Dungeon: Zenith vol. 2: The Barbarian Princess – Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim

4 out of 5

I started reading The Early Years of Dungeon prior to Zenith; seeing as how Zenith was published first (later retitled to ‘Zenith,’ I believe, when Early Years started), it’s fun to experience things in “reverse”: the retroactive backstories of these characters, and then the original incarnations which informed those. While I wouldn’t describe EY as being serious, by any means, it does have an emotional backbone of sorts (and some commentary) informing it, where Zenith – at least in these initial volumes – is all wondrous, non-stop, hilariously brilliant nonsense. But to qualify that a bit, it’s not exactly the kind of freewheeling nonsense that shows like Adventure Time use, where the writing vibes off of a seat-of-the-pants momentum that, to me, gets exhausting after a while; rather, Sfar and Trondheim keep rolling things out in a way that feels natural to their world, and manage to “ground” it by making it seem completely normal to all involved. A secret attack involving feathers that explodes people? Sure. Dragons love to sleep on gold? Makes sense. Invisible, bearded babies? Totally. …To run down a whole list of these little story bullet points would seem like a madlibs, but they’re not just throwaways for a single line – whatever the randomness is, Sfar and Trondheim invest in it, and make it work for that scene. This is then further tempered by a juxtaposingly droll tone – again, to the Dungeon cast, this is all common stuff – and a kind of jovial naivety, in which all these mythical beings are content understanding only the rules as they apply to them, and who are these other beings again?

The first book in this English re-publication covers Herbert’s initial training post-last volume’s identity mixup, part of which is him agreeing to figure out a way to boost dungeon revenue. …His plan for which is to distribute fake letters about the kidnapping of a princess, which, whoops, actually becomes real, and then members from this “fictional” princess’ land come looking for her.

The second book is sort of a spoiler for the first, in that it concerns complications involved when this same princess becomes more fully embroiled in dungeon business, but the main hijinx is a runaround in which Herbert, Marvin, and Alcibiades are tracking down stolen magic items.

This is laugh out loud stuff, swinging between crass – trolls just pee wherever, get over it – and, again, the nonstop conceptual inventiveness that’s combined with a Monty Python-paced stream of jokes, all of this building on itself so that bits and bobs of “lore” that’ve been established continue to inform things as we go on, confirming that we’re crafting a world and not exclusively a platform for fantasy riffs. So much fun.

…The knocks here: this was written in the early 2000s, I believe, which surely would’ve been late enough for “retard,” used as a pejorative, to have been a known no-no. It’s a little cringey when it shows up more than once. But perhaps more of an actual criticism and not a judgment, while, in general, the flow of dialogue here is part of the strip’s general momentum, there are occasional blips where the back-and-forths are so crowded that it’s no longer clear what a particular character is joking about or talking about. It’s possible this is a translation issue – that some context is lost when going to English – but there were definitely a few points where I found myself combing panels before and after for a better understanding of a certain aside, with no solution found.