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Review: The Return of King Doug

Meet Doug Peterson. He’s a textbook slacker, a 33-year-old who dropped out of college, quit his job, and alienated his wife, and now finds himself living in a spartan bachelor pad. Worse still, Doug clings to adolescent fantasies of becoming a novelist, an actor, or a rock musician, despite his complete and utter lack of Sitzfleisch. What Doug doesn’t realize, however, is that his poor track record is a direct result of an understandable, if cowardly, mistake he made when he was eight years old. His journey to redemption is the subject of The Return of King Doug, a funny, occasionally rueful book that will appeal to teens and adults.

The Return of King Doug
Written by Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, Illustrated by Wook-Jin Clark
Rated: Teen (Mild language and off-color humor)
2009, Oni Press, 978-1-934964-15-6
184 pp., $14.95

The story begins twenty-five years in the past, when Doug’s parents owned a vacation home in the Poconos. There, Doug discovers a well that leads to Valdonia, a mythical kingdom populated by centaurs, ogres, dragons, and faun-like creatures known as tumtums. Though Doug is initially thrilled by his reception — the Valdonians greet him as their savior, calling him "the chosen one" — his excitement cools when he realizes that the Valdonians expect him to oppose the Dark Queen, an evil sorceress hell-bent on plunging the country into permanent darkness. At the first mention of "eyes being ripped out and blood flowing like rivers," Doug bolts for the well, promising to return to Valdonia one day.

Flash-forward to the present: Doug, plagued by years of unfinished projects and unfulfilled promises, is struggling to help his ex-wife raise their son Oscar. Doug has all but forgotten about the Valdonians — that is, until his parents ask him to prepare their Poconos retreat for sale. When Oscar tumbles down the same well that initially led Doug to Valdonia, Doug follows his son, plunging back into the world he abandoned twenty-five years ago and discovering it in ruins, its inhabitants dispirited and angry at him for his prolonged absence. Doug begins a frantic search for Oscar, reluctantly enlisting the help of his old friend Feldspar, a tumtum who remained loyal to Doug even as Valdonia fell to the Dark Queen.

It doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to see where The Return of King Doug is headed, but it’s a fun journey nonetheless. Writers Greg Erb and Jason Oremland gleefully skewer Eragon, The Chronicles of Narnia, and dozens of other fantasy-adventure series in which an ordinary kid becomes the savior of a magical kingdom in peril. Though they amply demonstrate Doug’s good heart and good intentions throughout the story, Erb and Oremland resist the temptation to make Doug’s redemption a quick or easy one; Doug remains tart-tongued and unrepentant in his slackerdom until very late in the game, when Oscar’s steadfast courage shames him into accepting the task he biffed twenty-five years earlier.

Wook-Jin Clark’s art is notable both for its clarity and its wit. When Doug stumbles upon the centaurs’ hideout, for example, he’s horrified to see that they’re older, too; the once-magnificent Lord Balthazar has a big paunch and wrinkles, while the once-nimble Swifty has a receding hairline and two bum hips. Clark does a fine job of aging the characters; they’re immediately recognizable as shadows of their former selves. Clark also does a great job of bringing Valdonia’s villains to life; the Dark Queen looks like a disaffected punk (she favors tank tops accessorized with human skulls), while her henchman takes a variety of forms, including an enormous, toothy report card laden with Fs. If I had any quibble with the art, I’d argue that Doug’s story might have been better served by color (or grayscale), as the black-and-white layouts are a little monotonous.

That said, The Return of King Doug is good fun, a breezy romp that has something worthwhile to say about making choices and honoring promises. Though teens may find Doug a sympathetic and amusing figure, adults will have a special appreciation for Doug’s occasional bouts of self-doubt, especially as he worries about the example he’s setting for Oscar. This element of introspection helps offset the script’s weaker moments — slangy dialogue, bathroom humor — and makes King Doug the kind of book that mom and dad might just pilfer from junior.

This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

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Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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