Dungeon: Zenith Vol 1 – Duck Heart
[Four and a half stars]
Writer: Lewis Trondheim
Artist: Joann Sfar
Publisher: NBM Press
The fantasy genre has had its fair share of cliches that date back to much before the time an English professor wrote about kindly creatures with names that rhymed with “rabbit”. This shows tellingly in the endless trilogies and pentalogies that are churned out, each following the same set of archaic rules, the same faux-medieval setting. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for people to start lampooning these concepts and the likes of Terry Pratchett have made comedic fantasy an art-form in itself. But the appeal of a fantasy parody is double-edged; in order to truly get the satirical impact of a cleverly-placed reference, you have to familiarize yourself with the clichÃ©s first. Comedic fantasy therefore becomes a hybrid sub-sub-genre, destined to be appreciated by the same insular clique that appreciates the setup.
Someone ought to tell Lewis Trondheim about the rules he is breaking withÂ Dungeon. Trondheim, one of the stars of the comic Small Press movement of the nineties in Europe (along with the likes of Marjane Satrapi and David B), has had a prolific track record ”“ more than one hundred albums in the first 15 years of his career, rendered all the more ironic by his self-professed inability to draw. His oeuvre covers multiple genres, and inÂ Dungeon, he teams up with Joann Sfar, another of the new-wave Franco-Belgian artists, among Time magazine’s chosen Comic Book Innovators. The series falls squarely into the “all-ages/fantasy/comedy” section, and the first arc introduces us to the primary characters in this loony universe.
Dungeon begins in, well, a dungeon, one that is owned by a fowl (pun intended) Dungeon Keeper. The dungeon is home to a number of exotic treasures and bloodthirsty characters ”“ gorgons, vampires, trolls, killer dwarfs and, in the Keeper’s words, ‘enough skeletons to play knuckle-dusters till Armageddon’ ”“ All of which exist for one reason: to attract heroes from all around the world to come and indulge in adventure, to test themselves against these well-managed, regulated hordes of monsters. In short, just the sort of kitschy setting you would expect a heroic fantasy tale to play out. But the loony premise of the story becomes apparent when a duck named Herbert of Craftiwich picks up a dead hero’s talking sword and proceeds to impersonate him on a quest, tailed by a violent warrior named Malvin the Dragon. The two proceed to team up, even though the only thing they really have in common is that they’re both vegetarians (and hence, both are impervious to a peculiar curse that gives life to the meat in one’s intestines).
This first collection of tales inÂ Dungeon ”“ and there are many more prequels and sequels, and no particular ending in sight ”“ is about Herbert the Duck, who does not really want much out of life, but has to learn how to become a warrior to survive in his violent world. Much hilarity ensues from the workings of the enchanted sword that Herbert wears ”“ he cannot take it off, and anyone else touching it leads to ludicrous results. Herbert’s adventures lead him to graduate from a hysterical wannabe hero to an expert warrior, who can fight his way through 10,020 monster-guarded doors using a wooden stick and a feather (Out of necessity, not by choice ”“ he can only wield his enchanted sword after he has completed three quests using his bare hands).
Malvin the Dragon, the other protagonist of the series is the opposite of the reluctant Herbert. He gleefully dispatches of creatures that come in his way with the only exception being the ones that insult him ”“ his religion forbids him from hitting anyone in that category. His draconic instincts come to the fore when he eats a particular breed of blue mushrooms, which give him indigestion and cause him to belch a spectacular fireball (accompanied by the sound effect “Tong Deum!”)
But Trondheim has a great way of taking you unawares, just as you think you are getting into the everything-is-funny spirit of the book. A sequence in the second story, featuring Herbert being trained by Malvin’s martial-arts master, involves him having to train an island filled with peace-loving shepherds for an eventual battle. While he is aware that his fellow-trainee Henry the Mouse is hard at work converting the inhabitants ofÂ his island for war, Herbert passes his days among the people contentedly, adopting their ways and refusing to change them in any way. This continues until the day they are all slaughtered by Henry’s army. This is probably the most poignant this story gets, becoming the furthest one can get from the concept of the violent fantasy protagonist. The two-page sequence on the island comes as a surprising interlude in this otherwise straightforward book.
The diverse plot-lines come together at the end, resolved in the most Wodehousian feel-good way possible. This is a story that does notÂ try to be funny ”“ it just is, mostly due to the no-frills artwork of Joann Sfarr that goes a long way in establishing the whimsical nature of this world. Marked by a very European aesthetic, he renders anthropomorphic animals with clean, precise line-work and lush colouring. It’s surprising to see how diverse he manages to make the characters of theÂ Dungeon world, be it a bunch of impolite pub-going rabbits in a village, or a slimy character like the Bermaw that expands indefinitely and takes over everything around it, or even blink-and-miss side-characters, like two monster guards named ‘Stitches’ and ‘Grubby’.
Much has been made out of the all-ages accessibility ofÂ Dungeon, and I have to admit that the book does not falter in this aspect at any point. A non-fantasy reader will still appreciate the humour and the standalone storytelling, involving laugh-out-aloud modern-day analogies, like when Herbert and Malvin infiltrate a lair of evil Hooded ones posing as flamboyant interior decorators (the villains are tired of the same morbid setting in their crypt meetings). A fantasy connoisseur will giggle silently at the multiple Dungeons and Dragons send-offs, like when the Keeper’s harried CEO-level presentations and his efforts to prevent hostile takeovers of his enterprise.
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