Sunday, June 03, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #154: Dungeon: Zenith, Vol. 1: Duck Heart by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim

Dungeon Fortnight #3

After two days of prequels, this is where it actually began -- the first two stories about Dungeon and its inhabitants, originally published in France in 1998 by two creators with a huge vision and enough enthusiasm to tackle it. [1]

The Zenith stories are somewhat lighter-hearted than the beginning and end of Dungeon, without the gloom of random meaningless deaths, dismemberment of entire worlds, and occasional bouts of venereal disease.

That's not to say it's all light: this is French epic fantasy, after all, and nothing was ever sunny all the time in a Dungeon. (And every one of the narrative sub-series gets darker as it goes along.)  Even from the beginning, the Dungeon was a cynical enterprise: a gigantic castle and catacombs, designed to lure in adventurers (the kind that fantasy worlds are so thick with) with tales of loot and daring deeds and vile monsters to fight. And every one of those adventurers would die in the Dungeon, inevitably, and whatever magical swords and trinkets they brought in would be added to the loot to lure in the next unwary schmuck.

Our heroes are not the adventurers. Instead, Dungeon: Zenith focuses on two employees of the Dungeon Keeper -- who we saw, much younger and more innocent himself, as Hyacinthe in the Early Years books. This time out, the young, more-or-less innocent character with feathers is Herbert, a young duck who is Duke of Craftiwich but can't go back there. And the tough warrior who takes him in hand is Marvin, a red lizard descended from dragons, whose quirks include vegetarianism and a moral code that forbids him from killing anyone who insults him.

Herbert, in the manner of all the best humorous heroes, begins Duck Heart as a minor functionary of the Dungeon who quickly finds himself in over his head: he's supposed to retrieve a barbarian hero for a mission for the Keeper, but gets the hero killed and takes his place instead. Armed with the Sword of Destiny -- which talks, loudly, and won't let Herbert draw it (or use any other weapons) until he accomplishes three great deeds -- he sets out to investigate the strange hooded creatures threatening the Keeper.

Because the Keeper is not actually stupid, he fairly quickly realizes that Herbert is not a barbarian hero, and sends Marvin the Dragon to accompany him. The two have various adventures, funny but not entirely silly -- this is a fantasy with a quirky spin, not a parody or a satire. I contrasted Dungeon to Terry Pratchett's Discworld before, and that's a reasonable comparison: Dungeon is the dark, pessimistic, Gallic version of Discworld, a world where a million-to-one shot comes through only once in a million and where scheming autocrats of cities do not have everyone's best interests in mind. It's still a lot of fun, and often quite funny, but we're all going to die eventually and the world is no better than it should be.

Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim wrote this together, and you can see their enthusiasm and glee at twisting yet another fantasy cliche on every page. Trondheim drew the early Zenith stories, including the two albums here (in the original French: Cour de canard and Le Roi de la bagarre) with equal verve and energy, setting up this odd world filled with a myriad races of anthropomorphic animal-men and stranger things.

This is the best place to enter the Dungeon: this is where it started. There will be plenty of time for more darkness later.

[1] The plan for Dungeon, which I think solidified fairly quickly, was to give each volume a "level" number corresponding to its place in the timeline -- and that timeline had over two hundred places, from -100 to 120ish, even before Sfar and Trondheim started throwing in the Parade series at "level 1.5" or Le Grand Animateur at "level -400."

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