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.

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