Melee Rounds: Dungeon Quest

Posted by on June 16th, 2010 at 6:38 AM

Rob reviews the first volume of what is promising to be quite an epic: Joe Day’s DUNGEON QUEST (Fantagraphics).

Joe Daly’s DUNGEON QUEST is at once the most self-aware and metatextual of the recent spate of fantasy-inspired alt-comics, as well as the one most devoted to the sheer fun of exploring a space and dealing with its inhabitants.  The book starts off with the usual Daly base: a slacker/stoner is vaguely dissatisfied with his life, and wanders around the streets of his South African beach community.  Along the way, he and whatever friends he happens to meet wax poetic, blather about random nonsense, and/or rant about some aspect of their lives.  It’s a relaxed form of storytelling that’s unusual for stoner humor; for example, Gilbert Shelton’s work has a manic energy to it that belies that fact that it’s mostly about getting high.  Daly’s work is more in the tradition of 90s autobio and slice-of-life comics wherein characters walk, talk and form a loose narrative around ideas and conversations.

Of course, these conversations have a lightness and humor to them that’s key to the charm of his comics.  Above all else, Daly is funny, and never pursues cheap laughs.  His line mixes clear-line simplicity with occasional psychedelic weirdness; bending the borders of reality is a trademark of his narratives.  When Daly lays down a genre story over this template, the resulting stories are enjoyable on several levels.  THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS book, for example, works as slacker humor, an ode to Tintin and a genuinely odd mystery/conspiracy story.

With DUNGEON QUEST, we’re introduced to Millennium Boy, a kid who’s bored by his homework and his “mind-numbingly mundane existence”.  He decides to go on an Adventure, and things start to become meta for him as his otherwise tedious suburban world suddenly offers up weirdness, monsters, thrills and adventure.  When he starts his adventure, we even get a characters snapshot that’s akin to a role-playing game character sheet or video game display.  The episodic nature of RPGs and video games is a perfect match for his relaxed storytelling preferences; as Millennium Boy and his party wander from place to place, they have plenty of time to ramble on about poetry, penises and ethics.

Millennium Boy and his friend Steve wander around until they encounter trouble and then get into combat, fighting with the random items they possess.  While Daly very carefully details the combat in loving detail, he abstracts it just a bit (you can see characters almost take turns like in a game) while making fun of it.  With characters possessing items like “leather sandals of the weasel” and “cargo baggies of the rhino”, one gets a real sense of the ridiculousness of the proceedings.  Even the names of the characters (including Lash Penis and Nerdgirl) sound like Playstation log-ons, another form of metacommentary that Daly uses so well.  At one point, Millennium Boy chastises Steve for calling an encounter a “fight”, saying that he should call it “melee, okay, just to be professional.”  At the same time, familiar video game elements like leveling up, going to trading posts, and interacting with random bystanders are all present.

What was surprising about this book beyond the laughs and sturdy structure, there were a number of simply beautiful images.  In a graveyard sequence, Daly’s use of hatching and shadows is skillfully matched against the characters moving through these spaces.  The splash pages where Lash goes through a healing pool, meets a bespectacled Jesus & John the Baptist and emerges whole are simultaneously breathtaking and ridiculous.  The contrast between the realistically-rendered bodies and the minimally-rendered faces (often no more than two dots, two lines and a squiggle) is key to DUNGEON QUEST’s ability to deliver both genuine excitement and laughs.  It’ll be interesting to see how he continues to balance these elements as the book takes a turn into a more traditional fantasy setting.

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