Deep in the Donjon

I wasn’t sure where to start, now that the introductory articles are over. Should I focus on a mainstream, and therefore easily accessible, series? Should I select, instead, some obscure but brilliant work, while knowing that it would utterly impossible for a huge majority of sequart readers to actually get the book? Should I, then, deal only with works available in translation? Fortunately, last month’s piece reminded me of a worthy candidate: a widely available series, by notoriously exigent authors, which also happens to be partially translated in English. Let me introduce Donjon (faithfully translated as Dungeon), co-created by Joan Sfar and Lewis Trondheim.

Not surprisingly, Donjon focuses on the story of a dungeon. Yes, that kind of dungeon, complete with a dungeon-keeper, a dragon, a treasure, a whole gallery of monsters and, of course, some adventurers This is not only a fantasy world, it is also very much a role-playing-gamer world, with more than a passing nod to the D&D and Runequest folklore. While the dungeon is not the only setting displayed in the series, it is more than just a location, it serves as a landmark around which the different storylines invariably revolve. Donjon is not character-centered as much as dungeon-centered. Speaking of characters, these stray pretty far from the usual fantasy representations, since most of them are funny animals, similar to those used in other Trondheim books (Lapinot being the best known example). Thus, Herbert of Vaucanson, the main character of the series is a duck. Actually, all the inhabitants of Vaucanson are ducks. Similarly, all the people in Zootamauxime are rabbits. The animals are not just stand-ins for human beings, as is usually the case with Trondheim, who even pictures himself as a hawk, in his autobiographical books : here they are really meant to be animals. The rabbits may wear clothes and be able to talk, yet they eat carrots and usually end up devoured by predators. Predators? Well, monsters really. While these tend to have some animal traits, they’re pretty much your usual fantasy monsters. You even get a goblin king living in a cave under a mountain. Except, of course, when he is having a drink outside.

Summing up the plot is not as easy as in most heroic fantasy series, because Donjon happens to tell a very very long story. There are more than a hundred volumes in the main storyline, two collections dedicated to self-contained stories and various off-shoots (including, of course, a role-playing game). The trick here is that there are still a few blanks to be filled, yet; we already have volumes -99 to -97, -84, 1 to 5 and 101 to 104. No date has yet been announced regarding the completion of the project but the scope of the enterprise is what makes it so alluring. This main storyline is divided into three eras: The Early Years (potron-minet in French), Zenith and Twilight (Crépuscule). In the meantime, the whole story of the dungeon unfolds, from its creation to its decline. Each story has its own hero, its own penciler, but they are all scripted and layed out by Sfar and Trondheim.

The Early Years (4 volumes in French so far) follow the adventure of the future founder of the Dungeon. This young bird is an alluring rogue, under a secret identity, “the nightgown” in a dark medieval city. Christophe Blain, the author of Isaac the Pirate, does a great job of capturing this semi-realistic medieval atmosphere. The adventures depicted here are modest, delicate, and reminiscent of swashbuckler movies. A lot of bravado, unlikely escapes, forbidden love plus some epic swordfights from time to time. It actually took me a while to see the link between the events described here, the formation of a young man, and the events in the two other series, but in the latest volume, things are turning darker, and the dungeon itself should make its appearance pretty quickly.

Zenith (5 volumes) is the keystone of Donjon. It focuses on Herbert of Vaucanson and Marvin the Dragon (more of a draconian, really), two employees of the now flourishing dungeon. Because, you see, a dungeon is an enterprise. You let some adventurers in, you provide them with some adventures and some easily gained treasures, hoping they’ll bring back some colleagues which you’ll happily kill and rob of their possessions. Frankly, the economic model isn’t the most convincing part of the series, but there’s real pleasure in seeing the notoriously miserly dungeon keeper try to manage his monsters, treasures and employees, while ensuring his business remains profitable. I have to assume, though, that a fair number of the jokes are lost on people unfamiliar with the clichés of D&D-derived RPGs. Fortunately for them, the adventures of Herbert and Marvin do not rely solely on this folklore. Outside the dungeon, we find ourselves in a high fantasy setting, a fairly civilised country with powerful wizards, mysterious magical shops, dragons, cave-dwelling orcs and goblins: somewhere between The Hobbit and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar. Drawn by Lewis Trondheim (until volume 5, which I have yet to read) in his familiar post-Barks style, these volumes are the best way to enter the world of Donjon, since they use familiar codes, an easily understood universe, and are definitely the most light-hearted tales within the main storyline. Yet, while the atmosphere is playful and the monster bestiary colourful, seriousness progressively creeps in, as Herbert grows more self-assured and begins amassing objects of great power. You know the line: great power, great responsibilities…

[Note : the very first volume of Zenith, A Duck Heart, is unfortunately one of the least successful of the whole series, since it is at once rather crudely drawn and somewhat unsteadily plotted. Things fall into place as soon as volume two, but you need to forgive these initial imperfections to get there.]

