Dungeon: Early Years vol. 1 TPB: The Night Shirt – Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim

4 out of 5

Only European comics.  American comics have a flavor, British comics have a flavor, certainly Asian comics have a flavor – and we could break all of those down further regionally, I’m sure.  The same being true for the giant classification of ‘European comics,’ but which we’ll leave giant for stating how unique is the vibe of the Dungeon series, and how uniquely European that vibe feels.

Ostensibly a parody of Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy, the Dungeon comics series (told in the typical Euro album format, eventually translated to English) covers – what else – the rise and fall of the titular structure, with an anthropomorphic, ever-evolving cast.  The Early Years, then, logically covers the ‘rise’ part of that, although in volume 1 of the NBM English version, there’s nary a mention of such a thing.

Not that it matters for one’s enjoyment of the story: Young Hyacinthe is sent away from his father’s castle at to his uncle’s dwellings in the city’s capital to learn them big city ways.  Hyacinthe is a naive young chap, with prim and proper feelings regarding the law, and fairplay, that run perpendicular to the thoughts and actions of Michael, a snarky young businessman for whom Hyacinthe’s uncle pledges our lead’s servitude.  Circumstance, as it does, leads Hyacinthe to don a mask and right some perceived wrongs in the big city, some involving Michael, and some bringing him into contact with the assassin Alexandra, with whom he unfortunately becomes smitten.  During his acts of dering-do he seeks to craft a heroic sounding name, but it’s the nightshirt he wears that gets recognized, and so it went: The Nightshirt was born.  And we follow his first couple of adventures (which involve much bumbling) for several enjoyable pages in this edition.

The writing, while seeming to err on light comedy, dips into sex and violence, marking this as definitely not a kids book, despite the overall upbeat tone, Hyacinthe’s aw-shucks antics, and the somewhat Saturday Morning cartoon vibe to the way that events just sort of work out for the best.  (Again: European comics.). And behind the surface simplicity of the tale, that big, world-building concepts are expressed through pretty compressed dialogue and that we get a full sense of the characters pretty immediately is indicative of the long brewing skills at work.

Art-wise, Christophe Blain has a very sketchy but steady style; lines aren’t straight and shadows are hatched, but the figures remain on model and once motions / scale are established, he sticks to that, making it very easy to sink into and accept the world once you’ve gotten your footing.  And while I wouldn’t call the colors exactly grabbing, the majority of the book takes place at night and yet not a single page looks sludgy or boring.  On top of this you have the appealingly rough lettering, which works perfectly with the whole shambling aspect of Hyacinthe’s personality that ends up defining the tone.

Of course, while I’ve said this can be read on its own and it can, not a ton happens in these volumes.  In part that’s because the writing somewhat downplays everything as happenstance, but also that it’s only the first half of the Early Years saga, and there’s definitely a sense of set-up to the proceedings.  It should also be noted – and be warned, this uses a generalism to enforce a negative stereotype – that there’s this odd undercurrent of sexism in the story.  Its not an outright part of the plot, but the way the female character’s respond to (or told to respond to) affection is somewhat tunnel vision, and we fall back on the unfortunate trope of a “strong” woman also automatically being equated as without scruples.  The generalism here is that I’d say this tone is not unfamiliar in European comics… but we can sure as Hell flip that statement back on itself by recognizing how small a sample of Euro comics I’ve read.

Is that last bit a hard pill to swallow?  I really do feel like it’s only a minor aspect of the book, and perhaps something clouded by my bias, or even the translation.  The overwhelming bulk of the text is charming, and unique in tone and execution, a kind of lazy precision. Maybe not the only Dungeon volume to own, but certainly a great addition to an existing collection, or a fair place to dive in.