Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar are a couple of "big new stars" in the French comics biz... but having made their grand entrance on the comics scene in the nineties, the "new" part doesn't really apply anymore – except that they haven't seen a lot of publishing in English or Swedish until this last decade, so they're a fresh new acquaintance just waiting to be made for a lot of potential new readers. And boy, do they deserve all the readers they can get, because Donjon/Dungeon is quite charming and utterly entertaining.
Basically, the story of this first album in the series is as follows: in an anthropomorphic universe, a dungeon owner keeps his dungeon well stocked with both treasure and monsters in order to lure adventurers to it. Then, when the adventurers are killed by the monsters, he loots their bodies for their possessions, thereby gaining enough loot to keep the dungeon going, and even expanding it (and his treasure). One day, he is threatened by some rather creepy creatures and decides to let a very heroic barbarian in his dungeon investigate them. Unfortunately, his lowly employee Herbert (a duck) manages to get that barbarian killed, and in order to cover up his blunder and avoid punishment, he takes the barbarian's place and is sent out on a mission he is woefully unprepared for.
Believing Herbert to be the barbarian hero, the dungeon master sends him off on his quest (after a very well-written and amusing conversation, which is symptomatic of most of the dialogue in this book – it's frequently witty and entertaining like an old Thin Man movie). But just to be on the safe side, he then sends his top fighter, Marvin the Dragon, after Herbert to aid and support him on his mission. Together, they take on the menace to the dungeon, learning more about each other and even becoming friends in the process. Herbert even does some heroic stuff, which is a bit against his nature, but also necessary if he's ever going to be able to draw the sword he took over from the dead barbarian – the sword is sentient, and adamantly refuses to allow Herbert to draw it until he's proven that he's worthy by performing three heroic deeds without its help.
The story is clever, using a lot of standard fantasy and Dungeon and Dragons clichés in an amusing manner – while simultaneously telling a pretty straight action/adventure and buddy story. Sfar and Trondheim throw in a whole bunch of weird and unpredictable twists and turns in their story, but these are done with supreme storytelling self-confidence, and don't go against the grain of the series' universe, that the reader simply accepts them and happily go along for the ride. The only quibbles I have with this book is that the lettering is a bit more on the "arty" than the "readable" side, and the artwork is a bit scribbly for my tastes, even if it does tell the story more than adequately.
This is not a Dungeons and Dragons satire or parody; instead, it's a humorous adventure – something the Franco-Belgian comics tradition is so good at – in an untraditional setting. It's not done quite in the elegant manner of the old masters, like Franquin, Peyo or Goscinny; but it is done with a special elegance all its own, managing to be both funny, odd, and engaging in the process.
It's excellent. Recommended.
Here is a review site with lots of pro-Trondheim-and-Dungeon reviews (in Swedish).