Dungeon Zenith Vol 1: Duckheart Review Pt 1

Re-visiting Trondheim & Sfar's Epic High Fantasy Universe

Created by Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim

Writer: Joann Sfar
Artist:  Lewis Trondheim


Release Date (in the US): Aug 1, 2004

Reviewed by Roger An 10/12/2016


Way back in August 2004, when I was just an undergraduate student, I walked into my favorite comic shop, Midtown Comics in Manhattan, and saw an interesting single comic book issue titled "Dungeon #1."  The cover featured a cartoonishly drawn but appealingly anthropomorphic dragon wearing a horned skull, and holding a battle axe. Back then and today, I remain a Dungeons & Dragons super-fan, and my curiosity was piqued.

I flipped through this black and white issue, and was instantly charmed by its cast of anthropomorphic animals, and sold on the premise.  Little did I know, that over the next decade, the next 18 graphic novels, would become my favorite comic series ever.

Dungeon is a French comic created by Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, translated into English by the indie comic book publisher NBM.  About 1-2 graphic novels were released in the US each year since 2004, until the entire series ended with this year's Dungeon: Monstres Vol 6: The Great Animator.  I am going to review each volume in order of their release date, starting from the first.

Back in 2004, I had picked up 8 black & white single issues of Dungeon, and was psyched to hear that they would be collected into color graphic novels in an unconventional 6.6 inch by 9 inch color format.  I then found out that the French editions are much larger and hardcover.  Regardless, I've enjoyed reading these smaller graphic novels translated into English.  They still pack an emotional wallop, and can have you laughing out loud raucously.  Readers are delighted with unexpected plot twists, and charming characters whose development span several eras of family dynasties.  The humour and cartoonish style surprises the reader with deep philosophy quandaries and epic adventure.  Who would expect all that from a story about a duck, chicken, and vegetarian dragon?

The 18 graphic novels are split between 3 time periods: Early Years, Zenith, & Twilight, which each represent the past, present, and future of the DUngeon.  I've always recommended that friends start with Zenith Vol 1, and then go to Early Year Vol 1.  Zenith Vol 1: Duckheart sets up the series, and introduces Herbert of Craftwich, a wiley Duck who works at the Dungeon.

Herbert the Duck is a hapless minor employee of The Dungeon, a vast labyrinth of monsters & traps, run as a business by the Dungeon Keeper: a pragmatic chicken.  The Dungeon generates profits by attracting adventurers who are lured in by a few easy monsters guarding easy coin, and then dispatched by more competent creatures.   The deceased adventurers' belongings then enrich the Dungeon's coffers.  It's honest hard work, and the Keeper may be stingy but fosters a familial camraderie between his monstrous employees.  Herbert is accidentally drawn into a nefarious plot to takeover the Dungeon.  Hilarity and high adventure ensues.

I've communicated all the info you need, to decide whether you want to purchase and read this issue.  From this point onwards, I am going to talk about plot-points that may be spoilers, so don't read below the SPOILER SPACE graphic, if you don't want to ruin any surprises!

We open Duckheart with the Hooded Ones attempting to intimidate the Keeper into selling the Dungeon to them.  At first glance the Hooded Ones appear to be like D&D Mind Flayers.  We find out later that they're even more terrifying under their cloaks!  Marvin the Dragon is the Keeper's Right-Hand Man, and he dispatches two Hooded Ones on the Keeper's command.  The introduction talks about the Dungeon having a Dragon as Old as Time, so we wonder what the difference is between the man-sized Marvin, and your standard dinosaur-sized treasure hording dragon.  Later in the Dungeon series, we find out that Marvin's race is called Dragonistas.  They're referred to interchangeably as dragons, saurians, and crocodiles.  Perhaps these are all apt descriptors, as Marvin is more than just a fearsome warrior.  He turns out to be one of the more compelling, mysterious, and fascinating individuals in the entire epic.  His first appearance here only hints at what a deep character he grows to be.  I could say the same about many seemingly minor characters in coming pages, who get entire issues devoted to them.

