Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What’s it about?
The Eternal Champion is a duck whose magic sword wants him dead. His best friend is a vegetarian dragon named Marvin, his mentor a scheming underlord, his friends steal organs (magically), and he’s fighting to preserve a monstrous dungeon that only exists to tempt and destroy the heroically inclined. Welcome to the darkly comic Dungeon, an epic series of anthropomorphic fantasy heroes created by European comics powerhouses Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim that—in spite of a central conceit lifted from the Dungeon Keeper computer game series—makes post-modern satire and storytelling its serious business.
In the U.S., European comics are usually seen either as children’s comics (Tintin, Moomin, Sardine in Space) or literary fare (The Hunting Party, The Rabbi’s Cat). Sfar in particular has created books that fit into both categories, but in the sprawling Dungeon series you can see the shape of an ambition that combines and transcends traditional audiences and genres. The first volume, Duck Heart, combines sword-and-sorcery with a satirical plot, as cowardly antihero Herbert the Duck accidentally kills a barbarian hero and goes on a quest in his place, attempting to save the Dungeon that employs him from the more sinister and ambitious evil known as the Hooded Ones. The story mines tropes from fantasy novels and Dungeons & Dragons freely, populating the Dungeon and its world with a bewildering variety of wizards, giants, necromancers, brutes, vampires, and the like, but always putting its own twist on the various monsters and imbuing them with personalities and even souls, while “innocent” bystanders like the nearby village of xenophobic rabbits are more mean-spirited than the worst of the Dungeon’s beasts.
Sfar and Trondheim grow their world in unexpected ways from what looks to be a predictable seed, letting it sprout into multiple timelines with separate protagonists. The stories focused on Herbert and Marvin’s partnership fall into the Zenith timeline, stories of the Dungeon at its height. The Early Years tells the story of the feared Dungeon Keeper’s naive youth as an innocent intellectual named Hyacinth, how he became the masked hero known as The Nightshirt, and how the Dungeon grew from the blend of his bitterness and good intentions. Twilight tells the story of not only the Dungeon’s inevitable decay but its entire world’s, how power has ensnared Herbert, trapping him between choices that seem monstrous and worse. Dungeon Parade deals with Herbert and Marvin’s minor adventures, largely unimportant to the central plot. Monstres is spread out between the separate timelines, largely telling the stories of minor characters, though also looping back to Herbert and his fate in Dungeon: Monstres, vol. 2: The Dark Lord. The intricate story structure makes the series difficult to collect, or even to know where to start reading—I recommend Zenith, then Early Years, then Twilight, with Parade and most of Monstres optional—but is also rewarding, as it allows the creators to establish their characters before demonstrating their unexpected origins, choices, and fates. It also lets readers feel for entities that might come across as unfeeling monstrosities if we had no idea where they came from or how they arrived.
Despite a relatively high barrier to entry, the series is beyond worthwhile. Trondheim and Sfar are both masters of the comics medium, both with iconically messy-but-detailed styles that allow them to create a relatable emotional picture as well as a literal one. While the subject matter may sometimes seem cliched—magical heroes, wizards, and the end of the world– their characters have hidden depths; they live in emotional worlds as nuanced and detailed as the imaginative landscapes that surround them.
It should be noted that Sfar and Trondheim are not the only creators involved with the series, and in later volumes they increasingly farmed out work to other talented artists like Manu Larcenet and Boulet. Even with skilled replacements, the series creators’ presence on these volumes is sometimes missed, as their skills as storytellers and visual comedians are hard to top. Also missing from some of the later volumes is the series approachable sense of humor—Heartbreaker, the 3rd volume of the Monstres series is particularly bereft of laughs. Even so, this smart dark fantastic comedy is worth reading and returning to many times, and is an asset in almost any public library’s Adult comics collection. It is also worth considering for academic collections with an interest in the intersection between European pop culture and post-modernism—a niche to be sure, but one worth studying. Simplifying these books’ collection is the fact that Zenith, Early Years, and Twilight have all been assembled into boxed sets, with the most recent reprint of Twilight in 2017. These volumes are all that are really necessary for a good Dungeon collection, but each volume is worth collecting, both on its own merits and as it enriches the overall story.
Legendary creators working together to create an epic satire/parable/adventure? Yes please!
Lovers of fantasy, comedy, and avant-garde comics will all find plenty to enjoy in Dungeon.
Why should you own this?
Smart, funny, and off most readers radar—this is a series that libraries can shine a spotlight on and get great responses.
by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim
Art by various
Dungeon: Zenith, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781561634019
Dungeon: The Early Years, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781561634392
Dungeon: Twilight, vol. 1 ISBN: 9781561634606
NBM Publishing, 2005 – 2016
Publisher Age Rating: (16+, Adult)