Friday, June 08, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #159: Dungeon: Monstres, Vol. 1: The Crying Giant by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, Mazan, and Jean-Christophe Menu

With Dungeon Fortnight #8, I hit the confusing section: the Monstres sub-series, which can be set anywhere in time and be about anyone.

Most of the Dungeon series have a focus -- Early Years is about Hyacinthe and the years Dungeon was being built, Zenith is the adventures of Herbert when the Dungeon was at its peak, and Twilight tells the story of Marvin the Red in the years Terra Amata was falling apart. But Monstres can be in any of those times, about any of those characters -- and it oscillates back and forth from its ostensible purpose ("retells great adventures of secondary characters") to simply advancing the overall plot from one of those time periods. The real differentiation of the Monstres series is that there's no consistent artist: each project was given to a specific different French creator, presumably chosen to match his strengths. [1]

It's also, weirdly, the sub-series whose name is translated backwards -- in French it's "Monsters," the common English word.

So these next group of books are the oddballs -- sidebar stories, bits that Sfar and Trondheim couldn't get to in the books they drew themselves, things they had better ideas later, things they thought would be funny, things that seemed to need more explanation. Some tell core events of the world, some are nowhere near the center of the action. And the art is the most varied of the Dungeon series, with a different illustrator for each album.

(One way of reading the series, which might be more coherent than what I'm doing, would be to slot each Monstres book where it fits in the larger plot line -- using the "levels" that the English translations generally don't include. That's probably best for a re-read, though -- for someone who already knows the series and can slot everything in correctly.)

The two albums here in The Crying Giant, the first Monstres volume, each focus on an inhabitant of the Dungeon during its peak years: Mazan draws John-John the Terror, the origin story of the titular gentle split-in-half giant, and Jean-Christophe Menu draws The Crying Giant, in which Alcibiades the wizard tries to fix or replace his magic all-seeing eyeball when it suddenly begins to gush water. (The two books were known as Jean-Jean La Terreur and La Geant Qui Pleure in France.)

In John-John the Terror, John-John was perhaps the least of a group of monsters who ran an inn in the middle of nowhere with a simple aim: kill and eat all arriving travelers, and steal their stuff. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of nowhere, so travelers were very few. But then one day Delacour, the con-man we see throughout the Zenith era causing trouble and trying to gather riches and valuable items to himself, stumbled upon that inn, soon after becoming the carrier of the Sword of Destiny. But, between the soldiers chasing Delacour for his last swindle and Delacour's own fast-talking, the monsters are convinced to leave the inn and try to make their way to the Dungeon, which Delacour presents as a paradise for monsters.

You may guess that things do not go as planned. You would be correct.

Delacour leads them a long and convoluted path, fleeing other victims of his previous schemes and trying to launch new schemes, and the ranks of the monsters take some hits. But, in the end, we learn how John-John became his uniquely bifiurcated self, and how he got to the Dungeon in the end. (And, perhaps as importantly, how Delacour lost the Sword of Destiny without dying.) Aside from the random deaths -- and those are mostly of cannibalistic monster bandits, so it's hard to feel too badly for them -- this is a pretty light-hearted and madcap Dungeon story, driven by Delacour's endless energy and greed.

The Crying Giant is nearly as funny and light, though it has a melancholy undertone: Alcibiades is trying to make the giant whose eyeball he stole happy, but only so that giant will stop crying and causing trouble for him (he is, after all, the thief of that giant's eyeball). He and Horus set off to find the giant Biscara entirely because the rush of tears is flooding the Dungeon and annoying the Keeper.  (And it makes we wonder why they couldn't just find a place for the eyeball with better drainage. But if problems could be solved simply, we would have no Dungeon stories.)

The two magicians are self-obsessed and not terribly worldly, fitting the usual stereotypes, so they do bumble around, trying to find Biscara and then trying to help him win Sonya, a giant adventuress we've seen before in Dungeon. In keeping with the "romances" in Dungeon, there's one man who flies up to the top of Sonya's tower to enjoy her affections at will, and a whole bunch (now including Biscara) who she has enlisted to do her housework as part of a series of "trials" to woo and wed her. These men all seem to give up somewhere in the middle, but there's enough of a stream of them to keep her household running. Biscara is obsessed and won't give up on Sonya, no matter what the magicians try.

Things also do not go as planned in this story. In fact, they turn out somewhat badly for at least some participants. But that's all I'll say about that.

These two stories embody a lot of what I'm coming to think as the essential elements of Dungeon -- capricious women who men can't help being obsessed with, sneaky schemes that never quite work out right, journeys across strange new places without any strong sense of geography, endless self-centeredness and self-destructive monomania, and a madcap headlong energy driving through ever more complications and confusions. Some of the Dungeon books are more serious than this, but the first Monstres book is pretty typical -- and Mazan's art for John-John is pretty standard Dungeon as well, though Menu is a few steps more cartoony than usual for this world. But these are the kind of characters you'll find throughout the series, doing the same kind of things. If you happened to begin Dungeon through the Monstres door, it wouldn't be a bad start.

[1] I say "his" because I think the only woman involved in drawing Dungeon is the female half of the husband-and-wife Kerascoet team. (I could be wrong; there are a lot of single-named artists involved.) I've also seen on some French-language pages that Trondheim's wife Bridgette Findakly, a noted comics colorist and writer, colored some of the Dungeon books, but I haven't seen her credit on the US editions and can't say whether or not it all had to be recolored anyway for the English-language edition.

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