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Dungeon Quest Vol. 3
posted August 8, 2012


Creator: Joe Daly
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, softcover, 288 pages, July 2012, $19.99
Ordering Numbers: 1606995448 (ISBN10), 9781606995440 (ISBN13)

imageI'm not sure what I can say about this ridiculous comic that isn't said that much better by a picture of a tiny man riding on the head of a thick-necked doofus with doll-like features. Even typing that sentence is fun. It could be my mood, it could be the typical late-summer comics malaise, but Dungeon Quest Vol. 3 struck me as some sort of comedic miracle, the rare third installment of anything better than the previous two (extremely high-quality) efforts bearing the same name. It's amazing to me with all the interesting fantasy works out -- Orc Stain, Dungeon, Castle Waiting, Pour L'Empire, Danger Country, Destructor -- that South African cartoonist Joe Daly's series seems so under-read. I think it may be the best of that very good bunch of titles and all the others like them. I know it had its way with me.

The central joke in Dungeon Quest is that Daly cuts the fantastic material with elements of observed suburbia and dead-end teenaged culture that suggests we're seeing a limited-imagination role-playing session made real -- well, "real," anyway. That takes a much more delicate hand than might seem necessary at first glance. It's one thing to give the characters dumb names ("Lash Penis") and to recast the fight scenes as super-violent versions of that day you and your pals found a bunch of kids from another neighborhood near the sewer lid you sometimes use and threw rocks at them until they biked away. It's quite a step up in ambition to pick up on the subtleties of this kind of shared narrative exercise and turn them to your purposes with the precision Daly manages on a regular basis. Early on in this new book I almost gasped at the characters riding on top of a stone column as it rose from below the ground to forest floor; that was an obsessive fantasy image for me and my friends, something so typical to our games and shared stories and projected, talked-out screenplays that it was never examined, let alone questioned. It's like he stole my freshman-year notebook, the one with drawings of Gandalf and liquor bottles on it. One thing that Dungeon Quest shares with the best of the newer fantasies is that Daly's art can be beautifully detailed, vibrant and textured. He captures this quality one finds in the possibility of fantasy where things like a row of trees or a rocky path might inhabit the mundane and the transportive at the very same time. Even the really out-there things depicted in Dungeon Quest seem perfectly in tune with the kind of humor that teenagers bring to the (literal) table, like the first lengthy sequence's magic vending machine full of drugs.

In this latest volume, our adventurers finish up a much-needed respite from their task-filled journey, smoke a giant joint, talk about a dream one of them admits to that featured two penises, tromp around the forest, meet a tiny man, have their clothes stolen, fight some Woodring-esque dog creatures and blow up a compound that harnesses steam. I don't think that's the exact order, but the whole thing has enough of a dream-like quality that I don't think it matters. This is an extremely long installment, not just in terms of narrative density but in actual pages. I suspect the work's length is key. The comedic set pieces go on forever, and are allowed to gently bounce across the page at their own speed, rooting out every last corner for something amusing or colorful. The characters seize on several extended wallows in shallow puddles of stupid, each incremental decision and/or half-stumble dumber than the previous one, the whole thing a masterful, confident performance by Daly. It takes a confident creator to let his characters dictate the pace, and an outright brave one to slip the keys to this crew of misfits. I could honestly read 5000 pages of this and not get bored. Joe Daly has leveled up.