You’re familiar with this story, right? A young boy somehow finds his way into another world, filled with fantastic creatures in an epic struggle between good and evil. His coming was foretold, and the forces of good can now be certain of victory! Within this human boy lies the power to free the oppressed from the rule of the wicked sorceress…
Except, in this case, Doug Peterson isn’t quite ready. I mean, he’s only eight — give him a break. It’s not really all that surprising that all this talk of “eyes being ripped out, and blood flowing like rivers” is a bit overwhelming, so can you really blame him for making a break for it? Taking the powerful Heart of Agnon amulet, he races back to the real world and abandons Valdonia. Instead of becoming a hero (and, in the process, becoming a better person and thus overcoming fears and obstacles in the real world), Doug gets counseling and eventually becomes convinced that Valdonia was just a childhood fantasy, a product of his overactive imagination and nothing more.
That’s the premise of The Return of King Doug, a graphic novel written by Greg Erb and Jason Oremland, and illustrated by Wook-Jin Clark. It’s not a brand new book — it was actually published in 2009 — but I just got a copy last month at Wordstock, courtesy of Oni Press. The cover caught my eye, with a scene reminiscent of “Trapped!” from the Wormworld Saga. Really, though, it was the premise that really drew me in. What if Bastian had decided that The Neverending Story was just a little too frightening, and shut the book? Is it really wise to pin the entire fate of a world on some kid?
Valdonia, left without its hero, falls quickly to the Dark Queen. Doug grows up and spends his life running away from responsibilities: from his jobs, his marriage, his responsibility as a father. But, of course, eventually he ends up back in Valdonia once again.
It’s a hilarious book that really has fun with fantasy tropes. There’s the cheerful hobbit-like guy who never gave up believing in Doug (known to his former friends as “Feldspar the Deluded”), the brave centaur warriors, the all-seeing oracle on the high mountain … except that everything is tweaked a little bit, or turned on its head, or three steps sideways from what you’d expect. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that in the end Doug does in fact rescue Valdonia and gets a happy ending, but it took him a 25-year detour to do it.
I really enjoyed The Return of King Doug, and read it in just about one sitting. The illustrations by Clark are a lot of fun, though the full-color cover really makes me wish that the interior pages were also in color rather than in black in white. It would have been really spectacular. Really, the only thing that bugged me about the drawings is that all the people seem to have really tiny hands. I think maybe Clark just isn’t a fan of drawing fingers.
For a brief respite from fantasies that take themselves too seriously, check out The Return of King Doug. The book is rated T for teens; there’s some mild swearing, some cartoon violence (though not a lot of actual death), and a good bit of crude humor, but nothing more inappropriate than what you’d find in a typical PG-13 (or maybe even PG) movie. (Speaking of which, apparently Ben Stiller optioned the book before it even hit shelves, though I haven’t been able to find any recent news about it.)
Wired: A very funny spin on a classic fantasy trope. Bonus points for Doug’s “Where’s the Beef?” T-shirt.
Tired: Full-color interiors would have been nice. All the people have teeny hands.
Disclosure: Oni Press provided a review copy of this book.