Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #171: Demon by Jason Shiga (4 volumes)

When religious people talk about the dangers of pure scientism, they're talking about Jimmy Yee. Maybe a bit about his creator, Jason Shiga, too.

But Yee is the poster boy for why believing in only what you can prove is really, really bad: he murders an appreciable fraction of the entire human race during this story, mostly because he sees no reason not to. And the only possible ethical justification is that, most of the time, he's only killing himself.

Without getting into the traditional arguments against suicide, I think we can all agree that killing yourself is at the very least generally less bad than killing someone else. But what if every time you kill yourself, you also kill someone else by taking over their body?

Demon is a very Jason Shiga comic, which is to say it takes a particular premise and then inexorably rolls out all of the entirely logical consequences of that that premise, leaving human feeling (except for a certain glee in destruction and mayhem) entirely out of the equation. The worldview here is a kind of happy nihilism: nothing matters, everything is disposable, and that's wonderful for our viewpoint character.

Or, to put it another way: Demon is Miracleman #15 from the viewpoint of Kid Miracleman, going on for several hundred years.

Actually, that's another thing that's annoyingly cartoony about Demon: it goes on for well over two hundred years, but society and technology don't change in the slightest. Oops, that might be a spoiler.

I should probably explain all of those disjointed thoughts.

OK. This long, multi-volume graphic novel [1] opens with Jimmy Yee, in a cheap motel room. He hangs himself. He wakes up in bed in the same cheap motel room, and slits his wrists in the bathtub.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And kills himself with the gun he finds in a drawer.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And takes an overdose of pills.

And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And runs out into traffic to be hit by a semi.

And wakes up in Intensive Care, with the truck driver's daughter crying over him. And manages to go for several hours without killing himself.

Eventually, Yee figures it out: he's a demon. (Why a "demon?" Metafictionally, for shock value on Shiga's part. In-universe, it just seems to be the word Yee randomly fell upon to describe himself.) When he dies, he instantaneously takes over the body of whoever is closest to him. He wasn't waking up in the same motel room -- he was serially possessing, and then killing, every single person staying at that motel.

There are a few other rules to his demonic self -- and it turns out to be a SFnal rather than fantasy explanation, as one would expect from Shiga -- which come out in time. But that's basically it: live forever, take over other bodies when you die, do whatever you want without consequences as long as you can find a way to kill yourself.


The Javert to Yee's Valjean is "Agent Hunter, OSS," part of a super-secret US government operation designed to control and utilize demons...of which Yee is the only one when the OSS finds him. (OK, it's not quite that dumb, but it's close -- Shiga is rolling out complications at speed and not worrying a lot about how plausible any of them are.) As usual, Shiga is good on complications and logical extrapolation and sometimes shaky on worldbuilding -- "but what if" is generally good enough for him.

Hunter wants to use Yee, and any other demons there may be -- and Shiga isn't going to let the opportunity to add more baroque complications pass him by -- for a grandiose and supposedly humanitarian purpose. But, of course, to do that, he needs to set up fiendishly complicated control structures to keep Yee confined.

And it's that fiendish complication, both of control and of breakthrough, that Shiga really cares about. Demon is not about what it's like to live forever, to be be able to be anyone, it's about how to do the seemingly impossible using just the demon ability. Even when having the demon ability would let one find more elegant and interesting ways to solve problems, Demon always comes down to "kill lots and lots of people, often but not always yourself repeatedly." Yes, Yee does have his Sad Jaded Immortal moments, since those are required of any story like this, but at least Shiga gets them over with quickly.

What Shiga does take joy in is those complications, and the megadeath is really just a way of keeping score -- for all the gore and horrible things here, Shiga's cartoony art and relentless eye for a weirder, more complicated way to keep demons out or fight their way in is what makes it exciting and fun.

It's a borderline sociopathic kind of fun, admittedly. But it is fun nonetheless.

I don't think the ending entirely makes sense -- Shiga makes one more twist on his demon concept, and I don't see how that actually works -- but he needed to do something like that, just to make an ending for this thing. It's certainly as plausible as anything else in this crazy story.

