Friday, June 01, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #152: Dungeon: The Early Years, Vol. 1: The Night Shirt by Christophe Blain, Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim

Just because all of 2018 is Book-A-Day doesn't mean that I can't have smaller reading projects in the middle of the big one! And so the next seventeen days will be Dungeon Fortnight, running through all of the Dungeon books -- written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, drawn by them and by just about everyone else in French comics -- that have been translated and published in English.

I'll be running through the books in something vaguely like internal chronological order -- hitting the sub-series in the order Early Years, Zenith, Parade, Monsters and finally Twilight. I will not be covering the two books that haven't been translated into English, for obvious monoglot reasons.

(Now that I'm about halfway through reading them, I probably should have read them in "level" order -- see the Wikipedia entry for more about that -- but that would have been even messier and more complicated, meaning I'd start with half of Monstres, Vol. 6 and then dive into Early Years. I think I'll just go on with this system for this read-through.)

I have written about various books in this series before, more or less as they were published by NBM, but I've wanted to step back and do the whole thing for a while. And, since there haven't been any new books in France for several years, this looks like a good time to do it.

Someday, Hyacinthe will be powerful and important...but you don't know that if you come into Dungeon: The Early Years cold. When the two closely linked stories collected in The Night Shirt begin, Hyacinthe is very young and very innocent, heading off to the city of Antipolis to learn the new ways of the changing world of Terra Amata. He was sent by his father from their ancestral castle out in the hinterlands to live with the crippled uncle (now Count Florotte) that family kicked out before Hyacinthe was born.

When Hyacinthe was a child, his father would lead forces out from their tower to battle the neighboring kingdoms -- orcs on this side, goblins on that -- but now the squabbling kingdoms are "little more than fortified farms." (And the reader has his first quizzical moment...were they ever more than that, really, or was it just the viewpoint of a child?)  The world of Dungeon is something like the cynical obverse of Terry Pratchett's Discworld: a vast land filled with many strange creatures and bizarre things is modernizing, building new technology and finding new ways of organizing society. But where all is for the best in Panglossian Discworld, Terra Amata has always been captured by the unscrupulous and corrupt and murderous -- just like all of the real worlds we know.

In Terra Amata, corruption always wins, death is sure, and heroism is a game for fools and idiots. Some of the strong and ruthless and skilled can survive, for a while at least, but it all falls apart. Oddly, Dungeon is pretty light-hearted for such a cynical, nasty world -- perhaps because, if we realize the world is horrible, it frees us from taking it seriously. (Obligatory Monty Python reference.)

The people of Terra Amata are various anthropomorphic animals: a lot of birds, some dogs, some cats and lizards, and many less-definable monsters. These do not correspond to human races in any way -- Sfar and Trondheim aren't interested in that -- and they all seem to be equally interfertile. (Pan-species lust is in no way surprising or the slightest bit uncommon.)

Hyacinthe is our first innocent of the Dungeon series, and possibly the most innocent of all. He's been raised on a diet of feudal splendor and martial bravery, but apparently not given any of the physical or mental training to translate that into action. We first see him writing, and suspect he was a dreamy boy -- but Antipolis will leave him no time for dreaming. He's quickly installed in a garret in the house of that rich uncle, who he soon learns is a cynical and corrupt businessman high up in the control of that city. Hyacinthe is put to work by his uncle's fixer and right-hand man, Michael, a cat prone to rape and destruction, and his first job is to bribe the upright academic, Hippolyte, he met on the trip to the city.

There's no apparent honest government at all. No way to right wrongs but to do it yourself. And so dreamy Hyacinthe falls into becoming the nocturnal vigilante The Night Shirt...despite the fact that he still doesn't know what he's doing, and that he's not that good at sword-fighting. Making things even worse, he quickly falls hopelessly in love with Alexandra, a snake-woman who is both Michael's regular lover and one of the most accomplished assassins in the city.

Alexandra is the closest thing to a rounded female character in all of Dungeon, I'm afraid -- we learn more about her, here and later, and she is a real person. Most of the women are mysterious unknowable fickle creatures, who our male main characters try not to care too much about, since they're just another aspect of this horrible world that can fail or ruin them. Actually, many of the characters have obscure or unknowable motives, or act against what should be their interests -- the women just do it even more so, and are only very rarely the focus on the narrative.

The Night Shirt collects two closely-related French albums, originally published as La Chemise de la Nuit and Un Justicier dans L'Ennui in 2001. The first one brings Hyacinthe to Antipolis, sees the birth of the Night Shirt, and has him successfully free a tree-giant called an Arboress from being burned alive at the end of a local festival. The second deepens the love triangle with Michael and Alexandra, adding in a more suitable woman for Hyacinthe as well -- though he has a Superman-and-Clark-Kent relationship with her, himself, and the Night Shirt. He is mostly successful, and nothing important has been destroyed yet -- that's a phrase I may find myself using a lot when writing about Dungeon these next two weeks.

At this point, there can seem to still be hope for Hyacinthe. If you don't know that he will found the Dungeon, you may think he'll be a conventional action hero, and manage to clean up the city of Antipolis despite all odds. If you knew more about Dungeon, of course, you would have no such illusions.

Co-creators Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim are telling a long, rousing, but deeply cynical story in Dungeon: the whole series is essentially an anti-epic fantasy, in which the characters who would be heroes in other stories are are deluded fools and the main characters are those fools, and the old cynical twisted men those fools who survived grew into. It's not a "horrible things must be done to protect the world" story -- it's a "people are horrible and live in a world" story, with Terra Amata even more full of woe and strangeness and sudden violence than our own.

Early Years is the only one of the three main storylines that one of the two creators didn't draw directly -- Sfar took the first three Twilight stories and Trondheim the first four Zenith. Instead, Christophe Blain (Gus and His Gang, Isaac the Pirate) draws Hyacinthe's story -- his art is in all four of the albums that have been translated. (One of the mysterious books still languishing in French is a fifth Early Years album, drawn instead by Christophe Gaultier.)

I'm rarely good at talking about art, and the Dungeon books, in English, have the additional handicap of being somewhat squished down to fit an American shelf-size. (The lettering can be occasionally difficult to read, if you're getting older or are away from bright light. And the page numbers, which include the volume's level, are often cut off because of the squish.) Blain is right in the middle of the Dungeon artists, with an illustrative style well-suited for adventure and for the strange creatures that populate Terra Amata. There will be odder artists, and much more distinctive ones, to come, but Blain sets a good base for what to expect -- he's an excellent storyteller, and there's a lot of story to get through here.

No comments:

Post a Comment