“Dans le Donjon, tout est bon.”
“In the Dungeon, everything is good.” This is the title of a mini reading guide available in libraries, coming to the help of newcomers who would like to try on Joann Sfar’s and Lewis Trondheim’s gigantic undertaking. And such a guide is very much welcome to discover what is becoming, album after album, a showcase of a certain generation of comic book authors.
To begin weith, let’s summarize quickly the concept behind the Dungeon series : more than 300 albums scheduled ( !) to tell the story of the Dungeon, a history broken down in three different eras for as many main sub-series — Potron-Minet (“The Early Years”, set far in the past), Zénith (the present) and Crépuscule (“Twilight”, set far in the future). And, added to those main series, Donjon Parade (set between the first and second volumes of the Zenith series) and the Monsters series which focuses on a secondary character from the main series, and thus completes their narrative.
And if this wasn’t complicated enough, the publication is done out of sequence, with (at least) three new albums a year coming to extend one of those series. Difficult to know where to stand, and that’s why the little guide mentioned above comes in handy to know quickly how to handle this thing. Each album has its given place in the global chronology, indicated by its level. To wit, Potron-Minet titles begin at level -99, Zénith titles at level 0, Crépuscule titles at level 100 — and the Monsters titles are all over the place.
May the series specialists excuse this little summary — it is important to expose the idea I want to develop here. Let me explain.
Fantasy novels, an anglo-saxon specialty, most often sacrifice to the tradition of the map in the first pages of the book, as a promise of escapism and adventures with their “here be dragons”, a space to discover and claim for yourself, topologically rooting the narrative in another universe even before it begins.
Dungeon has no map — worse, Dungeon doesn’t even have a set geography, as can be seen with the frequent errings of characters in search of the famous location. Obviously not satisfied with this state of things, the authors go even further by eradicating all geography with the explosion of Terra Amata in the Crépuscule series — finally introducing a map which, unfortunately, is moving and therefore hasardous to use.
Dungeon has no map — but Dungeon has a chronology. And that’s quite a difference.
Instead of building their universe in a linear way, with a constant progression, Sfar and Trondheim keep on enriching it. By stating from the start a beginning, a middle and an end to their saga, they create a historical dynamic, in which each new puzzle piece comes both completing and bringing a new light on the whole.
Little by little, are revealed the lives of an impressive number of characters, who come up again and again, and for which the reader (faced with a still parcellar narrative) will try and piece their evolution and wonder about their future.
In this way, each main series uses as a lead a “debuting” character (Hyacinthe in Potron-Minet, Herbert in Zénith and Marvin the Red in Crépuscule), through which the reader can discover the world. Added to them is Marvin, the only character present in all three series, and who in a certain way follows in his lifecycle (from young dragon following his mother to elder hovering at Death’s gate) the evolution of Terra Amata.
Again, it is this historical perspective (between Hyacinthe and the Guardian, between Herbert and the Great Khân, between Marvin and the Dust King) which supports this whole project and constitutes its main strength. If the heroes from the Fantasy classics spend their adventures mastering space, teh characters of Dungeon have no holds on time — they grow old (and sometimes they die), they have kids … and often regrets.
This brings to mind another monumental work, Blazac’s La Comédie Humaine, with its constant rewriting to ensure the coherency of the whole. Something that Sfar and Trondheim never resort to, managing to build a daunting story in which everything is organized and structured, and in which even the older pieces (from a publishing standpoint) do not appear as less refined than the most recent.
And even if the parodical tone of the first Zénith albums has progressively left place to an overall darkness, with the weight of a unraveling world condemned to decay, those lighter episodes still hold their place in the middle of the edifice — with the change from one main character to the other (from Hyacinthe to Herbert), and the temporary return to innocence.
This overall coherency is also reflected in the graphic approach. Each main series is stamped/identified with a style (Blain/Potron-Minet, Trondheim/Zénith and Sfar/Crépuscule), to the point that the replacing artists have been choosen for their similarity with the reference. In this perspective, the Monsters series with different artists propose an “author’s vision”, exploring the subjective/psychological time of the characters by relying more often on narrative texts.
To this day, the ambitious Dungeon is far from complete — at best, it’s only ten per cent of the initial (and crazy) project that have been published, but it’s also in this incompleteness that resides its strength, leaving narrative intervals full of poential, some tempi incogniti to explore. For instance, the mysterious website Donjon Pirate published pages from upcoming (of fictive) albums — of unknown provenance or legitimity, prolonging this multiforma and manyfold work.
But Sfar and Trondheim do not intend to stop there. Announced for 2007, Le grand animateur, eleventh volume in the Monsters series and drawn by Stanislas should be a level -400 — pre-historic, in a way.
As if, after having orchestrated the apocalyptical end of Terra Amata, they had to tell its genesis to get some sort of closure, and in this way ensure some sort of completeness to the project by defining entirely it’s chronology.
Because once again — and as is written in Le dojo du lagon — “in this new world, time is more important than space”.
- In particular in Jean-Jean la terreur.
- See the trilogy Armaggedon, La Carte Majeure and Le noir seigneur.
- Litterally or through a form of travel litterature, from Conan the Barbarian who becomes King of Aquilonia to Bilbo and his “There and back again”.
- After all, the third Crépuscule book is titled Armaggedon.