Fort many, many readers, Demon will be too much. That may include a few of you who think it'll be just fine -- it's the kind of story that just keeps going, and hits places you might not want to go with it. But it's an interesting book by a great comics creator, and it's in many ways the purest Shiga book yet. It is horrifying and laugh-out-loud funny and nutty and goofy and appalling in its inventiveness. It's all Shiga, bless his heart.


[1] It was originally serialized as a webcomic, and then collected. In fact, it seems to still be available online, though I think it's not supposed to be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #170: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

If you're going to do an alternate history about the end of the world, there comes a time when you have to crack your knuckles and end it.

The Delirium Brief is that point in Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" series. Those books started as a cross-genre mix-up that seemed like it shouldn't work: Dilbertian bureaucracy meets Lovecraftian horrors, with an overlay of Comp Sci and a satirical take on spy-novel tropes. It did work, though, and brilliantly -- my theory is that Stross is such an essentially depressive writer, always focused on the worst possible outcomes, that only by setting the failure condition of his stories to Utter Destruction of Humanity can he be freed to unleash the fullest power of his imagination.

Stross's central character, the hacker-turned-IT-demonologist-turned-Deeply-Scary-Sorcerer who calls himself "Bob Howard" in these stories, at first saved the world almost inadvertently. But, as time has gone on and the stars have gotten ever more right, the number of potential apocalypses have risen exponentially, and the secret British agency called the Laundry have given him more and more responsibility and power -- and some of that power accrued to him in the act of surviving some of those near-apocalypses.

(The previous books in the series are The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, and The Nightmare Stacks. They all basically stand alone, in the manner of a mystery series, but they work much better in sequence. This book in particular can be seen as a sequel to The Apocalypse Codex, and also follows up particular elements of Fuller Memorandum, Annihilation Score, and Nightmare Stacks.)

The Laundry, like most such fictional organizations, was supposed to be secret. Some cracks in that secrecy were showing in Annihilation Score, but they could be papered over, more or less. But the events of Nightmare Stacks -- an army of elves invaded Leeds, to be really reductive about it -- blew that wide open. Hundreds were killed, massive amounts of property damage were done, and, worst of all, the government was embarrassed.

So now questions are being asked in Parliament, and I'm afraid Stross has about as high an opinion of the ruling classes of his country as I do of mine. What happens is horribly plausible in our world of radical free-market ideology and government disdain for knowledge and expertise. You see, the Laundry is privatized. Quickly and completely, like a stab in the back.

Even worse, it's not sold off to some well-connected Old Boy who's spent widely to grease the skids and expects to make a killing from the public purse -- that's true also, of course, since that's how privatizing works -- but it's sold off to the worst possible new owner. One whose secret intention is to claim the brains of all Britons, before too long, for his other-dimensional master, the Sleeper in the Pyramid.

Yes, Reverend Raymond Schiller is back. And his link to his inhuman master is even more unpleasant and horrible this time than before.

The Delirium Brief is the story of what happens when the Laundry is torn apart by its enemies: what re-forms in its place, what plans that new entity can make, and what bargain it needs to make to avoid the worst of the most immediate apocalypses.

This series, very deliberately, will not run forever. It's coming to the endgame now, actually: my guess is that Stross might have two more books to finish out this timeline. Maybe three. Maybe just one. Stross has said that this timeline ends in 2015, and it's creeping up on that deadline -- now, whether the timeline ends because the brains of everyone on Earth are eaten or for some other reason, I can't say.

But the series is by Charles Stross, so I'm not placing any bets on the side of a happy ending.

We're not at the end yet. The Delirium Brief is a dark, dangerous book of spycraft and Lovecraft, set in a world where merely dying is often the best possibly outcome. But at least we have Bob Howard and his compatriots to stand against those monsters...whether or not they're "The Laundry" or not.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #169: My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt

I never met Andy Offutt. Maybe it's better I didn't: he was one of my favorite writers, in the early Thieves' World age, when I was around that golden SFF reading year of twelve. And that admiration and enjoyment might not have been able to survive meeting the man himself, at least as his son depicts him.

But then all sons can tell stories about their fathers, can't they? I could tell a few about mine, though this isn't the place. And I'd like to hope I'm giving only light, pleasant stories to my two sons to tell someday, even as I know that's never how it works out.

Chris Offutt had it worse than me, obviously. Worse than a lot of people, particularly those living in comfort in the first world in what looks like a stable family with a nice house. He had something that looked like that, too. A lot of things can look like that.

