Have to admit if I hadn’t received some promo emails from NBM, I probably wouldn’t have given Dungeon: The Early Years a second look in the bookstore. Its logo is deliberately redolent of a fantasy role-playing game, and to my eyes the majority of comics based on games have been less-than-stellar. But this "mature readers" French comic series by writers Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, with art this time out by Christopher Blain, turns out to be a sharply adult funny animal parody/satire: close to Stan Sakai’s wonderful ronin rabbit series Usagi Yojimbo — if Sakai had a darker, more underground sensibility.
NBM has released seven volumes of the Dungeon series, of which Volume Two: Innocence Lost is the most recent. In its native country, the material in this book was released as two albums (Une Jeunesse Qui S’Enfuit and Apres La Pluie), with a gap of “many years later” between the two storylines. Still, both halves fit under the volume’s title, though you could probably argue over just how “innocent” the book’s central figure truly is. Early Years centers on Hyacinthe, Dungeon keeper to be, charting the youthful chicken as an idealistic young swashbuckler called the Night Shirt. When we first meet our hero in “Innocence Lost,” he’s stealing the loot from a trio of brigands with the aim of passing the goods onto a charitable institution. “Money doesn’t stink if it can serve a good cause,” he says to himself. Unfortunately, the plunder proves harder to get rid of than it was to confiscate.
Hyacinthe winds up in the bedroom of the lady assassin Alexandra, who is in the midst of attempting to rob and murder a local lawyer, and after a tryst between the bird and this sharp-beaked dame, our hero gets a bevy of STDs. In his visit to the doctor, he meets the equine botanist Gabrielle who takes him on a trek to Necropolis, land of the dead. On their way, they get enmeshed within the labyrinthine legal system in a land of “tacky rabbits,” who imprison the two for trying to collect some barley. From there Sfar and Trondheim cheekily move their hero through a series of adventures that are as random as the moves in your average role-playing game. Each encounter pushes the story off into another direction, providing its writers with yet another land to send up.
The second story, “After the Rain,” depicts Hyacinthe several years down the road, mourning the death of his wife who was slain by his assassin mistress Alexandra. A much grimmer piece, it shows the future Dungeon keeper as a much less idealistic figure. No longer the Robin Hood-y Night Shirt, the chicken has become a moneyed landowner and head of the Assassins Guild. When his former teacher, Professor Cormor, attempts to enlist his aid in averting the destruction of the city of Antipolis, Hyacinthe refuses to help and instead embarks on a night of self-pitying debauchery. Cormor is forced to enlist Alexandra’s aid to save the city (the danger arises from a subway project that is undermining Antipolis’ foundations), but it all concludes in a disaster of Groo-like proportions — if the creators of Groo had been slipped a hit of really bad acid.
Writers Sfar and Trondheim capture their hero’s moral downfall deftly and believably: you never get the sense, as you did when R. Crumb turned his famous funny animal creation Fritz the Cat into a degenerate Hollywood type, that they’re grinding any axes at the expense of character. While some of the supporting cast meant less to me than I suspect they do to full-blown followers of the series, they’re each sketched in so efficiently that I was curious to learn more about ‘em.
Artist Christophe Blain proves adept at handling both funny animal cartooning and evocative medieval fantasy ‘scapes: his swashbuckling action scenes are particularly engaging, while the story’s thrillingly rendered catastrophic finale makes you wish that NBM was printing this series in a larger format than its approximately 7-x-9” book size. After the city’s fall, as two of the story’s characters attempt to flee to safety, the story grows even darker — and this new reader is planning on picking up a copy of Early Years: Volume One to see just how much innocence that fallen bird truly has lost.