Wooding (author) and Diaz (illustrator) launch right into fantasy tropes with a game of Skullball, which seems to be a dark parody of Quidditch. Our hero is Seifer Tombchewer, a dark-haired boy with wings. Actually, everyone in his kingdom seems to have wings.
At first the name "Tombchewer" sounds like a hokey attempt at a fantasy moniker, but then we learn that Seifer's grandpa "hasn't been quite right ever since he ate something poisonous that fell asleep in his porridge." The man literally gnaws on gravestones. He also regularly hunts his cat, knife and fork in hand, hoping to eat it, too. (There's another great cat joke later in the book.)
Seifer lives up in the mountains, at least until he's kidnapped and ordered to impersonate a missing prince. Seifer gets it all wrong, but he gets it right in unexpected ways. He makes a couple of friends and a couple of enemies. He survives various attempts on his life and muddles around trying to help his kingdom.
As you can tell by the bit about Seifer's grandpa, Wooding has a great time with all of this, throwing in satirical touches and funny dialogue even as he tells a somewhat classic dark fantasy tale. For example, when Seifer comes to after being kidnapped and knocked out, he cries out to Queen Euthanasia Pandemonium:
My queen. What would you have of me? How... How did I get here? [new bubble] And why does my body ache as if I've been expertly and viciously coshed by midgets?
Which, of course, he has. Wooding gives us a nice array of characters, from the cynical Prime Minister (Master Lumbago) to the little trio of red-cloaked, masochistic thuglets known as the Velvet Spies. We also come across a number of suitably horrid villains, as well a couple of princess sisters and a clever, dynamic kinda-girlfriend for Seifer, now known as Prince Talon.
Seifer-Talon apparently has a fiancée, too, though she doesn't show up for the time being. It's said of the beautiful Lady Asphyxia's mother, Baroness Crustacea Effluvia, "that one of her marathon nagging sessions drove her last husband to snort a bag of scorpions."
I hope you're getting the picture—Wooding spices his story with a lot of excellent tongue-in-cheek humor. Just one more example. When Seifer asks what happens if he doesn't agree to pretend to be the prince, the next page shows him dangling over a pit of fanged monsters, saying, "Alright! Alright! You could have just told me about the psycho carnage beasts." This is funny enough in and of itself, but then a few pages later, we glimpse the psycho carnage beasts filing their long, sharp nails as one says, "You didn't think it was a little too much? The whole 'RAAARGH' thing?" The other replies, "Oh, no. I think you got it just right." Thing #1 says, "Are you sure? Because I really wasn't feeling it tonight."
Meanwhile, people are trying to kill Seifer-Talon, and he's trying to figure out how not to be killed, along with who exactly to trust. One issue is that the missing prince is a real jerk, while Seifer's a pretty nice guy. A drawback—but also a surprising source of strength. I like that Seifer knows enough to be scared when he gets tossed into an arena with a powerful opponent: "Oh, crud. I'm gonna die," he says. Nice real guy there!
Cassandra Diaz's artwork is dynamic, with a definite anime influence. Keep in mind that Seifer's kingdom is always in darkness, so backdrops vary from gray to black, with touches of blue and especially red or orange to add contrast. The whole effect is very striking.
If you're a fan of graphic novels, dark fantasy, and adventures, track down Pandemonium. It'll be worth it for the humor alone.
Note for Worried Parents: There's some violence here, though it's a bit cartoonish. Pandemonium does have a tween, if not teen, feel. For one thing, Seifer has to be at least 15 or 16. Amazon says the book is for 8 and up, but I would say 10 and up unless your 8-year-old is into anime, kill-the-orc-type video games, and/or dark fantasy.
Also: You can visit the author's website here.