Much of my time lately has been spent packing to move–and now unpacking from the move–while listening to The Adventure Zone, a podcast in which the McElroy brothers and their father, Clint, play a game of Dungeons & Dragons*. The McElroys used the conventions of Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games in general to tell a story that starts out silly–and with a few more dick jokes than I personally enjoy–and becomes engaging, hilarious and moving by the end. I will probably write about it more The Adventure Zone more when First Second releases a graphic novel adaption of their first story arc, Here Be Gerblins, next summer. In one adventure, Magnus, a human fighter played by Travis McElroy receives “the Glutton’s Fork,” a utensil that makes any non-magical item edible. And he uses it, disturbingly, to eat something normally not edible.
Around the same time, I came across panels from Ryoko Kui’s Delicious In Dungeon / Dungeon No Meshi, vol 1 (Yen Press, 2017). And Kui does something similar–using the conventions of Dungeons & Dragons for her story, but not so that the game mechanics seem to disappear. Instead, she sets her story in a very role-playing game world and uses it as a starting point for a culinary adventure. And, in it, her human warrior Laios manages to eat something normally not edible.
In The Adventure Zone, dungeon master Griffin McElroy uses the pre-existing D&D world of Faerûn and builds from it to create an idiosyncratic world of floating moon bases, elevators, fantasy big box stores and cars (I mean, “battlewagons”). In Delicious In Dungeon, Ryoko Kui presents a world in which a dungeon and a castle from an ancient civilization obtrude into a village graveyard. Next thing you know there are adventurers exploring and looting levels of the dungeon–and understanding explicitly what they are doing as exploring and looting levels of a dungeon. Down to using the word “levels.” The dungeon becomes so filled with people that they are more like malls or convention centers–or online roleplaying games where some places team with adventurers and many decided to wait on trying a level or battling a specific monster until they are more powerful. Kui’s characters, Laios, Maricille, Chilchuck and Senshi, are all aware of these conventions, though it isn’t metafictional enough that they are aware they are in a comic. Rat Queens, Skullkicker and innumerable web comics do something similar in playing with the conventions of fantasy role-playing games. In Delicious In Dungeon, though, Kui goes with all the strangeness of these worlds and then focuses a little more on something else. She takes the pre-baked conventions of fantasy role-playing games and uses them to make a manga about food and obsession.
Like Chew, Delicious In Dungeon captures some of the squicksomeness of eating and the particular humor and horror of having to eat gross things, but Chew is set in an alternate present world and doesn’t rely on wandering monsters. (And no matter how much I love USDA Agent and fightin’ rooster Poyo, Chew grosses me out more so far). The Monster Manual feels very present in Delicious In Dungeon, like Kui keeps it on hand just to come up with recipes for basilisk and cooking techniques for green slime**. For example, in Delicious In Dungeon, death and resurrection are common experiences for adventurers, but these experiences can be understandably traumatic. Human fighter Laios even refers to the first time he dies and how it created a fear of living armor. It’s a fear he hopes to overcome by eating living armor one day.
Laios and his party are on a quest to defeat a magician in the bottom level of the dungeon and win the treasures of an ancient empire. But before they can reach this magician, they are defeated by a red dragon at the bottom level of the dungeon. Unfortunately, before the fight they had fallen into a trap and lost their supplies. Instead of going back for more food, they decided to kill the dragon first. This was a poor decision. Their low blood sugar did them in. Always keep a snack in your bag, people, whether you’re planning on fighting a dragon or not***.
Laios’ sister, Falin, was eaten by the dragon. The rest of the party teleported back to the surface. Two members of the party leave, but Maricille the Elven magic-user and Chilchuck the “Half-foot” rogue remain.
They want to re-supply, but Laios argues that they don’t have time. In order to save Falin before she is completely digested and pooped out, Laios believes they must re-enter the dungeon immediately, living off the flora and fauna they find there. That’s right, they are going to have to eat monsters. This leads Laios to share one of my favorite things in the comics, a discussion of the dungeon ecosystem.
There will be more discussion of the dungeon environment and of monster anatomy as well throughout the book. But mostly, each chapter ends with a monster being consumed and a new recipe for you to try at home. Which adds a slight horror edge to a comedic manga. On one hand, Laios’ interest in monsters and food is amusing. On the other, it is almost all-consuming. Eating and hunger can be frightening in their total disregard for anything but tastiness or need.
Maricille is not down with eating monsters, but she can’t leave Falin to be digested. Chilchuck is willing to go along to save their friend. And so they go back in. On the most populous level, the adventurers meet Senshi the Dwarf. Senshi is intrigued by their efforts to cook walking mushroom and giant scorpion. Senshi has dedicated decades of his life to dungeon delicacies. Where many adventurers are in it for the glory, the romance, the treasure, the quest, or some combination thereof, Senshi is in it for the tasty, tasty monsters. He joins the party, hoping to live his life-long dream of eating red dragon. The rest of the party thinks about what the dragon has just eaten and wonders, “Is it really okay to eat that?”
As their adventure goes on, it becomes increasingly evident that Laios has been waiting a long time to eat monsters. He even has a well-annotated book on their safe preparation, The Dungeon Gourmet Guide. I believe that he wants to rescue Falin before the dragon “passes” her, but Laios is not eating monsters only because he has to. Laios is eating monsters because he wants to.
As someone who thinks a lot about food and has daydreamed about tasty things I have eaten in the past****, I can feel the edge of Laios and Senshi’s enthusiasm and obsession. They are focused on figuring out how to make all the things edible, eating all the things, how best to prepare them and how they would taste. Senshi is less manic about it. He lives by himself in a dungeon and has dedicated himself to pursuing his creepy, questionable culinary arts. He’s a hermit gourmand at peace with his desires. Laios is only starting out, though, and at some point, however unintentionally, his desire to eat monsters might conflict with his desire–and his ability–to save his sister. I mean, I can see how eating the dungeon that ate your sister is a way of containing the horror. But I also think that if Laios claimed that he is eating monsters as a way of symbolically asserting power over them, it avoids the truth that he really, really wants to eat him some monsters. And he wanted to do it before a dragon ever ate his sister. What’s scarier, monsters eating you or an appetite for eating monsters? And just who is eating who down in the dungeon?
*Lately, though, they have been playing other games. My favorite involves cryptids in Keppler, West Virginia.
***One of the few things I have learned in life: “Eating doesn’t make everything better, but not eating makes everything worse.”
****Would you like to hear about this piece of Bailey’s Irish Creme cheesecake back in the Nineties? Or how about the first time I had Banana’s Foster? Or this really good London broil?
Carol Borden does not believe that green slime are an important part of a well-balanced diet.