Dungeon: Zenith vol. 1: Duck Heart – Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim

5 out of 5

So ridiculously inventive, and so frequently dodging expectations; this could be said of a lot works with which Lewis Trondheim has been involved, and it’s… equally true of the first volumes of Dungeon, kicking off in 1998 and collected in chunks (in English) by NBM.

Duck Heart is the first couple chapters of the ‘zenith’ of the anthropomorphic chicken-led ‘Dungeon’ – a money making venture in which a gigantic castle stocked with creatures and demons is frequently visited by barbarians and warriors.  When said chicken receives some visitors of his own who promise his downfall, he calls up the baddest and most-scarred of fighters currently in his ranks, and the duck sent to fetch said fighter – Herbert – accidentally, y’know, gets him killed.  So Herb dons the warrior’s sword belt (the sword which can’t be drawn until he’s proven himself…) and takes the task himself, guided / protected by the dragon Marvin.

All of this is told in a wonderfully slapstick-y style, that features some Trondheim signatures of comic violence and hilarious dialogue pitter-patter that sneaks puns and jokes in at every opportunity… while still somehow telling a story and building its characters.  It all seems like a ridiculously silly gag on RPG-style endeavors – go here, fetch this, do that – and yet, Herbert and Marvin, yukking it up via their Marx Brothers gags along the way, form an endearing bond of friendship, while the world of Dungeon is slowly but surely crystallized with every weird creature and villain we meet.  Frequently, the story dodges in ways that are counter to how this setup would normally proceed: Herbert’s attempt at ‘disguise’ is soon confessed to, and Trondheim and Sfar remain rather stringent on the rules that prevent the duck from drawing his sword, requiring all sorts of honest workarounds that are fully within the character’s attributes of bravado and cowardice.  Every little tossed off detail – Marvin cannot attack those who insult him – feels like it’s followed up on enough to not make it tossed off, and the same goes for the various side characters we meet, who are given names and dotted references so that they, too, become official parts of the Dungeon canon.

The bad guys are foiled in volume 1; Herbert takes up further training in volume 2.  Fortunes are gained and lost within pages, but it just keeps rambling on – all that stuff isn’t the point.  The point can be found within the whole of the experience, urging us along from the ridiculous to the mundane to the exciting and to the overkill of facing down millions of goblins hidden behind thousands of doors, backed up by a brief but oddly affecting conversation on destiny…

Dungeon is a breezy, addictive read.  And its brilliance lies in how casually it establishes its dominance.