In my mind, Andy Offutt was a fantasy writer, author of the "Shadowspawn" stories in the Thieves' World shared-world series (including one novel named after the character), a couple of trilogies, some other stuff. He was a SF writer, too -- major enough to have a story in Again, Dangerous Visions, major enough to have a term as SFWA president in the mid-70s. Enough to look like the trajectory could have continued upward, and he could have become one of that small handful of writers able to actually make a living from writing SFF.

But he was already making a living from writing, almost a decade before Thieves' World. Like so many others before him, Andy Offutt was also a writer of pornography -- it paid at least as well as genre fiction, and those markets could take vastly more from one writer than SFF would. Andy Offutt wrote a hell of a lot of pornography, mostly under the pen-name "John Cleve," in the '70s and '80s. He had other pen-names, too, and others took over entirely from Cleve later.

It was an open secret at the time -- open enough by the early '80s that it was discussed in fan publications, and generally known. His SFnal soft-porn series Spaceways, as by Cleve, traded at least as much on Offutt's reputation as Cleve's. Still, that still could have made a single career: SFF with sex in it, sexy books with SFF in them. By that point, no one was actively censoring books anymore.

So what happened? Why is this book My Father, the Pornographer rather than My Father, the Fantasist or My Father, the Alcoholic or more generically My Father, the Raging Asshole?

Andy Offutt was at the end of the mid-century porn boom, and stayed in that world far longer than the other genre writers who started there. Silverberg, Westlake, Block -- and a dozen others -- wrote some softcore porn, and sometimes harder stuff, as the years piled up and the line of what was allowed in "legitimate" books kept moving forward. But they all moved on. They all thought of porn as journeyman work. They could eventually write sex into their "real" books, under their own names, and make their own money that way. They did, or moved on entirely, as with the writers we don't remember at all.

Andy Offutt didn't. Andy Offutt couldn't. Andy Offutt was a porn writer at the core, a porn writer who sometimes wrote other things. That's the story Chris Offutt tells here, and I believe him. The list of books published doesn't lie, from Bondage Babes in 1968 through Barbi's World 16: Thade's World 10 more than forty years later.

Andy Offutt was obsessed with sex and bondage, for whatever central psychological reason -- a man entirely focused on being in charge and in control and who made fictional worlds all day long to be able to keep doing that every minute he could. Chris Offutt can tell you about that: as the eldest son, as the writer son, he inherited his father's books and papers, which constituted, among other things, nearly a ton of porn. Porn by Andy Offutt, porn he traded for, porn he bought, porn he drew crudely himself for decades.

My Father, the Pornographer is the story of three things: of Andy Offutt's life, as seen by his son. Of that son's life, as twisted by living with this domineering, cruel father. And of the ton of porn Andy Offutt left behind, and what it said about him.

Chris Offutt mercifully doesn't try to examine his parents' sex life -- his mother is still alive, and she's a character in the modern-day sections of the book. He does say that his parents had an open marriage, at least at SF conventions, at least for some long span of years, and that can explain some of the questions we all have bubbling up. But nobody is going to ask his mom if his dad liked to tie her up. And nobody will be upset that the question doesn't get asked.

And porn, of course, is not about sex: it's a solitary activity most of the time for most of us. Often a very fun solitary activity...if it has a healthy place in your life. Andy Offutt's porn wasn't healthy for him. Chris Offutt thinks he used porn to keep his urges in check -- has some evidence that Andy Offutt might have thought he was uniquely damaged, a potential serial killer or psychopath, and kept himself in check with massive doses of porn and iron will. Chris Offutt doesn't think that self-myth was true, and it's almost certainly not -- a lot of people in a lot of times have liked bondage and other kinks without being deeply damaged people. My Father, the Pornographer would be an interesting book to read along side Joe Ollmann's recent graphic biography of William Seabrook -- the two shared a lot of obsessions, but came from different places and took it to different places.

I'm neglecting Chris Offutt here: I'd never read him before, didn't know his work. He's a literary writer who's also worked scripting classy TV shows, like Treme and Weeds. He grew up with a horrible father, in a big old house out in the middle of West Bumfuck, Kentucky. He got out. He tells this story well, the personal parts and the hard parts -- and they're nearly all hard parts. I can't imagine what it was like to live this, let alone to write it.

