twist is inevitably a wacky gag that is nonetheless treated with deadly seriousness. In this case, the twist is wiry rabbit warrior Marvin the Red continually switching bodies with the zaftig cat-woman Zakutu. The reason why is so that some objects of power stay safe, but it allows Sfar and Trondheim to go nuts with Marvin fondling his new body at every opportunity. The other thing that made this series great was not just the frenzied action (there's actually an incredibly tense climax in this book) or the wacky gags, but the way Sfar & Trondheim cleverly developed every character. There's a density of character built up through book after book that makes the denouement of this book especially pleasant, as a changed Zakutu and Marvin the Red go off to find adventure together. The artist Alfred handled the visuals in this story, hewing close to the character designs set down by Trondheim but adding bits of flair here and there.

Of course, the real heart of the series is Herbert and Marvin the Dragon. They are the stars of the final volume, The End Of Dungeon. It's a worthy final entry, as the two old friends fight together and against each other, get captured, pull of an incredible escape and finally finish off the "Dark Entity" that caused them so much trouble. The exact plot details are incredibly convoluted for any newcomers, but suffice it to say that there's not only a satisfying ending, there's also a lovely coda about the nature of fame worthy of Shelley. Once again, all of that is less important than the focus on the two main characters and the genuine affection they share for each other over many years. Sfar and Trondheim also slip in an extended bathroom joke that fits in perfectly with the frequently vulgar humor the series has always possessed. That's been a key element in their spoofing the fantasy genre: establishing their characters as human (or anthropomorphic animals, as the case may be), with human desires, frailties and physical qualities. These quests are based in mud and dirt and all the characters are essentially bags of meat and bones, all of which will fade away. That sense that everything great will eventually come to a bitter end, that there's no such thing as an ending (happy or otherwise), adds a sense of pervading sadness to the proceedings. Serving up the tart with the sweetness of comedy and action is another reason why Dungeon is the greatest genre series of all time.

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