Marvin's race of Dragonistas remind me of Dragonlance's Draconians, or 3rd Edition D&D's Dragonborn.  Regardless, I really like the myth-building of what the Dragonistas can do, and their strict religious culture.  We find out that Marvin is a vegetarian, and can't strike anyone who insults him, until attacked.  The first book sets up the Keeper, Marvin, Alcibiades, and Horus as the Dungeon's A-Team.

Herbert is just a low level gofer/errand-boy who's tasked with retrieving a muscle-bound barbarian, Ababakar Octoflea: "Prince without a principality who stomps on the tombs of kings!"  When Herbert calls out Ababakar's name, he is momentarily distracted.  Ababakar is promptly slain by one of the Dungeon's fearsome but simpleminded guardians: Zongo.  Zongo, like a Pokemon, can only say his own name: "Zongo."

Herbert can't pass off Zongo as the slain barbarian, and decides to impersonate Ababakar, which is ridiculously funny.  You have this skinny duck wearing a breastplate three times his size, and spitting out lines like, "Gangway, fetid gnome.  My virility needs space."  Though the Keeper is skeptical, he tasks Ababakar with finding the Hooded Ones, and massacring every last one.  As insurance, the Keeper has Horus remove Herbert's heart, and keep it in a fish bowl.  Horus's necromantic abilities are disturbing visuals, and choosing to represent him as a vulture is a nice touch.

Herbert is hopelessly outmatched on his quest.  The Keeper knows as much, and dispatches Marvin to assist him.  Herbert is mounted on a hipplodontus, which I believe the authors meant to be the classic D&D monster: the Catoblepas.  (See Gallery Image)  The visual is similar, and when Marvin comes upon the carcass of the hipplodontus, he says it must've been a difficult fight.  I recall the Catoblepas to be an unassuming looking swamp monster, that hid a deadly surprise: the ability to shoot death rays out from its eyes.  I recall reading its entry in the Monsters Manual and doing a double-take.  Never actually used the Catoblepas in any campaigns I was DM'ing, because I didn't want to outright kill my players!

Herbert is immediately captured by Hooded Ones, and Marvin plays detective to find out where he is.  Marvin stops by Zedotamaxim: a village of racist rabbits. Yes, you read that correctly: Zedotamaxim is a village of racist rabbits, who are always very mean, and get severely punished by our protagonists.  They show up many times throughout the series, and it's always noted that their only positive trait, is that they make good beer, and are dressed in suspenders that look very similar to lederhosen.  Gee, I wonder if the French authors were poking fun at Germans here.

The Hooded Ones are based underground in rooms decorated with skeletons that evoke the Catacombs of Paris.  They dine on spectral energy, and want the Dungeon for its veritable feast of dead souls.  The removal of Herbert's heart turns out to be a huge stroke of luck.  Herbert escapes many dangerous situations for having his heart removed.  While captured by the Hooded Ones, he's able to play dead, for lack of a pulse.  This doesn't stop them from torturing his presumed corpse with the "whacking wheel," that indeed looks quite painful!

Herbert is one of the most unique protagonists, I've ever encountered in literature.  Unlike typical fantasy heroes, who're virtuous or competent, he is cravenly and terrible at everything he attempts.  His sensitivity, caddishness, and dumb luck whilst enduring great danger endears us to him.   He's more than just a hapless employee of the Dungeon.  Herbert is actually an exiled noble from the city of Craftwich.  Another defining trait of Herbert's is established after he impersonates the deceased Ababakar by wearing his belt and sword.  (Ababakar wasn't wearing much else.)

As he adventures, Herbert finds that he is now wearing two cursed items the Belt & Sword of Destiny."  The Belt of Destiny is an intelligent item, that explains that Herbert isn't allowed to unsheathe the sword until he's committed 3 great deeds with his bare hands, and that he'll be struck down if he attempts to wield any other weapon in the meantime.  Herbert pleads with the Belt, when Marvin finally catches up to him, and is greatly annoyed to find out that his barbarian can't fight to save his own life.

