The Return of King Doug

The premise of this fantasy comedy isn’t a new idea, but it’s executed with style. Twenty-five years ago, as a child on vacation, Doug stumbled down a well into Valdonia and was acclaimed as their champion. The world is your typical fantasy kingdom, with wise centaurs and talking trees and wacky, elf-like Tumtums.

The Return of King Doug cover
The Return of King Doug
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They looked to Doug to lead their fight against the Dark Queen. They placed so much hope on one small boy that he couldn’t cope, and frightened by the violence and danger of war, he ran away, back to the mundane world. As a result, he’s always seen himself as a loser and a quitter for breaking his promise to an entire kingdom. He’s now a struggling actor, doing local commercials, after failing as a writer and musician and everything else he’s tried.

Then his son gets involved. (I do wonder, in stories like these, how the “not ready to grow up” guy winds up with a kid of his own, but perhaps his lackadaisical attitude extends to safe sex.) Oscar has inherited dad’s tendency to give up too easily, so Doug takes him back to the family vacation home, where Oscar discovers Valdonia. Doug follows him back to protect him, getting a second chance to accept his fate, a challenge made the more dangerous and poignant by Doug’s fear for his son’s safety.

Much of the book is predictable, down to the jokes, but the sarcasm and Judd Apatow-like attitude make the treatment of the cliches entertaining. The flowers with faces turn out to be killer weeds, and when they bite Doug, they aim for the crotch, that kind of thing. Everyone talks like a modern-day hipster, too. The oracles compete with each other for business, the Dark Queen dresses like a shabby goth and has no real power left, the fairy has co-dependent boyfriend issues, the centaurs hang out in a bar and are fat and drunk… It’s Lord of the Rings reimagined by frat boys.

Underneath the comedy is a boy-in-man’s-body fantasy, the idea that no matter how lazy you look, you’re really destined to do something great — that’s a comforting plot, especially when layered with the quest for a family reunion. Wook-Jin Clark portrays all the creatures well in black-and-white art that has the feeling of a cartoon. He’s managed to create believably dissolute versions of fantasy characters that look older and disspirited.

The book has been optioned for a movie produced by Ben Stiller, and writers Greg Erb and Jason Oremland will also write the screenplay. That seems where it was destined to wind up, since the story already reads as though they were thinking of it as a film. That keeps the jokes and action moving rapidly, with plenty of twists, turns, and emotional moments. I was entertained. (The publisher provided an online review copy.)

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