Writer: Joann Sfar
Artists: Lewis Trondheim, Christophe Blain
Release Date: 22nd January, 2015 (UK)
For the uninitiated, Dungeon is a series of satirical fantasy comics, originally released in France but recently translated and reprinted in English by NBM Publishing. This two volume collection features the entirety of the ‘Early Years’ (called ‘the Dawn’ in the original French release) and covers the events that led to the formation of the titular Dungeon.
We are introduced to Hyacinthe, our noble ‘hero’ who is (for reasons that are never quite explained) a duck. Or, at least, some sort of bird anyway. Initially, the humour is rather sparse, with a somewhat dry opening covering the myriad of class issues and thinly veiled politics of the land that the creators have brought to life. It’s all very ‘European’, with writer Joann Sfar employing biting satire as his weapon of choice here instead of – as is often the case with other ‘humorous’ comic books – slapstick and silliness. It definitely takes a while to get going, and some of the humour may be lost slightly in the translation, but once I managed to adjust to the somewhat unconventional style (for me, at least), Dungeon proved to be an absolute delight – from a comedic standpoint, at least.
Hyacinthe’s burning desire to be a hero provides much of the driving force behind these first two volumes, with many of the laughs being provided by the ongoing selection of his name and his continued declarations that he “is justice”. It’s definitely worth mentioning however that, in spite of the humour, this is not a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination. The politics and satire will undoubtedly sail over many younger reader’s heads, and there is a lot of surprisingly graphic violence and sexual content (albeit of an avian variety) to be found within these pages.
The artwork here is provided by Lewis Trondheim and Christophe Blain, and is serviceable at best. The story flows smoothly enough from panel to panel, but the detail is decidedly lacking in places, and the whole thing is undeniably basic – presumably by design. The lettering is also of a fairly poor quality, with far too many cramped speech bubbles and words being split across lines (a pet peeve of mine in any medium). This may be a by-product of the translation process, but is still distractingly untidy in places.
Overall, while there’s undoubtedly a lot to like here for lovers of heroic fantasy and dark, satirical humour, Dungeon is most definitely going to be an acquired taste for many of its English-speaking readers. I certainly found myself smiling regularly while reading it, but something about the unconventional delivery and often heavy-handed political satire prevented me from settling into the story comfortably. The book has a strong cult following in its native France, and I’d definitely be interested in reading some of the subsequent volumes to get a more in-depth look at this intriguing world, but as an introduction to the series as a whole, it unfortunately didn’t grab me like I’d hoped it would.
You can purchase Dungeon: Early Years set (vols. 1 & 2) from Turnaround Publisher Services (who generously provided the review copy of this title) via their official website.