Still, whenever anyone attempts to steal the Belt of Destiny, a former sword bearer is summoned to take Herbert's place, and can kick serious ass.  Two undead monsters, Stitches & Grubby find out, when Boobooloo: the King of Olfs appears to beat them senseless.  Marvin hears a ruckus, and runs down the stairs to save Herbert, at the tail-end of his transformation, and mistakenly thinks Herbert won the fight on his own!

It's here, in Marvin's hug, that we see the genesis of one of the greatest friendships in the series: that of Herbert the Duck and Marvin the Dragon.  The two are dynamic together, and in subsequent issues, you can feel a vacuum when one is without the other. Their impersonation of interior decorators for the Hooded Ones is gut-bustingly funny, and just a brief distraction before they attempt to knock one out.  The Hooded One loses his hood, and a Cthulhu-esque tentacled monstrosity is revealed.

We fear for our heroes, but it turns out that the Hooded One is functionally blind without its hood, because it sees all of your ancestors all at once, when it looks at you.  (What a fascinating concept to visualize.)  Other Hooded Ones appear, and they cast a group spell on Herbert and Marvin to turn the meat in their stomaches into an epic monster.  Herbert and Marvin laugh it off when they reveal that they're both vegetarians.  The Keeper and Alcibiades share their glee, until they realize the spell has been transmitted through their scrying device: The Eye of Biscarra.  (The seed of a future graphic novel is laid here, when they say the Giant Biscarra is still searching for his eye.)

The spell transmission if disastrous, as the head cheese the Keeper had for lunch, expands in his stomach, and threatens to overwhelm the entire Dungeon with its meaty mass.  Horus removes the head cheese before it bursts in the Keeper, but the Dungeon needs to be abandoned, while Herbert and Marvin are captured.  Stiches and Grubby are preparing our heroes for dinner.  In the process: Marvin's right arm and wings are amputated.  Marvin demonstrates some wondrous abilities as he wills his dismembered right arm to free them, but his wings are gone forever.

For the rest of the series, I always feel something is missing when I see Marvin without his wings and horned skull hat.  It seems this is just the beginning of how many times we see Marvin taken apart bodily and re-built.  It's a fascinating metaphor for what he endures in spirit as well.  Marvin mysteriously says that when a dragon loses one ability he gains another.  His new magic power is cooler than wings.  In Part 2 of this review, we'll go over what Marvin gains in lieu of flight.

The Hooded One's army, reminds me of Sauron's evil army from Lord of the Rings.  Mainly because there are war elephants there.  Dungeon ups the ante by having mechanical flying war elephants, or pachyo-jets for short.  After Herbert and Marvin crash one into the Dungeon, they encounter the meaty infestation, and another bit of great fortune occurs for our heroes.  The meaty infestation consumes Herbert's heart in the fishbowl and gains sentience.  It dispatches the Hooded Ones in exchange for keeping Herbert's heart.

Marvin gleefully heads outside to mop up the remainder of the Hooded One's army.  Herbert takes this respite to sit at the boss's desk and go through his stuff.  There he finds a picture of the Keeper's deceased true love, Alexandra.  The first story ends, with the Keeper giving our heroes a frugal meal of cooked Hooded One, and mourning his dead love.  What an epic start!  This first chapter sets up so much about the series in just under 50 pages.  We get an epic cursed item, a raucous adventure, a deep cast, and the start of several heroes' journeys.

No panel of art is wasted, tons of rich word-building occurs, while intriguing questions are asked.

Over the next few months, I will be reviewing all of the Dungeon graphic novels. Please click through these Amazon referral links below to purchase them if you'd like to support this site.

Dungeon: The Early Years - Vol. 1: The Night Shirt
By Christophe Blain, Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim
Dungeon: Zenith - Vol. 2: The Barbarian Princess
By Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim