When famed pulp author Walter B. Gibson was developing the seminal 1930s superhero The Shadow, he sounded a clarion insight into the character's appeal that drove his phenomenal success over what would today be called a multimedia franchise - across more than a thousand books, comics, radio plays and movies. For all his hoarse rasps on scratchy audio that "crime does not pay", The Shadow was essentially a baddie who just happened to be a goodie. And really, who wouldn't want to play the baddie?
Baddies have grand palaces and secret lairs, whereas the hero is so often just a bluff ordinary joe on the sweaty farm; baddies have amazing gadgets and fascinating technologies to play with and enact their will, whereas the hero only has a soporifically worthy speech about fair play in his repertoire; there are legions of minions to do the baddie's bidding while the hero gets a yappy dog; the baddie gets down to business and shoots his foes whereas the hero always has to pull his punches; and the baddie is fawned over by sexy minxes while the hero can do no more than hold the hand of the numbingly bland long-skirted girl next door. Baddies are carefree... baddies are unlimited... baddies are playful... baddies are fun. Even in ensemble productions, from Han Solo to Avon to Wolverine and beyond it's the roguish antihero who won't play by the rules who impresses everyone with his wilfulness and assertiveness and almost always steals the show; it's a strong rule in manga too, whether they be gruff tortured souls like Berserk's Guts or cheeky huckster monkeys like Lupin III. From Hulk Hogan discovering Hollywood to Spiderman getting zombified, a swift heel turn has given many a flagging hero a fresh injection of energy, a great amount of publicity and a new lease of life.
Yen Press has recognised this phenomenon by bringing over to the UK the manga and light novel Overlord, which was similarly able to revive flagging interest in the played-out 'isekai' genre by transporting an ordinary Japanese to a fantasy land but with a new spin on the concept not giving him the role of the plucky adventurer at the head of a JRPG-sized party but instead that of a skeletal lich who was lord of a magical labyrinth teeming with outrageous monsters. Seven Seas has sought similar success holding onto Yen Press's coat-tails and has rooted through the licensing catalogues to pick up another dark fantasy (as the volume 2 blurb describes the book) in a similar mould, How to Build a Dungeon: Book of the Demon King. Like the Sith, there are always two - a master and an apprentice. Is it time for How to Build a Dungeon to backstab its predecessor and take up its evil crown, or has its ambition overreached itself and will it be cowed and crushed in turn?
Sorceror Aur has dedicated his life to one thing: revenge. Savage, hateful revenge. Following a bloody act of betrayal he suffered in his youth, Aur spent the following seventy years searching for a source of mana that he could use to power his plans and he found it - withered, hobbled, bent, decrepit, but triumphant. Tapping the energy of this Dragon Vein to restore his youth and vitality, Aur has set about using his magical powers to raise an army of demons and devils, carve out a subterranean labyrinth to amass them in reflection of his sorcerous glory, and unleash them to overturn the world that wronged him. And get laid.
Okay, so, there is no delicate way to put this... How to Build a Dungeon is porn. Out-and-out porn. Aur summons a succubus. He screws her. He captures an adventuress attacking his dungeon. He screws her. He seizes a maiden as tribute from a village. He screws her. A dark elf appeals to him for sanctuary. He screws her. He takes in the one lone survivor from another village that he razed, whose family and friends he all just mercilessly slaughtered for no other reason than to demonstrate his callousness and power. He finds her masturbating to the thought of him, then he screws her. I guess girls do love a bad boy. In any case, there's a reason why these mangas are put on the bookshelf in shrink-wrap.
Chapter 3 in particular, where Aur deflowers his captive adventuress (with dabs of blood on the sheets so you know he's claimed her maidenhead) into brainwashed subjugation, stands out as an entirely shameless mindbreak rape doujin ripped straight from the seedier circles of Fakku.net. Nothing beats success like success, so multiple chapters of volume 2 are given over to repeating this on a bigger scale as Aur captures another party of adventurers and reduces all the female members to his slavering mindless cock-slaves before they all celebrate their orgiastic submission to Aur in front of the bound male party leader to mock and humiliate the helpless cuckold.
