"Dungeon"s and Ducks

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Tired of the Hobbits of the Shire? Weary of Conan of Cimmeria? Bored of the Bones of Boneville? Perk up! A hero comes to your rescue: Herbert of Craftiwich. Well, he's sort of a hero. Actually, he's a duck, and a rather cowardly one at that. Well, he's sort of a duck, if ducks had arms and legs and wore vests. He's the central character of Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim's delightful sword and sorcery comedy series, "Dungeon," a French import, the second volume of which has just been released by NBM ($15). Imagine if the Muppets did Middle Earth and you'll have a pretty good idea of what makes "Dungeon" so charming and so wildly popular in other parts of the world.

Volume 1 of Sfar and Trondheim's "Dungeon"

Sfar and Trondheim's peculiar universe includes anthropomorphic animals, such as the clan of impolite rabbits who sit around the pub all day, mixed with monsters both familiar, like orcs, and new, like the Bermaw, a cute blob of meat that will jump down your gullet and expand until you burst. It all centers around the Dungeon, a giant castle filled with traps, labyrinths, monsters and gold, run as a business to attract adventurers seeking their fortune and fame. Among its many parodies, "Dungeon" manages to satirize modern office life in its portrayal of the Dungeon Keeper as a harried CEO, forever dealing with management issues (as when the monsters go on strike) and the very hostile takeover attempts by parties interested in his for-profit castle.

Here we first meet Herbert, an inauspicious "office boy" of the Dungeon. Unable to escort a barbarian guest to the front office due to the barbarian's untimely loss of his head, Herbert decides to impersonate him rather than face punishment. This poorly thought out decision gets him the assignment to infiltrate the ranks of the "Hooded Ones," a band of tentacled, soul-eating monsters bent on taking over the castle and getting out of their self-described "tacky" and "gloomy" subterranean den. Luckily for Herbert, Marvin, the Keeper's right hand man, a ferocious, winged warrior with the head of a crocodile, accompanies him. On the softer side, Marvin also happens to be a vegetarian whose religion prevents him from harming anyone who insults him.

Herbert gets stuck up a tree as Marvin looks on in "Dungeon" vol. 2

The series becomes a kind of buddy comic, with Marvin as the wizened vet and Herbert as the comical rookie. Their friendship forms the emotional center of the series, as Marvin gains increasing respect for Herbert, who matures from a 90-lb duckling to self-confident, if somewhat inept, adventurer. This relationship feels genuinely warm, and keeps the series from being just a simple parody, even when some of the gags are as funny as when Herbert and Marvin infiltrate the Hooded Ones' lair disguised as interior decorators, complete with foppish 18th century outfits.

Sfar and Trondheim both belong to the new generation of French comic artists that include the likes of David B., author of "Epileptic". (Sfar, whose graphic novel "The Rabbi's Cat" will soon be published by Pantheon, was recently chosen as one of TIME's four comic Innovators.) While both contributors take credit for the writing and art of "Dungeon," Trondheim appears to be the principle draftsman. Wonderfully printed in full color, the special visual style of the books contribute as much to the fun as the smart writing (translated by Joe Johnson, who keeps it cheeky). Filled with details, as the way the Keeper's pipe smoke always coils into little skulls and lost creatures, and wildly imaginative and amusing creatures, like the stopwatch-shaped robots that need to be wound up, "Dungeon" has the same kind of wit, style and completeness of a Jim Henson universe.

Volume 2 of Sfar and Trondheim's "Dungeon"

Overseas the "Dungeon" franchise, which began in 1998 under the title "Donjon," has expanded into more than twenty volumes, with more coming, many of them spin-offs of the original series. These first two volumes of the American "Dungeon" represent the four chapters of the series known in Europe as the "Zenith" group. This Fall NBM will next publish the series that takes place 100 years prior to "Zenith," followed by the series that takes place after "Zenith." Readers may be reminded of Jeff Smith's gigantic "Bone" series (see TIME.comix review), which coincidentally is now being reprinted in full color by Scholastic books, but "Dungeon" doesn't have quite the cohesive, epic story of "Bone." It also contains more explicit, but still "cartoony" violence and includes a few adult words. If it were animated, it would probably earn a PG-13.

Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim's "Dungeon" has all it takes to be as big here as in Europe — except maybe the support of a broad, comix-reading audience. Too bad. It's one of the best comedy / adventure comics in print, filled with amusing characters, great visual imagination and involving stories. You should let it take you away on the back of a hipplodontus.

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