This seriousness turns into utter darkness in Twilight (4 volumes), where we discover that Herbert has become the Great Khan, the dark lord oppressing the world from his dungeon. Only Marvin, the old and blind draconian, now known as King Dust, can lead the rebellion against his rule. Those are dark fantasy stories, with cruel rituals, powerful yet half forgotten magic, plus a few technological oddities. The hero (but is there really one?) is a rabbit warrior also called Marvin, engaged in a picaresque quest to find a girl and save the world. Joann Sfar illustrates the first three volumes, and he has declared that he made a mistake in trying to adapt his usual style to a fantasy world. Quite frankly, this is far from his best work, especially in volume 101. Things get a lot better afterward, and when Kerascoet takes over, the transition is smooth.

Next to the main storyline, two collections of independent stories have been created :

Donjon Parade collects stories of Herbert and Marvin, taking place between volume 1 and 2 of Zenith. A great fun read, illustrated by Manu Larcenet (Le combat ordinaire). Though similar in tone to the early Zenith stories, these allow for a more thorough exploration of the dungeon. This is supposedly written for children, but Sfar has stated on several occasions that he does not believe in age classification. Anyway, if you enjoy the main series, there is no reason not to get this as well. If it ever gets translated, that is.

Finally, Donjon Monsters is a series of tales focusing on specific monsters from any of the three eras of the dungeons. Sfar and Trondheim script this as well, but each volume is illustrated by a guest artist, and the stories tend to fit the mood generated by their respective style. The list of these guest artists is impressive, ranging from children book specialists (Yoann) to noted avant-gardists (Killofer). Enjoyable as this diversity may be, it can be somewhat disturbing, since there is no way to know beforehand if the story will deal with a rabbit-eating-furry-monster or with dark-and-gritty-aquatic-tragedy. The strength of Donjon comes from the scope and the coherence of the project, and Monsters sacrifices some of this coherence for brilliance’s sake. Taken individually, though, each volume is a fine bande dessinée.

Du Rififi chez les brasseursDonjon Monsters 6 (Yoan, Sfar, Trondheim)

So, why should you read Donjon?

First, because it has been translated. Each of the five English volumes collects two stories (one Early Years and two each of Zenith and Twilight), for what seems to be a fairly reasonable price. I don’t know much about these translations, but I haven’t heard any complaint, so I’ll assume they’re fine. There is still a lot to be translated, but those 250 pages should keep you occupied for a while. Plus, you even get to buy them in a proper book shop, which gives you an opportunity to proselytize a little. More importantly, though, Dongeon demonstrates masterfully that a bande dessinée can appeal to a wide readership without having to sacrifice its edge. To be sure, you will not find many Donjon readers older than 40, since the whole dungeon-and-dragon imagery only became popular in France after the 80′s, but under 40, pretty much anyone can and do read it.

The main problem with fantasy in BD (and in most comics as well), is that it lacks ambition. The authors know that Conan has been done masterfully in various media. They have read The Lord of the Rings, the Runequest source books or La Quête de l’Oiseau du Temps, seen Dark Crystal and The Princess Bride, and confronted with these masterpieces, they only try for second best. Since they have to introduce a whole world, they will resort to the lamest stereotypes and give them strange sounding names, while hoping the art will be flashy enough to rescue the whole thing. Hello, Battlechaser. On the other hand, if you read Bone or Donjon, you will find characters. Yes, they draw some of their traits from well-known archetypes, but archetypes are what mythology is made of. Stereotypes, on the other hand, are just what cheap popular culture relies on. The scope of Donjon, this colossal attempt at creating a whole universe over a hundred volumes allow Sfar and Trondheim to dwell leisurely on their characters, to provide them with an authentic voice. They question stereotypes, while wisely refusing to simply reverse them. During Zenith, Herbert is a duck, wearing a magical sword that he cannot draw, yet he does have something of a hero in him. And also something of a philosopher. Donjon is not a pastiche of classical fantasy, à la Terry Pratchett. It is at once light-hearted and a very serious enterprise. The gap between Zenith and Twilight in particular acts like a black hole for the entire series. Something happens in these yet to be written volumes, which radically alters both the heroes and the world which contains them. A promise of greatness for both Herbert and Marvin looms over their earlier adventures and provides a tone of intense melancholy in the post-lapsarian tales in Twilight. Donjon may poke fun at some of the most blatant clichés of the genre, but at its heart, it tries to recreate a grand narrative, to retrieve the mythological components lost behind the fossilized components of routine fantasy.

Managing the dungeon in Donjon Zenith 3 (Sfar, Trondheim)

This is a worthy try, an impossible project, but still something that deserve your support. Sfar and Trondheim are brilliant story-tellers, who bring into each of their tales a lot of intelligence as well as deep respect for their readers, their characters and the genre they are working in.

Try fantasy without cynicism. Try Donjon.

All the illustrations are ©Delcourt

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Hi, I'm French. While completing my Ph.D, I've also done a lot of work in and about comics over the last few years, including a published BD, illustrated by my talented sister and an ongoing personal project. This is all in French, though.

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Also by Nicolas Labarre:

The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


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