Round and Round: Dungeon Twilight 3: The New Centurions

Posted by on May 24th, 2010 at 5:48 AM

Rob reviews the third volume of NBM’s translation of Dungeon Twilight, entitled THE NEW CENTURIONS.  It’s by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Kerascoet & Obion.

By design, the TWILIGHT world of Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar’s DUNGEON was one of crumbling corruption, a metaphor made literal when the world (Terra Amata) exploded into thousands of floating island chunks.  If EARLY YEARS is their take on high fantasy, and ZENITH is their gentle spoof of Dungeons & Dragons-style sword and sorcery, then TWILIGHT is their poking fun at post-apocalyptic science fiction.  As always with these NBM translations (which are truly a boon to every comics-loving reader), two volumes from the original French album series were included back-to-back, although at a significantly smaller page size.

That reduced size can be a problem during action sequences with a lot of characters, which was the case in the first story, “The New Centurions”.   On pages with huge battle setpieces with hundreds of characters, their effect is a bit muted by shrinking down the panels.  Similarly, there are other pages with 12 panels or more, and the result is to cramp the story.  These complaints are not new, and there’s not much that can be done about them given that many companies (including NBM) have tried to sell French format-sized albums only to be met with indifference.  For whatever reason, the smaller digest books (about 9 x 7″) simply sell better.

“The New Centurions” was pretty much more of the same for TWILIGHT.  Alliances are made, alliances are betrayed, older characters like Marvin and Herbert have to deal with their annoying (and frequently quite lethal) children in a series of clever plot-twists.  The art by the husband-and-wife team of Kerascoet really captured the essence of Trondheim’s original conception of these characters, proving equally adept at depicting humor and all-out carnage.  What’s interesting about this volume is that it ends on a bit of an anti-climax.  Herbert’s great plan of conquest is foiled by an entirely new plot twist that literally removes an entire playing field, while Marvin gets so bored by the whole chain of events that he runs off to have more adventures before he dies.

I’m not sure if Sfar and Trondheim got bored themselves with the political intrigues that had come to dominate the series, but the next volume, “Revolutions”, was very much a sharp left turn from what had come before.  In this story, the Marvins fly off looking for adventure but crash land on a small, swiftly turning floating island.  They quickly discover that if you don’t keep running, then you will literally fall off and die.  Along the way, the encounter assorted predators, lone packs of survivors who are constantly exhausted (if free), and a huge estate being hauled around by thousands of workers.  Those workers do so with the promise of a small amount of leisure time before they have to haul the city around with them again.

The workday metaphor to be found here is amusingly writ large on the page, but it’s not exactly a profound or fresh concept.  Indeed, depicting workers on a treadmill or as rats running on a wheel is a pretty common idea, one seen quite recently on an American television commercial.  More interesting to me, at least, was the level of detail Trondheim & Sfar worked into this story surrounding this high concept.  It’s as much an anthropological study as it is a comic, with Trondheim & Sfar thinking long and hard about the literal consequences of living on a world where every waking moment must be spent finding ways to either stay in motion or die–and then playing it for laughs.  The most interesting subculture was that of a literally underground society that dropped out of the need to race around.

The artist Obion’s style fits the material well, and this story suffers less from being shrunk down to fit the digest size.  The DUNGEON series should be seen as Trondheim and Sfar goofing off and having fun.  Each volume seems to me to be both a continuation of a master plot and an attempt to work through a storytelling thought exercise they assigned themselves.  As a reader, one can detect how much fun they have with this series, and that’s a major reason why it’s such a pleasant and occasionally engrossing read.

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