Graphic Novel Friday: Five Years of Sfar and Trondheim's Dungeon Series

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One of my great reading pleasures this decade has been the discovery of Dungeon in the lovely little volumes from NBM Publishing, which provides English translations of this near-iconic series originally released in France. This month, you could do worse than check out the whole series, as NBM is celebrating five years of Dungeon with the tenth volume, Zenith: Back in Style.

Dungeon is the brainchild of French geniuses Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim. Part of their brilliance in creating these books is to both send-up the heroic fantasy genre and provide one of the most compelling arguments for its relevance. The Dungeon books chronicle the adventures, trials (sometimes literally), and tribulations of the inhabitants of the titular dungeon, which is run by the Dungeon Keeper, an old bird with a thousand stories under his wing. Recurring characters include the heroic battle veteran Marvin the Dragon King, the sometimes foolish but always feisty Herbert the Timorous Duck--perpetually in love with the cat-like Princess Isis--and Marvin the Red, a crazy rabbit named after the dragon king, and clothed in what sometimes looks like atomic armor.

Each of these characters, and many supporting players, are fleshed out over the course of the series to an astounding degree. One masterstroke by Sfar and Trondheim in mapping out the narrative was to create different story “threads.” Thus, you get three main series--the dungeon’s Early Years, Zenith, and Twilight--with minor stories that still support the main narrative collected in the parallel series Monstres and Parade. Not only does this allow the creators, and a series of guest artists, to work on whatever parts of the narrative interest them at any particular time, it makes the effect truly three-dimensional. Further, you can, more or less, begin with any particular thread you want, and then read through the others--every point of entry creates a different experience of situation and character.

          (On the left, the French edition of The Dark Lord. On the right, the English-language version.)

For example, if you start with the Dungeon Zenith series, you may have a view of the Keeper as a somewhat cold, jaded character. But, if you then backtrack to volume one of The Early Years, The Night Shift, you find a riveting, often tragic tale of how the Keeper came to run the dungeon, and your view of the character becomes much more charitable.

Another example? Marvin, the Dragon King, also known as the Dust King. Throughout the series, he’s a bedrock of everything that’s noble and reasonable and heroic in a recurring character, even with a few lapses. Marvin projects those qualities no matter where readers first encounter him. However, the Dungeon Twilight volumes one and two deepen and provide nuance to Marvin’s character. Indeed, the Zenith and Twilight volumes in particular contain some of the finest artwork, characterization, and storylines of any comic I’ve ever read. It’s rather remarkable that embedded within some excellent humor (and some of it slapstick, at that) readers will feel a real emotional connection to the characters, especially Marvin.

I’ve talked about story and character, but not about the art. Especially in the volumes created by Sfar and Trondheim alone, Dungeon features some of the most imaginative and beautiful art in fantasy comics. There’s a clarity and sharpness--an ability to create diversity and complexity within panels without crowding or cluttering things--that reflects a mastery of composition. The art often recalls Bosch or Brueghel in its proliferation of cleverly drawn monsters. Some sequences are little short of miraculous. Twilight: Armageddon serves as a particularly outstanding example, especially when an entire planet splits into chunks. The audacious storytelling is matched by the art. Several times, I’d turn a page and just stare at the art before even continuing with the story.

Here’s the complete list of Dungeon titles for your enjoyment. (And a quick thank to NBM’s publicist, David Seidman, who’s been wonderful about helping get the word out on these books.)

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Comments (5)

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Posted by: Prada Handbags | Thursday May 6, 2010 at 1:59 AM

just wondering if the adventures of marvin the red and marvin the dust has been or will be continued following revolutions in 'the new centurians'

Posted by: chris johnson | Tuesday January 4, 2011 at 8:24 AM

This really is an amazing series, I'm glad I gave this funny animal book a chance. I'm amazed at how complex it is, the humor and art, and it's really exciting!

Posted by: Hrevelax | Saturday March 5, 2011 at 8:06 PM

This was awesome. I just saw a bunch of these at a comic book store. They had a whole NBM section, which was cool. I'd vaguely heard about the series before, so I wanted to pick one up, but I was sort of overwhelmed by all the different subseries I didn't know what to pick. Now I have a better idea of what it is, so I'll probably start with Zenith next time I go to that comic shop.

Posted by: bahamut | Wednesday August 22, 2012 at 10:36 AM

Thanks you so much for this listing - I was always confused where to start with this series!

I am looking forward to diving in now.

[btw, i think you have a typo in the first link, says 'shift' instead of 'shirt']

Posted by: Sam C | Friday January 31, 2014 at 1:42 PM

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