And they say romance is dead...
So, it's porn. Fair enough then - is it hot? There's sweet animu tiddies aplenty and the girls are all quite shapely, and I have to admit that I'm impressed by the sheer unapologetic brazenness of many of the scenes, but Aur's real Casanova charisma ("you may not be drop-dead gorgeous but you are most certainly not ugly." Oh, be still my beating heart) and the "my hips are moving on their own!"-tier dialogue when they start bumping uglies make these sex scenes more absurd than they are erotic. It even takes the edge off scenes that are meant to be transgressive. When a character bio page highlights a sample quote as "please f**k my brains out" I think I actually laughed out loud.
Does this manga offer anything else besides these fantasies? It is called How to Build a Dungeon after all, and its draw to separate it from the rest of the Western-medieval-fantasy crowd is meant to be a manual on coping with the perils and privileges of command. How to Build a Dungeon does come across in its first couple of chapters a bit like a manga version of the old classic PC strategy game Dungeon Keeper. Aur builds a dungeon core, surrounding it with an increasingly elaborate maze, and as it grows larger more monsters start to move in and need to be roomed so that rivals don't squabble with each other. However, any strategic insight How to Build a Dungeon quickly fades. Resource management is never an issue - all you need to do to build whatever you want, summon whatever you need, and be loved as a benevolent ruler who rebuilds conquered cities, lowers taxes and leaves them more well off than before is have a unique source of unlimited magical energy! Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy! Don't know why I didn't think of it myself! Neither does Aur need to do much in the way of man-management either, just telling his succubus to go and do it all for him. A good leader needs to delegate, sure, but unlike Dark Lord Aur if I tried to encourage the performance & development of the staff I supervise at work with groping & fingering I think I'd be up before a disciplinary board rather than getting them to swear blood oaths of eternal obedience to me.
Not only is this manga's content shallow, but while the girls are pretty the art around them is also phenomenally boring. The manga is so preoccupied with the acts of coitus it forgets to do anything to set the mood. Great Tomb Of Nazarick in Overlord is a fantastic multidimensional realm of grand halls, awesome coliseums, vaulted crypts, and magma pits. In complete dispiriting contrast Aur's Dungeon in How to Build a Dungeon is just a series of plain square grey brick rooms. Not only is How to Build a Dungeon inspired by Dungeon Keeper, it even looks like it too - graphics circa 1995. If one of these pillboxes has any furniture it's just plonked in the middle like a doodad pasted on by a level editor (like the hot spring chamber, where the brick floor then suddenly abuts a mountain pool); even Aur's tenants don't spruce their dens up with any of their own knick-knacks - for instance, when dwarves move in to the dungeon what do these people - renowned as miners and metalworkers across the fantasy canon - do with their digs? They lay down a rug.
There are occasional bursts of action in these volumes which are competent but unspectacular, a lot of static poses of one swipe followed by spray that looked cheap back in Sword For Truth, but when the adventurer party confronts one of Aur's minotaurs the battle actually isn't too bad with some strong, meaty, smacking impacts to give it weight - it's good but it's not enough for two whole volumes. Dungeon Keeper also had cheeky cartoony personality which How to Build a Dungeon with all its sex, violence, and sexual violence is devoid of. There are occasional chibi asides but while a couple of black jokes do land - one gallows gag that the doujin-style dialogue in the sex scenes is deliberately said by one of Aur's partners in the hope of impressing him seemed surprisingly self-aware - between Aur's episodes of dominating his harem they feel more like laborious gurning than they do comic relief.
And that sums it up - maybe I'm just a milquetoast beta who can't keep up with alpha-dog Aur, but even though playing the baddie seems fun this manga makes it seem enervating, and given the earnestness with which Aur applies himself I don't think that banality-of-evil point was meant to be deliberate. Maybe you're reading How to Build a Dungeon for an insight into the strategy and management of building and maintaining a formidable fantasy fortress and watching elves be enchanted by Aur's magic wand is just some spice on the side. Yes, and Playboy does indeed have many fascinating and insightful articles too. Just offer a courtesy for the next person who needs to sit down here and clean up after yourself when you're done.