Monday, July 4, 2022

Some thoughts on the new version of Dungeon: Twilight from NBM

I've said it before: Dungeon (or Donjon, in the original French) is my all-time favorite comics series. For the uninitiated, it's masterminded by L'Association founders Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. Trondheim and Sfar combined to create a cartoony, anthropomorphic character design style that's a little grittier than Trondheim's usual style and a little more stylized than Sfar's. The central characters are an idiotic duck named Herbert and a philosophical but brutal strongman named Marvin. The genre is high fantasy, using every trope and trick in the book with regard to quests, epic adventures, spells, wizards, monsters, treasure, etc. you can imagine. What makes the series special is that it's simultaneously an irreverent send-up of all of these tropes and a loving tribute to them. It's akin to the most ridiculous D&D campaign imaginable with ridiculous characters who nonetheless have a job to do. 

In French comics, serialization is in the form of approximately 48-page albums. The Dungeon series began with volume one of the Zenith storyline, introducing Herbert and Marvin and featuring the titular dungeon at the height of its success. As Trondheim and Sfar continued along, they asked: what if we skipped ahead to volume 101 of the series? What would be happening then? The result is the Dungeon: Twilight series of albums, where Herbert is the all-powerful and evil Grand Khan and Marvin is the Dust King and wishes only to die. The first volume of this series is #101! Then they imagined: what would the story be like if they went back in time to the beginning of the Dungeon, focusing on the original wizard master and where he came from? That would be Dungeon: The Early Years, featuring Hyacinth, who would become the creator of the Dungeon and its tower, and that volume started off at -99 and counted its way up to 1! Of course, neither artist intends to produce all of the volumes. They did ten volumes of Zenith, six volumes of Early Years (which skipped around, going from -99 to -97 and then to -84, -83, and -81. In Twilight, it goes from 101 - 106, and then 111 and 112. To date, 25 volumes relating to this storyline have been published, as well as another 28 volumes telling stories of side characters, early side stories featuring Herbert and Marvin, more stories of the far future and past, and other oddities. That's over 2500 pages of comics, most drawn by artists other than Trondheim, but that's a crazy level of output for one world!

This is a densely-plotted series of interconnected epics with dozens of characters, but one that's also easy to follow because it mostly focuses on a few key ones in each set of stories. Translating Trondheim's comics has always been somewhat thorny, because American audiences don't always take to his funny animal style of art and dry sense of humor. NBM, who's been translating European comics for well over forty years, tried a few different ways of translating these comics. First, they tried a black & white (grayscaled) version of this in comic book form, which no one much liked. Second, they started combining two volumes at a time in a smaller, almost digest-sized form. This was at least in full color, but the frequently intricate art was shrunk so much that it was hard to read, especially since they're also pretty wordy. 

At last, however, NBM has made the wise choice of reprinting the series again, this time at something approaching the original scale. Even better, they're packing four albums into one collection at a time, making them highly dense 200-page volumes. I just read the first collection for Twilight, and the result was a version that simply breathes better. Trondheim drew the first half of this volume, and much of his art has always depended on negative space: pauses, vistas, quiet moments that the art emphasizes. Printing it at the correct size helps this, and also helps when there's a lot of dialogue. 

And with a new character, a rabbit named Marvin the Red, there's a lot of chattiness. This Marvin eventually befriends the original Marvin, much to the latter's chagrin, since he's done with fighting and everything except going to the dragon burial grounds and dying. However, that's not in the cards for him, so he confronts his old friend Herbert. In Zenith, Herbert acquired a legendary sword that was a pain in the ass, and it talked about sending him on a quest for other legendary objects. In Twilight, we learn that he completed the quest, but at great cost: he took all of their evil into himself and became the tyrannical Grand Khan. Marvin was tired of living after his own years of battle, tearing out his eyes rather than see his own children because of religious customs. 

Then Trondheim and Sfar make the bold move of inflicting doomsday on his characters, as they now have to hop from island to island. Sfar is the artist for the first three chapters, the only ones he drew for any of the series. The husband and wife team of Kerascoet handle the art duties on the last chapter, and it's not quite as good as the ideal version of the characters that Sfar draws. There's a little too much texture in the line art, a little too much detail, and it's distracting at times. However, once one settles into their style, the story is flexible enough to adjust to this change and there are fewer distractions. 

Marvin the Red is the breakout superstar of this story. He's mean, stupid, and violent. He's also loving and loyal. He does anything he can to protect the Dust King and his little bat friend. He's absolutely fearless in the face of great danger. He's also a lover and a cad, romancing several women at once. Of course, he has no guile or skill, and he gets taken advantage of as much as he's just trying to get into their pants, but it's one of the funniest things about Marvin. He's a wonderful send-up of Conan-like barbarian characters. 

The ideal world would see each volume published separately, in English, with precisely the same coloring and line resolution. This collection doesn't have that. Sometimes, the resolution looks a bit wobbly. All that said, this is still a vast improvement over past attempts, and my hope is that sales are brisk enough to give the same treatment not just to Dungeon, but to other Trondheim books. Fantagraphics only published one volume of Ralph Azham before Kim Thompson died, and this kind of series seems ideal for NBM to publish if they get the rights. 

Dungeon is bawdy, bloody, raucous, contemplative, tragic, and triumphant. It's a series of interlocking storytelling puzzles in the tradition of Carl Barks. It's a love letter to fantasy fiction and even roleplaying games. It's a devastating satire of all of these things, all at the same time. Any fan of fantasy comics or fiction at any level will enjoy both its reverence and irreverence, often on the same page or even the same panel. NBM has published an omnibus for Twilight, Zenith, and Early Years. Hopefully, they will finish those out and then turn to Dungeon: Monsters, Dungeon: Parade, and untranslated work like Dungeon: Antipodes. 

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