Dungeon Quest reviewed by Jason Thompson

Posted by on July 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

The prehistoric idol on the front cover of Dungeon Quest Book One, the Mesopotamian-style frieze on the inside covers, and the idol’s dangling genitals tell a lot about the content of the book: This will be a story about ciphers, icons and penises. In the spirit of the Elfworld anthology, Lewis Trondheim’s Dungeon and Alex Robinson’s forthcoming D&D graphic novel, Joe Daly’s Dungeon Quest is an alt-comics tribute to roleplaying games, a once unspeakably nerdy pastime now enjoying a resurgence in hipster appeal. It’s not too far from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s tributes to videogame culture in Scott Pilgrim. But while Robinson and O’Malley use game tropes as a backdrop for character-driven stories, Daly’s characters are ciphers, and the monster-fighting, dungeon-crawling exploits are the point of it all. Loaded with hipster irony, profanity and long digressive conversations, it’s a loving tribute to half-repudiated childhood pleasures.

The idol represents Daly’s hero, Millennium Boy, a kid with a huge, bald head (like an angry Charlie Brown). Sick of homework and TV (“Stupid asshole homework assignment! Fuck it! Fuck it! Jesus Christ! I’m so fucking bored!”), he says goodbye to his mom, packs up his stuff in a hobo sack, and leaves the neighborhood in search of adventure. Along the way, he recruits a party of companions, beginning with friend Steve, who we first see sitting in his underwear watching TV. “I look at you and see a weak, de-vitalized man-child in his early thirties who still lives in his parents’ basement because he’s paralyzed by his fear of change…you’re a pussy, Steve!” Millennium Boy tells him. “You need to go over the hills and far away, dude…what you need is an ADVENTURE!”

Steve is convinced, and grabs his baseball bat and helmet and joins the quest. Soon they are attacked by two random jerks, whom they end up killing. They take the jerks’ stuff and wander past winos and abandoned lots until they find a merchant, where they upgrade their backpacks, steel-toed boots and kneepads for pelt armor and enforced-felt trench coats. Next they recruit Steve’s jock friend Lash Penis (“Lash? You mean Lash Penis?” “No, Lash Vagina!”), who lets Millennium Boy ride on his massive shoulders like Master and Blaster in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Millennium Boy’s massive cranium, his “power-dome,” serves him well as he studies magic and develops into the party’s wizard. They gather the fourth member of their party, the archer Nerdgirl, who joins them as they explore a tomb, fight skeletons and eventually leave the city for higher-level adventures apparently to be told in the next book in the series.

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At times, Dungeon Quest captures the anything-goes wanderlust of Calvin & Hobbes — if Calvin’s fantasies were real, set in rundown Los Angeles neighborhoods and loaded with swearing. The technophobic Watterson would never have known or acknowledged that there is exploration and fun in RPGs, but Dungeon Quest captures this spirit, among all the testosterone and eye-gouging. (One of the best pages, early on in the story, is an intricate full-page map of “The Lands Beyond the Suburbs of Glendale.”) Millennium Boy, like Calvin, does most of the talking, deflecting Steve’s qualms about the morality of killing people (“That’s a complex issue, buddy, but I’m not about to let this conversation freewheel into some kind of academic, fucking theological seminary, okay?”) and explaining everything about their world, from the mystical to the profane, with the same know-it-all absurdity (Steve: “How come Lash’s penis looks all curled up when it’s inside his pants?” M.B.: “Well, Lash wears very tight pants to improve his aerodynamics and his penis just gets, like, curled up and squashed in there…”). What Dungeon Quest especially embraces (ironically? Is everything in Dungeon Quest ironic?) is the machismo of all this manly adventure. It’s surely no accident that Nerdgirl says nothing and basically does nothing for all of the first book; this is a boys’ after-school fantasy, a man’s man’s world of boasting and fighting and accidental penis-touching. The closest thing to a character arc is the friendship between Steve and Millennium Boy, which deepens as Steve saves his pal from terrible dangers.

The book is self-aware about this bromantic beefiness, as about everything else, and the deadpan nature of the proceedings keeps it from degenerating into a nerd-rage power fantasy. (Millennium Boy eventually apologizes for calling Steve a pussy.) The characters’ blank-faced innocence and cleverly salty dialogue pull a certain sweetness out of the gore. Still, it’s got an indy cartoonist’s love of splatter, squalor and shock value for their own sake, perhaps in intentional contrast to the high-fantasy tropes of roleplaying games. Daly’s beautiful, detailed, high-contrast artwork, a bit like Charles Burns or Chester Brown, brings the squalor to life and is possibly the best thing about the book. The Suburbs of Despair, where the story begins, are a convincing maze of black skies and Southwestern tile-roofed houses, sidewalks littered with trash and overgrown with weeds, parking lots lying in the shadows of the buildings, empty lots guarded by chain-link fences. After the first, brain-splattering battle, the characters leave this semi-recognizable world for a realm of forests and ruins, and the art opens up from small, talky panels to full-page close-ups, multi-page fight scenes and long “silent” views of the wilderness. All this is drawn in a style that can only be described as anti-cinematic: the characters always look like they’re walking slowly even when they’re running; stand stiffly in 3/4 view like characters in a 16-bit isometric RPG; every scrotum wrinkle is drawn in detail, every shadow lies heavy and black on every tree stump and blade of grass.

Reading it as a unit, one of the problems with Dungeon Quest Book One is that it isn’t at all complete; it ends in media res with more adventures afoot, and little character development except for the characters’ continually improving stats and equipment (cutely shown with videogame-style status screens). There’s no indication that this is going anywhere or building anything, and only the dimmest rumblings of a bigger quest afoot, as prophesied by Glorious Redman, a Native-American shaman type whose presence might be seen as another self-aware cliché, or perhaps as part of the artist’s idea of “American” scene-setting, the same as the American suburbs from which the characters venture into Tolkien-esque wilderness. (Joe Daly is South African.) Redman coexists with tons of weed, as well as cameos by Jesus Christ and John the Baptist; meanwhile, in a running joke, every character insists that they are a poet, and Millennium Boy at one point claims he’s having a “shamapoetic” experience. Perhaps thoughts of ritual—like ritualistic plot elements—will turn to thoughts of religion, but so far, Dungeon Quest is a straightforward RPG plotline, and only seems to be getting more straightforward as the characters go farther from “reality” and deeper into the fantasy world. The dungeon is a ritual, the quest is a ritual, and the point is not the destination or the travelers but the road itself. It’s a really well-drawn, nicely detailed road, though, almost enough to keep you following it just to see what Daly draws next.

all images ©2010 Joe Daly

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