This is one of the best books about a SFF writer I know, up there with Julie Phillips' biography of James Tiptree, Jr. And it's not about his being a SFF writer, except occasionally in passing. The most SFnal thing about it is the place of SF conventions in the family's life, and Chris Offutt hated those: they were opportunities for his father to indulge his worst impulses, to lord it over star-struck fans and shove his family aside for the duration.

But that's life, isn't it? You don't get what you want; you have to live with what you get. Andy Offutt never got the fame and admiration he was sure he deserved. Chris Offutt didn't get a father who could give him any normal human affection. And the SF world got the partial attention of a man whose mind was on other things. But, eventually, we got this book. And it will live on.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 6/16/18

Back again for another week!

This time out, I have the contents of a box of graphic novels -- a store I buy from regularly was having a "nearly everything is 40% off" sales, and, well, I'm only human. So these are things I paid money for, in case you care.

Hostage is the most recent book by French cartoonist Guy Delisle, and it's yet another departure for him. First Delisle did a couple of short alphabetical books about sex (more or less), then did a clutch of longer autobiographical books about particular, generally-authoritarian places that he'd lived, and then did a few short zippy books about how to badly parent young children. This one is back to nonfiction, and it's related to Medicins Sans Frontiers -- Delisle's wife works for them, and that's been an important element of his autobiographical books -- but it's the story of someone else, who was a hostage in Chechnya in 1997.

Mage: The Hero Discovered: Book One: Vol. 2 has about the most confusing possible way to indicate that it reprints the second half (vol. 2) of Matt Wagner's first major story (book one) about Kevin Matchstick, who is more or less the modern incarnation of King Arthur. Apparently the current reprinting of this series goes Book One Vol. 1, Book One Vol. 2, Book Two Vol. 3, and so on -- the third book is coming out in comics form right now, and will be reprinted matching this scheme pretty soon now. I expect to get the new one, once it's an actual book, so I want to re-read the old stuff first.

Royal City, Vol. 2 is the second collection of the comics series by Jeff Lemire -- see my post on the first one.

Nexus Archives, Vol. 7 is another book collecting the '80s SF series by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. I've been gathering these very slowly for quite some time, which is not the best idea: they're not going to be available forever, if they're even still findable now. But they're big and expensive, and buying a half-dozen fifty-dollar books at once isn't something I can see myself doing.

Grass Kings, Vol. 1 is a collection by Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins -- I think this is an ongoing comics series, but I don't know much about it. I like Kindt's work, so I figured I'd take a flyer on it.

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge is another Jacques Tardi adaptation of a detective story -- this one by Leo Malet. Malet had a complicated series about detective Nestor Burma: there were thirty-some novels total, but eighteen of them were a sub-series, with each one focusing on a specific district of Paris. Tardi adapted five of those books, starting in the '80s with this one, set in the "Left Bank," the XIIIth arrondissement.

And last is a book I came across randomly: Mickey's Craziest Adventures, written by Lewis Trondheim and drawn by Keramidis. It's some kind of super-wacky Mickey Mouse adventure -- Trondheim is good at kids' comics, and good at wacky adventure, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #168: Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon by Sfar, Trondheim, Allfred, and Mazan

Dungeon Fortnight #17

At least for now, this is the end of Dungeon: there's plenty of time and space left in the timeline to set other stories, but these were the last-published albums (simultaneously, in 2014) and they're at the very end of the timeline, closing out the Twilight sub-series. If Dungeon only ever has one end, it always would have been this one.

As always, the US book The End of Dungeon collects two French albums: High Septentrion (Haut Septentrion), illustrated by Alfred and The End of Dungeon (La Fin du Donjon), drawn by Mazan. They officially occupy levels 110 and 111, but actually cover overlapping time periods, with action often whipsawing from pages in one album to the other.

(I found it occasionally difficult, when reading The End of Dungeon, to go back and figure out what High Septentrion events they happened in between: the whole thing gets a bit confusing.)

