Dungeon Twilight vol. 1: Dragon Cemetery – Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim

3 out of 5

For as much high quality output with which Lewis Trondheim is involved, it is, in retrospect, no surprise that such a rich concept as Dungeon – basically a fight-monsters-in-our-lair-and-we-profit business run by dungeon keeper, er, Keeper, and kept stocked with magics and brawlers by his cronies – that such a concept, combined with an anthropomorphic / surreal cast and the additional energies of co-writer / co-artist Joann Sfar, would almost immediately sprawl off to focus on all of its ridiculous and inventive bells and whistles. Mainly: the adventures of Herbert, dungeon-worker of cowardice and accidental owner of a magic sword; and Marvin, the tough, somewhat-naive-but-also-somewhat-smarter-than-the-room dragon who’s a dedicated worker and also actually Marvin’s pal. And no sooner had this regular cast been assembled than Trondheim and Sfar were spinning off other tales of the dungeon: its creation, and prior to that, its end – the Twilight books.

The thing that’s been tough about those spin-offs, though, is essentially reading them as standalones experiences, with what could be considered Easter egg connections. Those connections can be a lot of fun to discover, and some of them definitely help to flesh out how we got from there to here, but not in a way that directly makes that book’s narrative stronger. For me, for example, I’ve found they can actually get in the way: preconceived notions of tone, or how characters should behave. Dungeon starts out as very random and slapsticky, and when the world expanded, it got a little more linear. Early Years, by comparison, is much more serious; Twilight is much more visceral. They all share a loosey-goosey sense of reality, and are full displays of our creators’ inestimable imagination reserves, but nonetheless: Twilight is the spin-off that’s left me most adrift at its outset. It has a similar dynamic to ‘Zenith’ but in reverse: “The Dust King,” an aging, blind prisoner, replaces Herbert; the sword-swinging bunny warrior Marvin (confusingly named, but for a purpose) replaces our other Marvin, with some personality traits swapped between the two. But neither of these leads feels especially fun to be around on their own; instead, they’re waiting for purpose, which gets filled in somewhat haphazardly: the Dust King seeks his own death, and Marvin seeks… y’know, whatever he fancies in that moment.

The book’s sudden lurches into blood and guts are pretty funny, and the two do make for an enjoyable odd couple. Sfar takes over on art duties, and he’s well suited to the more grim tone and excess blood, but he can’t stand up to Boulet or Trondheim when it comes to crafting fun-to-look-at creatures: they all rather fit a norm of ghoulies and dragons, or pre-established types. That “close but not quite” vibe extends to the narrative approach: we lack a sympathetic lead. To replace that, Trondheim and Sfar try to recapture some of the shambling nature of the first Dungeon books, but it’s not as much fun without as compelling characters. There’s also a spike in sexual content here, which cropped up in Early Years as well, but here, as led by the more brutish Marvin, it’s… well, to point to a stereotype, it’s European (versus American comics) in how up front it is, but it still doesn’t help in finding a consistent tone.

None of this is to say the book isn’t, at points, laugh-out-loud silly, or still proof of the duo’s fantastical brain dumps of world-building. As a standalone experience, there’s still nothing quite as weird, and yet internally logical, as Dungeon, even amongst Trondheim’s other works; and as a companion to the series, it is, at a high level, fascinating to see / think about how the world has evolved to this state. But this is the LOUD version of that, and hopefully subsequent volumes will find a more tempered presentation, now that the basic setup is established.