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Review: Dungeon Critters

Dungeon Critters
Writer/artists: Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter
First Second; $14.99

Natalie Riess and Sara Goetter differentiate their entry into the still ballooning genre of comics based on Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing games by making all of the characters in their fantasy world anthropomorphic animals. And not in the traditional Disney comics sense, where the characters are essentially human but are drawn to look like animals. No, they are all keenly aware of their species and regularly demonstrate that awareness.

“Careful! You almost went Labradoverboard,” the title team’s fire-wielding magic user (and cat) Rose calls to the team’s healer (and dog) Juniper, when a giant turtle monster attacks the boat they are on. “I’m a Golden Retriever,” Juniper corrects her.

Later, when the Critters encounter a monstrous cobra guarding a passageway, the team’s quiet, stoic fighter Goro, an anthropomorphic snake, befriends it. And when Goro needs to use his snake abilities to track a scent with his tongue, he hops onto his belly and slithers along the ground, despite the fact that he has very sturdy arms and legs (“Could he always do that?” one Dungeon Critter asks another).

There are a lot of jokes of various degrees of sophistication throughout the book, and Goetter’s character designs are all quite cartoonish, but it would be wrong to call Dungeon Critters a comedy, just because of how much comedy there is in it, or even how funny it is (and it’s quite funny). It’s also extremely tightly plotted, and that plot is straightforward enough that it could very easily have been at the center of a more serious graphic novel. There is also some genuinely moving emotional content among the core characters and the wider supporting cast.

Rose, Juniper and Goro are all part of an adventuring party more or less led by Prince Chrip, a little frog in particularly fancy clothes who, when not adventuring with her friends, is first in line for the throne in a kingdom of bears (she was adopted; as to why she’s Prince Chirp and not Princess Chrip, it’s never addressed, but the comic is extremely LGBTQ-friendly).

We first meet the team at the climax of what seems like a more-or-less typical dungeon-crawling adventure, wherein they defeat an evil wizard who is controlling a strange and powerful killer plant. Reviewing the events at the tavern afterwards, they discover an invitation to a fancy party sent to the wizard from Baron Foxworthy, Prince Chrip’s arch-rival. Apparently, there’s a larger plot involving the evil plant, and the Baron and a reclusive duchess who just happens to look exactly like Juniper are participants.

And so throughout the course of the novel, our quartet must infiltrate the party and investigate the secrets of the Baron’s castle, head to the swamp for advice where they meet Prince Chrip’s other arch-rival, and ultimately return to Chrip’s kingdom, where they become involved in a murder trial that threatens to tear the team apart.

Given the fantasy role-playing game tropes and animal characters, there’s a strong surface resemblance to Joan Sfarr and Lewis Trondheim’s Dungeon series, but it’s an extremely superficial resemblance. Dungeon Critters has bigger, brighter art, more manic pacing, and a broader,  more pop-culture savvy sense of humor. It’s additionally far more concerned with character over concept.

In fact, although aspects of the book may be evocative of other comics, and the self-conscious, D&D semi-parody is growing into a rather sizable genre, it’s difficult to think of any other comic quite like Dungeon Critters, which is always a sign of inspired work.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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