These are the most epic-fantasy moments of the whole series: there's a bit of that Dungeon satire in the mix, but a lot of the action here is played straight. There is a Dark Entity that wants to destroy the world, it keeps possessing various people and calling up champions from the past to fight for it, and Our Heroes have to battle it to save Terra Amata. It's certainly not the ending we expected from the tone of the rest of the series, but that's the issue with epic fantasy: it tends to take over and impose its standard narrative whenever it gets in. It's the kudzu of the literary world.

We start off with the islets floating higher and farther away, so the air is getting thinner and harder to breathe. The forces of the Dark Entity are consolidating most of the islets -- they seem to be able to move them together as well, in a way that isn't explained -- and giving their loyalists breathing helmets. The alternative way to keep breathing is to put on "barbarian caps" -- those things with blue flames on the cover -- and to also stay slightly drunk on barbarian beer the whole time.

The shamans Orlandoh and Gilberto tell Herbert that he has to go into the land of the dead, where he can talk with people from his past -- they can only say things they said in life, though, since nothing new can happen in the land of the dead -- to find Julian of Craftiwich, the only one who ever defeated the Dark Entity. As usual for journeys through the underworld, it is portentous and confusing and provides no clear guidance...and, meanwhile, things are getting steadily worse back in the world of the living.

Speaking of "meanwhile," there's a series of battles -- again, this happens confusingly across the two albums, which each tell some of the story but skip over events told in the other half. The two albums somewhat follow different characters -- Marvin the Dragon for High Septentrion and Herbert for End of Dungeon -- but the main cast is all together much of the time anyway.

It is all very epic fantasy: the Black Fortress is destroyed by Absolute Evil in one small panel at the top of a page, for example, since there's so much epic fantasy stuff to get in there's no time to waste. Somehow -- I'm really not sure at all what order things happen -- the Dark Entity possesses Papsukal and abandons him half-dead (?), possesses Zakutu and is driven out, and possesses Elyacin and is destroyed with him. (Because, if you have to sacrifice a child to defeat the Dark Entity, it will always be the adopted troll child.)

Similarly, Terra Amata re-forms, for no obvious reason, off-handedly in one panel near the very end of End of Dungeon, seemingly so the Dark Entity can be driven into the traditional pit of lava and destroyed forever. (Dark Lords can't stand lava, you know.)

Amid all of the hectic action, there are some good character moments and sequences of the goofy Dungeon style, particularly when Marvin the Red and Zakutu keep swapping bodies in the middle of the big assault on the Dark Entity.

Since this was two separate albums, it gets to end twice, Lord of the Rings-style. High Septentrion ends with Zakutu and Marvin the Red heading off together to have more adventures. And End of Dungeon does the "showing time passing" thing at the end, leaving us with first Marvin the Dragon and Herbert, old best friend together again, and then watching the ruins of the Dungeon weather over seasons or years or decades.

But this is a much bigger and straight-faced end to Dungeon than we expected, and not entirely an appropriate end to the stories and the tone we've had before. It is definitely an ending, though: co-writers Joan Sfar and Lewis Trondheim leave no doubt that this is over, done, finis.

Dungeon was a big, baggy thing: full of many stories in many modes and styles and drawn by different artists. It did have a tone that it kept most of the time -- sarcastic, a bit dismissive, fatalistic but oddly happy about it, and deeply French. With these books, it ended, at least for now: it could come back at any time, of course, but probably won't.

At its best, it's as good as comics get, a skewed view on standard fantasy tropes with quirky characterization and a clear viewpoint of its own. But, all too often, the translation was a little less than colloquial, with clunky sentence structure and confusing references -- maybe because Joe Johnson, who translated most or all of them, had to cram this very complicated dialogue into smaller balloons and captions than the original French size. That, I think was the major unfortunate moment of Dungeon: if the US market had been table to take these books at the larger page format, either individually or in combined editions, it would have all come cross much better in English.

