Monday, 15 March 2010

Review: Dungeon Quest: Book One by Joe Daly (L'Association, 2009; Fantagraphics, 2010)

Note: Although set to be published in by Fantagraphics this spring, this review is based on the already-released French edition of Dungeon Quest. As such, the content of the following article reflects any alterations that may have been made to names and dialogue in translation.

If I had to reduce the following review down to just one line, I would tell you that Dungeon Quest Tome 1 is about the three “P”s: Parody, Profanity and Poetry. Written and drawn by the man behind Scrublands and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, Joe Daly, Dungeon Quest is a caustically funny mock-epic that sends-up both the sword and sorcery fantasy genre and the evergreen nerdish past-time of role-playing.

The dreary indolence of suburban life acting as the catalyst for adventure, the colossally-craniumed Millenium Boy (Strengh: 3; Intelligence: 50), the cast of the book violently punch, kick, clobber and stab themselves through a world that ranges from urbane to insane. With no real focus other than adventuring itself, MB sets off from his parents' residence (in the suitably banally-named “Glendale”) with nothing more than a bandana, his underwear and a Swiss Army knife, the volume concludes at the fantasy-inspired Fireburg Forest with the characters fighting street thugs, murderous molemen, and reanimated pirate skeletons along the way.

Translation: "MOLEMEN!!!"

The term “comic book” is often maligned as a misnomer amongst the "sequential-art" crowd, but here (for a change) it is dead on. Irreverent yet affectionate in its aping of its subject, Dungeon Quest parodies the clichés of role-playing with knowing gags that are as applicable to the basement-dwelling AD&D crowd as they are to bedroom-bound RPG video gamers. One of the book’s chief highlights is the reoccurring “status-screen”-style updates of the individual character development and equipment. Anyone who has ever played any form of video game RPG will be able to identify with the inanely long list of obsolete items the protagonists offer traders they encounter.

The characters themselves are a continuation of this theme: Millenium Boy (whose design Daly's fans will recognise from earlier work) takes the role of wizard and leader, Steve (Strength: 14; Intelligence: 48) acts as warrior, and the hulking Lash Penis (Strengh: 30; Intelligence:45; Name: Awesome) plays the part of the brute. Paradoxically enough, one of the most memorable characters is the most silent. Blending into the background, is the team’s bespectacled archer, Nerdgirl  (Strength: 8; Intelligence: 68). Appearing to be some sort of naive misogynistic-nerd fantasy woman, she provides the group with sandwiches and doesn’t utter a single word throughout the volume. As determined as they are deluded, together they form the motley crew necessary for any dungeon-trawling adventure.

It's difficult not to like a book that features a wild hallucinatory vision of Jesus and John the Bapist healing a wound caused by a skeleton pirate. However, my favourite joke in the book is a recurring one. Barring the taciturn Nerdgirl, every significant character claims to be a great poet (as is often the way with sensitive tortured geeks and bodybuilders, in my experience), creating a lovable cast of wannabe warrior-scribes.

Selected Translations: " Leather Jacket of the Mamba", "Baggy Bermuda-shorts of the Rhinoceros (with a little dagger)", "Club with block inserted"

As with Daly's other work, the illustration in Dungeon Quest has a charismatic simplicity that is brought to life by the addition of small secondary details in environment or characterisation; small articles or movements that may initially go half-noticed. Technically, Daly mixes ligne-claire cartoonishness is with detailed, extreme, monotone shading, which is conversely both broody and delightful. Put into a (very) awakward analogy: the book's look makes me think of the artwork of Nintendo's classic EarthBound video game, had it been partially directed by Charles Burns. I warned you about that analogy didn’t I?

Daly seems to have a great understanding of visual comedy, not just in his supplemental sight-gags or genre parody, but in the rhythm of the narrative itself. Whilst being compared to Quentic Tarantino might not be as prestigious as it once was, the rhythmic interchange between Dungeon Quest's engaging comedic dialogue and ultra-violent (almost slapstick) action sequences resemble those seen in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I really didn't want to label the comic as "postmodern", but I have just compared it to two movies and a video game. I concede.

Translation: "AAAAH!"

Winning a coveted Jury prize at the 2010 Angouleme festival, Dungeon Quest succeeds on so many levels: the art and character design are superb, the dialogue is acerbic yet measured, the page construction has a flow to it that verges on perfection, the meter of the storytelling is spot-on, and, most importantly, it’s actually really funny. Although the visuals remain outlandish for the most part, Daly’s humorous dialogue (translated here by Fanny Soubiran) strikes a fine balance between ludicrousness and bone-dry delivery.

As the first volume in a series projected to last for a good few books yet, readers are advised to party-up with the cast of Dungeon Quest immediately. I, for one, will be following this series with suitably nerdish avidity from this point onwards. Leaving you with the promise of a few choice penis-gags thrown in for good measure; the English-language edition of the graphic novel is currently set for release this June and can be pre-ordered directly from Fantagraphics or the online book merchant of your choice.


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