Collecting Lars Brown’s three-part web comic series in color, The Complete Penultimate Quest uses a fantasy setting to probe deep existential questions.
On a remote island, Harald prepares to go adventuring in a dungeon with his two friends, as he does every day. They’ve all been killed and resurrected many times, but while the others are content to continue this pattern, Harald wants out. Convinced his life must have a larger purpose, he embarks on a new quest—a search for meaning.
After encounters with monsters, strangers, and alternate versions of his friends, Harald remembers that he once aspired to build a cathedral. But even this goal will not satisfy him. In a final confrontation, he faces off against the wizard who created the island.
Though the story is couched in the traditions of swords and sorcery, there’s much more to it. At one point, Harald encounters a group of archaeologists in the future, at a dig; among other discoveries, they are attempting to translate early twenty-first-century text messages (“The words of a lost culture! Incredible!”). The moment doubles as an opportunity for levity and a quick dose of incisive social commentary.
Throughout the book, characters utter quotes from George Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare, George Meredith, and seventh-century Japanese poet Basho. With the book’s appealing mix of highbrow philosophizing with lowbrow humor, the silly paves the way for the profound.
The art is character-focused, with enough telling background details to make the settings clear. Harald and the others “restart” in not just medieval, but also modern-day settings, like an office and nightclub. A unique spin on the typical dungeon crawl, The Complete Penultimate Quest is a thoughtful—and thought-provoking—fantasy adventure.
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