But time is long, and the current edition of a book doesn't have to be the only one. Some day, it'll be time to republish Dungeon in English again, in a larger size and maybe in a slightly different organization or sequence. I hope the translation gets brushed up a bit at that time -- I'll be looking forward to it. For now, though, there are seventeen volumes in English, collecting thirty-four of the thirty-six French albums, and they all have good moments and strong points. If you haven't checked out Dungeon yet, I hope I've given you an idea of where you might want to start.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #167: Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 3: The New Centurions by Sfar, Trondheim, Kerascoet & Obion

Dungeon Fortnight #16

Twilight rolls onward, towards what looks like the inevitable destruction of the entire world of Terra Amata. The New Centurions collects two more French albums, and continues the split in tone we saw in the last volume: The New Centurions (Les Nouveaux Centurions) has big set-piece battles and political struggles, while Revolutions (it's the same word in French) tightens the focus back to the core cast (Marvin the Red, the Dust King and the nameless little bat) as they head out on their own for a smaller adventure.

Terra Amata was a normal-shaped world, but, for a poorly explained reason, it stopped spinning between the Zenith and Twilight series. The Grand Khan, who was Herbert the Duck before he joined with a Dark Entity, says that he stopped the world from spinning, which was the only way to keep it from breaking into pieces. That may be true: as soon as he lost the Dark Entity, the world did start spinning again, and broke itself into a myriad of flying rocks,  mostly each big enough for a habitat (or an adventure), each flying off in its own orbit over the now-molten core of the planet.

(Remember that this is a fantasy world. Yes, this is indeed preposterous geology. But it's fantasy geology, where preposterousness reigns supreme.)

The breaking happened in the last book, Armageddon, which also saw an Evil-Overlord power vacuum form when the Grand Khan killed himself briefly to get the Dark Entity to leave him. So now the Grand Khan is back to being just Herbert of Craftiwich, and many of his top-level henchmen -- including his nasty son Paksual -- are scrambling to fill those Evil Overlord shoes. Hence the big battle you see on the cover, in which Paksual and his allies attack the Dark Fortress -- which I've seen suggested some places is what used to be the Dungeon, though I didn't notice any hint of that in-story -- and various people named Marvin and/or Herbert defend it with flying armored suits and/or dragons.

There's also a rape plotline, which is handled too off-handedly and for humor until it disappears entirely without resolution. Perhaps it means that co-writers Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim are trying to think about the women of this world -- Zakutu also gets some good scenes, and gets to be strong -- but they're still not succeeding on the level we might hope. The rape exists to show the usual moments: how evil an evil person is, how noble and rule-bound a good person is, and how hotheadedness can ruin everything. All of those moments, of course, happen to men, which is the core problem.

All of that takes place in the first album collected here, The New Centurions, drawn by the Kerascoet team. (They are a married couple, and they also drew the previous Twilight album.)

Eventually, Marvin the Dragon and Marvin the Red, along with the character I guess we've given up calling anything but Little Bat, bug out of Dodge, since they don't want to bother with all of this responsibility and seriousness stuff. That sends them into Revolutions, drawn by Obion, a much smaller story and one with more pointed satirical aim.

They land on an islet, and lose their transportation almost immediately. This particular land is rotating, slowly enough that you can walk ahead of it but quickly enough that you'll fall off and die if you go to sleep somewhere. There's also carnivorous grass, if that's not bad enough. An aristocrat type, the Takmool, has a big villa mounted on wheels, which he has the locals pull unceasingly -- they get two shifts pulling, and then one shift resting in the villa, which he presents as a good deal.

(There are other accommodations, including a group that uses nets to keep themselves from falling into the void. This works most of the time, which is not as encouraging as it could be. No one has yet hit upon building something permanent right at the end of the axis of rotation, but maybe geography makes that infeasible. The plot also treats the world as if it were a very large and even roller shape rather than the depicted irregular spheroid, but that's my old SFnal mind trying to make sense of something meant as pure fantasy.)

Of course our heroes note the inequities of the villa set-up, and of course they cause trouble. Some of the trouble they cause is because one of them canoodles with the Takmool's daughter, and the other with his wife, which works out as well here as it does in any other Dungeon story. And of course they do not manage to usher in a new age of peace and equality, because this is Dungeon. But it is funny along the way, with a lot of inventive almost-falling-off-the-islet action. And it is, again, one of the most clearly satirical pieces of Dungeon.

