Exploring the Dungeon

I’ve been meaning to talk about the Dungeon series of comics for some time now, but I wanted to re-read the whole thing first, and I’m glad I did. I finished up yesterday (with the current releases), so here we go.

Dungeon is a series of comics (available in English from NBM) written by French comics heroes Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. There are a variety of artists on the different volumes.

In general it’s a sort of high-fantasy spoof in a world of talking animals. This is only one of the things about it which could potentially confuse readers, and which I’m here to set straight. Because even though it’s got wit and light humor and a main character who is an anthropomorphic duck (confirming the Barks-Gerber Theorem that talking ducks are hilarious), it is not a kids’ series. Not by far. Along the way there is plenty of sex, nudity, graphic violence, rape, torture, and many other things that young children should only see in videogames, if at all. There’s also humor (of the silly, scatological, and adult varieties), suspense, surprises, and fantastic characters.

The other potentially confusing thing about this series is that it’s broken into five pieces, each of which contains multiple volumes. This isn’t helped by the fact that at least one of the series tells events out of chronological order. It’s not obvious where to start, and in what order to go, but I think I can help out by explaining what each is and giving a suggested order in which to read.

Zenith (currently three volumes) — This is the place to begin. You’re introduced to the Dungeon itself, which is a huge sprawling fortress filled with monsters and treasure, run by the Dungeon Keeper as a business. Adventurers come seeking fame and glory, most of them are killed by the monsters, and the Dungeon keeps their stuff. We are introduced to Herbert, the hapless duck who finds himself having to fill in as a barbarian and begins his training as a fierce warrior. There’s also Marvin, the dragon who accompanies Herbert. In addition you meet the staff of the Dungeon: the Keeper, Alcibades the wizard, Horus the necromancer, and a number of others. This is the fun, funny stuff.

The Early Years (currently two volumes) — This series looks at the Dungeon Keeper, Hyacinthe, as a youth. He goes from being a child depending on the kindness of an unkind relative to a crusading vigilante to…well, I shouldn’t say any more. Presumably eventually he creates the Dungeon (you see the beginnings of it developing here) but it hasn’t gotten there yet. This is a slightly darker series that takes a character you already know from Zenith and adds a ton of depth and humanity to him, without sacrificing anything you already know.

Twilight (currently three volumes) — Things get potentially confusing here, but stick with it. At some point in the future, after the events of Zenith, Herbert has become the Great Khan, evil all-powerful overlord of Terra Amata (the planet on which this all takes place). Marvin’s location is unknown, and the Dungeon itself is the Great Khan’s fortress. In addition, the planet has stopped turning, making life only possible along a narrow band circumscribing Terra Amata, called “Twilight”. None of how this came to be is explained, though a lot of it the reader gradually pieces together. Not only is the tone in these books way darker, the pacing is very odd, and important events happen off-panel, including an event of major importance. But stick with it, because…

Monstres (currently four volumes) — This series is billed as “great adventures of secondary characters”, and there is some of that, but there is also much more. In fact, this series fills in a LOT of gaps in the above, especially in Twilight. Basically, after you’ve read the above three series, you will probably have some questions, but a lot of them are answered here (well, enough are answered to make you realize that Trondheim and Sfar really do have a plan here and you’re in good hands.) The event I mention happening off panel above is completely fleshed out here.

Parade (currently two volumes) — Parade takes place, according to the books, between volumes one and two of Zenith. They’re Herbert-and-Marvin centered, and are more like the lighthearted tone of that series. They’re pretty much self-contained, one-shot stories, and thus can be read at practically any point.

If I have made this sound even more daunting, I apologize and ask you to reconsider, because these are some excellent books. The writing is sharp and funny (and dense! These slim volumes take longer to read than it might seem because so much is packed into them) but also touching and mature. The characters start out light and silly but gradually get solid layers of depth added to them as the saga unfolds. And the art throughout the series is top-notch, featuring a variety French comics luminaries (including Trondheim and Sfar themselves.)

I highly recommend this series to all fans of solid comics. It really is a treasure.

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3 Responses to Exploring the Dungeon

  1. T. Derscheid says:

    I remember seeing a volume of this and skimming it. Seemed great but I didn’t know enough of the backstory.

    Thanks, Dave!

  2. roomtemp says:

    Three books of the Zenith series ordered. Thanks for the rec.

  3. joncormier says:

    I randomly stumbled across these series at the library and was really happy I picked them up. But you’re right about the potential for confusion. It’s both confusing and straightforward to put the series together for some reason. This was also the series that made me realize that there really needs to be more BD translated for me – comics that don’t easily fit into a category are pretty much the comics I want.