Sunday, June 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #161: Dungeon: Monstres, Vol.3: Heartbreaker by Sfar, Trondheim, Nine, & Killoffer

Dungeon Fortnight #10

Dungeon has mostly been a series about men, told from the point of view of men. The two albums collected in Heartbreaker are the great exceptions -- one telling the story of a major character we've seen several times before, finally shown from inside her own head, and one showing us another woman, in a semi-random and previously little-seen corner of Terra Amata.

They're also some of the very darkest Dungeon stories, which is saying something.

(A quick note: I covered Heartbreaker eight years ago, during another Book-A-Day run. I'll try to say different things this time, but I still mostly agree with what I said then.)

First up is Heartbreaker itself (Creve-Cour in the original French), drawn by Carlos Nine in a loose style full of lots of seemingly quick, loose lines. The famous assassin Alexandra, Hyacinthe's great love, tells her story to a journalist, in a story that overlaps significantly with several Early Years volumes.

Alexandra's voice is enticing, but we don't get the picasesque version of an assassin's life: the frame story, of her telling her life to the one-eyed pig-man on the cover, is actually just a ruse to get her to put her guard down. The bulk of Heartbreaker sees her in captivity, enduring various torments, and worse is that we realize she's held as leverage against or bait for The Night Shirt, not on her own account. (I'm afraid that's par for the course in very sexist Terra Amata: Zakutu, the Grand Khan's daughter, comes the closest to having power and influence on her own, and she doesn't come that close.)

Eventually, it all leads into the beginning of After the Rain. If we paid close attention there, we know what must happen, and it does. This is Alexandra's story, but neither here nor anywhere else in Dungeon do we learn her final fate -- she disappears entirely before the Zenith stories. She deserved better than this: some adventure of her own, serious or light-hearted, where she could be active and where she was drawn by an artist who could give her world a little more clarity. But this is what she got, and, like everyone else in Terra Amata, what she got was less than she wanted or deserved.

The second half of the English-language Heartbreaker presents one of the most devastating, and I'd say quintessential, Dungeon stories, The Depths (Les Profoundeurs), drawn with a precise detailed line and with almost jeweled colors by Patrice Killoffer. Drowny is a young woman in the age of the Great Khan, of a somewhat octopoidal underwater race -- when we first see her she seems like just another frivolous, silly teenager. But sudden violence shatters her life on the second page, and she's catapulted, like so many other Dungeon characters, into a world she doesn't understand, living the life of a soldier in a time of war and specifically making war against her own people.

The first time I read The Depths, I complained that Drowny/Ballsy doesn't get to be active, but I think I misread it the first time. She is knocked around, and treated horribly in this horrible world -- but she also gives as well as she gets, and the world she lives in is horrible from top to bottom. She does make a series of choices at the end, and has clearly learned the same lesson Hyacinthe did, back in Innocence Lost: Terra Amata has no justice or love or right, just power and what you can do with it.

It's a shattering lesson for a shattered world, but she learns it well. And, in the end, she looks to thrive in that world, as much as anyone can. The Depths is very parallel to Hyacinthe's story, though Drowny didn't have the opportunity to be deluded the way The Night Shirt did.

It's still a shocking story, full of the senseless destruction of war. Heartbreaker is similarly shocking on prisoners and torture -- which reminds us that both books came out in 2004. There's an element here of Sfar and Trondheim raging against what they saw in the real world, transmuting it into the fictional world of Terra Amata and trying to make sense of it. These topics didn't get as funny as some of their targets -- but, then, they couldn't get funny, by their nature.

This is another bad way to begin reading the Dungeon series, in case anyone's wondering. Book three of a minor spin-off series should be self-evidently bad, but I'll say it to be clear: don't start here. This is as dark and serious as Dungeon ever gets, and relies on knowing a lot about this world and its people.

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