All in all, though, the two stories here don't really move the Twilight plot forward. The world has been broken, but life is going on in the ruins. (I don't want to sound like that's a bad thing -- one of the core messages of Dungeon is that life does go on, in strange and unexpected ways, and so you just need to hang on to it as best you can.) That will all change in the next volume -- tomorrow we hit The End of Dungeon and the end of this series.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #166: Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 2: Armageddon by Sfar, Trondheim, & Kerascoet

Dungeon Fortnight #15

Dungeon doesn't really aim to have a moral. But that doesn't mean we can't pull morals out of it, if we want to. And this volume, in particular, leads me to postulate "there's always time for hanky-panky, even at the end of the world."

The two albums collected here -- Armageddon, drawn by co-creator Joann Sfar, and Le Dojo du Lagon, drawn by the wife-and-husband team Kerascoet -- start off in high epic-fantasy mode, in the aftermath of the battles at the end of Dragon Cemetery, with the Dust King and his friends having retreated to the village of the cats and preparing for the next big battle. And that battle does come -- a huge army against the blind and armless Dust King standing alone. (After all, the album is named Armageddon.)

So why does the cover show Marvin the Red standing on a sandy beach with a gaggle of small dragon children? Well, no Dungeon storyline can remain entirely serious for too long. Therefore, much of this volume -- particularly that second album -- takes place on a tropical paradise, as Herbert chases an attractive young dragon woman, Ormelle, who is both mother of at least some bunch of those kids and the wife of Marvin the Dragon's son Baal. Dungeon always comes back to the complicated love lives of its protagonists -- sure, saving the world is important, but hey! check out that hot girl over there! I think she likes you!

First, though, we do need to get through Armageddon. This is the knottiest piece of the Dungeon timeline -- the two albums The Dark Lord (Le Noir Seigneur) and The Great Map (La Carte majeure), which we saw in the 2nd US Monstres volume, take place at exactly the same time, with all three overlapping. Armageddon begins the earliest of the three, and focuses on the Dust King (who used to be Marvin the Dragon), while The Great Map and The Dark Lord follow Marvin the Red and the Grand Khan, respectively, and start after the initial battle in this book.

It's not actually all that confusing while reading it -- Armageddon basically stands alone, and tells you as much of the story as you need to know here. (The last two albums of Twilight are much more convoluted, but we'll get there in a few days.) And the actual gigantic battle is over quickly -- Armageddon is a heavily narrated book (atypical for Dungeon), particularly in the early pages, as if co-writers Sfar and Lewis Trondheim were either overdosing on the epic-fantasy style or eager to get through that stuff and get back to the silliness.

Either way, the Dust King wins his battle but ends up far away and alone. He soon takes up with the shaman Gilberto, chases after his lost arms, and ends up on trial by the tiny but fierce Olf people. It's all pretty random and quirky, which is typical for Dungeon: whenever the story looks to fall into a generic groove, it jumps off in some other direction and runs away at high speed.

Eventually, the Dust King and Gilberto reunite with Marvin the Red, and they start Le Dojo du Lagon by running off again to try to save Zakutu, though they're not entirely sure where she is or what they'll be saving her from. (Once again, lust trumps all in Dungeon; Marvin has the hots for her.) Travel in the new Terra Amata is a matter of telling time carefully and knowing the movement of the various "islets" -- you wait until the right one is passing by, and jump onto it.

It is, of course, not that simple. They don't find Zakutu, but they do get to that island paradise inhabited by dragons. And Marvin discovers that maybe he could be madly in lust with Ormelle, instead, since she's right there. Actually, Ormelle is married, and mostly sleeps with Marvin to get her husband to give up on the stupid dragon custom of never seeing his children -- like, literally, it's forbidden for a male dragon to lay eyes on his own children at any time. But that's OK, Marvin heads back out and does save Zakutu, bringing her to the island paradise and getting both of the girls he's trying to sleep with right next to each other.

Le Dojo du Lagon does not devolve into a door-slamming sex farce, and not purely because there are no doors on the desert island. As usual, both of the women realize that a little of Marvin -- as equally a little of any man in Dungeon -- is more than enough, and go on to other things.

Oh, and the "Dojo" of the title refers to the fact that Marvin spends much of his time on the island training in mystic dragon martial arts. (Yes, really. And literally.) He even has the requisite big fight at the end, supposedly friendly but not really, with Baal. (The dragon he was cuckolding, if you've forgotten.) That fight ends about as conclusively as anything else in this volume.

