Dungeon Zenith vol. 4: Outside the Ramparts – Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim

4 out of 5

The initial transition from the earliest mode of Dungeon comics – random, slapstick fantasy riffs – to a slightly more linear-feeling narrative, embracing the timeline and world building of the Early Years and Twilight tales, was a little rough. Though creative and funny as ever, the slight tonal change-up plus a switch to a new artist felt like it stalled the momentum slightly.

Now, ten years later, the same team as volume 3 – writer Joann Sfarr and Lewis Trondheim, with art by Boulet – returns, the break having seemingly “solved” for this transition, finding an exact middleground between randomness and storytelling; laugh out loud humor and suddenly affecting moments. Boulet, whose detailed style was already notable previously, has also become even more confident in their approach, allowing in a bit of Trondheim’s expressive goofiness while keeping things grounded and tight in their somewhat “traditional” European style.

As usual, the English volume collects two French ones: the first is a very direct followup to The Keeper’s problems with dungeon ownership, combatting chicken Delacourt’s new claim, tasking Herbert and Isis and Marvin with, first, the procurement of some stinky mushrooms which will solve everything, and then, later, going up against some fantasy-land accountant types who will make problems once / if Delacourt is out of the way. Both the foreground and background jokes here and Boulet’s character “acting” are all quite phenomenal, the story lurching from the mushroom gambit to the latter one seamlessly, carrying over a key story gag along the way that makes for rewarding punchlines. Sfar and Trondheim also take the opportunity to explore / add to our appreciation of their leads’ relationships – Marvin with Pirzween and Herbert with Isis. While a joke about a full body massage keeps hopping the line back and forth between silly and childish, this is a really raucous adventure that feels “true” to Dungeon.

However, it leaves us with a story thread to follow – what will The Keeper do next? – that the next book doesn’t, making the collection feel rather detached. The second story chronologically follows – Marvin sends Herbert to the dragon’s hometown to announce his marriage plans to Marvin’s mother – but it otherwise contains no storylinks to anything directly related to the dungeon, making it seem more like a “Bonus” story than a Zenith one. That aside, the runaround mystery – something’s happened to Marvin’s mother, and Herbert has to negotiate the weird rules of dragon-dom to figure it out – is supremely entertaining, touching upon those under-the-surface emotions that pop up in this series’ books every now and then. Plus: a splash page! Has that been done in these books yet? If so, it’s still a rarity, and Boulet nails it: the story jumps from a quirky detective tale to brutal, big action in a snap.

According to wiki, there’s still another volume of Zenith planned. I hope we don’t have to wait another decade to find out where we go from here.