In Dungeon Heartbreaker, one episode of the fantasy epic started over a decade ago by French cartoonists Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, the creators, with guest illustrators Carlos Nine and Patrice Killoffer tell the stories of brave women trying to survive in the treacherous and cannibalistic world of warriors, assassins and conspiracists. The first story is about an amphibian assassin born into a great family that inadvertently escapes from the comfort of her class when she starts working for the infamous lawyer of the guild of assassins. The second story is about Drowny, a teenaged girl living in an underwater religious city about to be attacked by the land-based and underwater forces of the Great Khan. Attempting to escape an assassination attempt on her family, Drowny becomes a soldier instead and rises up through the ranks and turns on her won people, as a mean of surviving.
This collected edition from NBM Publishing contains two stories published separately in French. Heartbreaker was originally Crève-coeur whose title is a literal translation. The story with Drowny called Depth was called Les Profondeurs. Again the title was a straight translation. Each story was published in French by Delcourt respectively as Monstres Tome (Volume) 8 and 9.
While there are very strong women in the Dungeon series often playing pivotal roles, these two stories are the first I read that specifically focused only on female leads. But don’t worry, the mature and level-headed tone of the stories found in other Dungeon books is as sarcastic and here as elsewhere. I’ve said it before, Dungeon is a series one reads when Groo The Wanderer doesn’t do it anymore. It’s the same themes but created with an adult tone and more characters to choose from. The Monstres (Monsters) series is about secondary characters that fit in the continuity at any point of the Dungeon series. Many characters will look familiar. The Grand Khan is here after all, but where it all fits in is another issue. Having not read Dungeon in order I was afraid I’d get confused with these two stories. I didn’t. Because they focus on secondary characters, the stories are easy to read, although they fail to deliver any sort of conclusion.
These stories focus on women and this is played out very well in the stories. Sure each woman is a warrior or a soldier, an assassin. But women are raped and fall in love with men and have multiple partners or are intimidated because of their genders. Sfar and Trondheim deal with these realities head on and do not embellish the fate of the characters. Although they are the protagonists, we are never sure that they will survive. Their brief alliances with others usually end badly for one of the party. It’s a grim world. Drowny manages to escape her underwater prison by releasing her female eggs creating a commotion among the guards trying to harvest them as fast as possible. I’m not sure what that tells about women in society, but in the context of Dungeon, it all makes sense even if one feel for the stark reality of a woman using her feminine attributes to get out of a planned execution. These women are liberated, but they take as many hits as men do, in other Dungeon stories.
I’m not sure if I would recommend this story to someone who wants to read stories about strong women protagonists. All the clichés about a woman always being in control of her sexuality are throw out the door. Here, in this vicious world of dog eats dog, women fare no better than men.
Nine’s work fits in with past Dungeon illustrators but it was hard for me to get used to this Argentine artist’s style. It feels like it was drawn with pencils. It’s sometimes hard to understand the facial expressions of the characters. The assassin he draws has none. She has a nondescript face with only eyes to show any emotions. But at the right time, like for example a scene where she is raped, Nine offers the right visual letting the reader imagine the worse, instead of being very graphic. It helps keep the story under a PG13 level, while allowing all the depth and maturity of the script to continue to shine.
Killoffer is like a junior Moebius. His lines have the same dynamic quality many comic book fans enjoy in the work of Moebius and Gil Kane. It’s beautiful even if the characters are talking animals. His colours are much more brighter and the gore is more visual. Yet, he manages to create a beautiful world underwater and to give a lot of expressions to his characters.
I’ve introduced a few friends to Dungeon and have been reading them on an off for years. It’s not your usual comic book series, but it has made Lewis Trondheim into the equivalent of Alan Moore in continental Europe and the European comics scene. There are many more Dungeon volumes reviewed by at ComicBookBin. I’s say any of them is sure bet. If you’re looking for something different and mature, you cannot go wrong with this series.