So, to recap: the Grand Khan's forces are destroyed, offhandedly, on page four. And then a lot of other stuff happens, while we wait for the main plot to start up again, eventually. That's Armageddon.

Sfar has the scratchiest, most organic-looking art of anyone in the Dungeon series, full of details and little lines and background goofiness. It's tonally very far from what's expected of epic fantasy, which is of course the point. Kerascoet, who I've mostly seen work with a smoother finish, rough up their work to somewhat match in the back half of this book.

When people talk about Dungeon being mostly satirical, this is what they're talking about: this entire book is talking out of the side of its mouth the whole time, in every way possible. Dungeon is occasionally more serious than this, but it's never less.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #165: Dungeon: Twilight, Vol. 1: Dragon Cemetery by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim

Dungeon Fortnight #14

Dragon Cemetery, paradoxically, is both one of the beginnings of Dungeon and nearly its end -- Dungeon began in several time-frames almost simultaneously, as creators Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim conceived of a huge epic fantasy series that would rise and peak and fall and decided to tell all of those stories simultaneously. So the Twilight series, which begins here, is initially drawn by Sfar, as the Zenith books were initially drawn by Trondheim. (The US Dragon Cemetery volume, in the style of all of the US Dungeon books, collects two of the original French albums -- Le Cimetiere de Dragons and Le Volcan des Vaucanson.)

Some time has passed since the end of Zenith -- it's difficult to say how much. If the "levels" correspond to years, the last Zenith book is at 6 and the first Twilight is at 101 -- but that still leaves the question of how many "levels" to a year. (Unless everyone is incredibly long-lived on Terra Amata, it's definitely not one to one -- Marvin the Dragon is a pre-teen in My Son the Killer at -90 and is old but still around for level 111.)

In any case: it's later. There's no sign of the Dungeon, or the Keeper. An old dragon called the Dust King, spurred by the arrival of a small bat (who is a main character of Twilight, but never gets a name), breaks the rules of a nasty half-glimpsed tyrant called the Grand Khan [1], and heads off to the mythical Dragon Cemetery to die. Along the way, they meet a headstrong young rabbit, Marvin the Red, who joins their group. Various minions of the Grand Khan are tailing them at a distance, for various nefarious purposes.

Meanwhile, the back cover tells us that Terra Amata has stopped spinning, leaving one side in eternal frozen night and the other in eternal burning desert, and only a small livable twilight area in between. This is never actually said in the story itself, and there's no sign that the twilight lands are particularly small.

(On the other hand, geography has never been Dungeon's strong suit -- there are no maps or any clear sense of where places are in relation to each other. For all that this claims to be a parody of epic fantasy, it's not a parody of the tropes of written epic fantasy, deriving more from tabletop gaming and from vague cultural knowledge.) 

Before long, we learn that the Dust King is Marvin, who lost his skin and eyes and has become something like a mystic or hermit in his old age. And the Grand Khan is Herbert, who gathered all seven of the objects of Destiny and then invited a Dark Entity into his body to stop the world spinning and keep it from breaking into pieces. It's not entirely clear why Marvin is "the Dust King," unless that's some kind of mocking nickname, since he doesn't have any followers or lands to rule. Herbert has the usual Dark Lord castle and minions and faceless armies of horrible things, since this is an epic fantasy.

The two do meet, and confront each other, near the end. It doesn't go all that well for the Dust King, but, on the other hand, he is the first to survive and get away from the Grand Khan, which is a positive. Marvin the Red gets a snazzy new suit of red armor, and makes out with the Grand Khan's daughter Zakutu for a while. But the story doesn't end so much as stop -- this part of the Twilight sub-series is not made up of separate albums that tell individual stories, but one long story parceled out into individually published chapters. It'll settle down a bit later -- but we'll see that in the next three days.

You could start reading Dungeon here: this book does have a big #1 on it. It would be a bad choice, and I doubt anyone would recommend it. But I bet people have, given that big #1. (It's not like it'll hurt you or anything.)


[1] In this book, he's first called just the Khan, then the Supreme Khan once, and then generally the Grand Khan. In other Twilight books, his standard title seems to be the Great Khan, with some waffling. I'm trying to use Grand Khan throughout these Dungeon Fortnight posts, just to be internally consistent, because I started using that title when drafting these. I make no promises that I will be entirely consistent.