Somewhere on a distant island sits a dungeon. Each day, adventurers tackle the dungeon's perilous floors, killing monsters and finding treasure. Frequently, they'll die, but they always come back to life, right at the dungeon's entrance. At night, they drink and they fight and they hookup. Is it an adventurer's dream? Or the swords-and-sorcery corner of Hell?
Lars Brown played with high fantasy RPG conventions in his comic series North World, in which "wandering moster-slayer" is as ordinary a job title as "accountant." His latest webcomic, Penultimate Quest, is also structured around a D&D-like universe. But where North World dealt with questions of growing up and finding yourself in an offbeat world not entirely unlike our own, Penultimate Quest is more like No Exit meets Dungeons & Dragons, with a hulking existential crisis to go with its giant slug killing.
Harry can't remember how long he's been on the island of the bottomless dungeon, but he and his friends Jimmy and Alma have been delving it for years. Like every other party on the island, they've witnessed their share of horrors, died hundreds of times, and collected enough loot to keep them equipped for centuries. Lately, though, Harry has started to have nagging feelings about the island. How come no one can remember how long they've been there? Is the dungeon truly endless? Why are they even bothering to clear floor after deadly floor?
As Harry recalls his first night on the island and flashes of his life that came before, he begins to understand that there is more to the island than any of the adventurers bother to suspect. But will Harry ultimately decide to accept his fate or fight it? And does he truly understand the endless dungeon as well as he thinks he does?
I've been a fan of Brown's ever since I read the first volume of North World: The Epic of Conrad, but Penultimate Quest was a real surprise. It has Brown's trademark RPG humor and plenty of absurd monsters (I won't spoil them, because it's delightful to come across them in the course of the story), but the metaphysics play out in a smart and exciting way. As Connor reflects on the time before he gave himself over to the endless dungeon, there's a nagging question: What if all these people arrived on this island because some part of them wanted to be there? And if your will brought you to the island, can it allow you to escape as well? And, while the very nature of a mysterious, inescapable island begs for comparisons to Lost, Brown has his own distinct story in mind, dropping plenty of hints about the dungeon and how it connects to our core characters.
Book One of Penultimate Quest is online in its entirety—and it ends with an edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger. Fortunately, we won't have to wait too long to find out what happens next; Brown is launching Book Two at the beginning of July. He also has copies of Book One available in print in his store. If you find yourself hungry for more of Brown's work, you can check out his North World comics and his latest 24-hour comic, which imagines a meeting between a young cartoonist and the great Bill Watterson.