Genre fiction is often ridiculed, usually by uninitiated snobs, as cliché-ridden nonsense created for the lowest common denominator. Like many prejudices, the problem is that there are always examples that its detractors can trot out to back their statements up. It’s harder to prove they’re wrong simply because you’re going to have to persuade the person you’re arguing with to sample something that they expect to be crap, which is no mean feat.
As a result of this, genre fiction is also easy to parody. Take the fantasy genre for example: it doesn’t take much to turn a thick barbarian into a figure of fun; to ridicule the tiresome stereotype of buxom wenches in fur bikinis; to make the knight in shining armour look like a naive fool; or point and laugh at a hairy-footed hobbit. The best parody, however, often comes from people with a great love of the object they’re poking fun at, which can transform the humour from cruel sneering into lovingly crafted fun.
Sfar and Trondheim clearly fall into the latter camp. The Dungeon series starts off with a standard fantasy cliché, though one that’s probably more familiar to gamers than readers or movie-goers: a dungeon that’s stocked full of monsters with the basic intention of alluring adventurers into it. However, this isn’t a dungeon to protect a powerful sorcerer who’s doing works of evil – it’s more a commercial opportunity, a business, run by a small bird who calls himself the Guardian, but is basically more like the CEO of his own dungeon-like business.
The book starts off with a group of strange hooded creatures, looking to make a hostile takeover of the Guardian’s dungeon. So he gets his henchmen to track down the toughest barbarian currently fighting his way through the dungeon, with a view to commissioning him to hunt down the hoodies and eliminate the threat. A comedy of errors ensues when Herbert (a lowly duck – did we mention that all the characters were animals?) accidentally causes the death of the barbarian he’s supposed to be rounding up and tries to replace him to avoid getting into trouble. Instead, he’s sent on the mission, with Marvin, the Guardian’s henchman, to back him up.
Other than Marvin, Herbert’s only saving grace is the sword and scabbard he stole off the barbarian’s corpse. This magical weapon can talk, is somewhat derisive of Herbert’s fighting skills and won’t let him use the sword in combat until he’s proven himself. But luckily, it also has a bizarre side effect – if anyone tries to remove the sword from its wearer without killing him first, the wearer magically transforms into one the previous owners who, for generations, have been increasingly hardy warriors.
There’s stacks more in the book but we’re not in the business of spoiling pleasant surprises and this volume is rammed full of them. It’s fairly gently paced for a fantasy romp, with plenty of opportunity for the characters to grow, develop and get themselves into gently humorous situations. There’s fighting and violence of course, which doesn’t shy away from showing blood and gore, but this is handled in a cartoonish way – just think more Itchy & Scratchy than Tom & Jerry.
This isn’t really about anything other than the comedy though. Dismiss it for its genre roots at your peril, though we have high hopes that you won’t: we suspect that graphic novel readers have necessarily become more sophisticated in their appreciation of genre and its possibilities than probably any other group of cultural consumers. Dungeon is a classic example of using genre as both anchor and springboard, but ultimately creating something that transcends its roots – a wonderful comedy full of character and characters. We haven’t read anything quite like it.
Other titles in the Dungeon series: