Book Review: Digger by Ursula Vernon
Stories are living things. As they grow, so do the creators behind them. Most of the time, this change is imperceptible because it happens page by page and panel by panel. But sometimes, sometimes, you get the opportunity to see that growth as it happens.
Like, say, when you read a single-volume collection of an awesome, epic webcomic that was originally published over the course of six years.
Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels is a wombat. Not only that, but she’s lost. She hit a pocket of bad air while tunneling, and got so turned around that when she unexpectedly emerged from the floor of the temple of Ganesh in the backwater town of Rath, she did so with relief.
Unfortunately, that tunnel was much longer than anyone expected. Rath is far, far away from home, and it appears that someone, somehow, had been planning for that tunnel to be created for a long time – someone who wanted to escape into the world above-ground. Now Digger and her new-found companions – including an outcast hyena, a child made of shadows, a shrew-turned-pirate-turned-professional-troll, and a traumatized monk – are entering very dangerous territory involving prophecies and undead gods.
And, oh yeah: there are the usual fantasy elements like oracular slugs, winged librarian rats, and vampire squash. All quite normal, really.
Digger first appeared on my radar back when I was in university. I’d heard about it through another comic – I think through Bruno by Christopher Baldwin. At that point, it was only a few chapters in, and once I hit the paywall for the comic, I didn’t go any further. Despite that, it still occupied a place in the back of my mind. Talking wombats! Hyenas! Gods! Really foreboding, distinctive black and white art! How would the title character, a lost (but eminently pragmatic and capable) wombat, return home?
I let that question stew in my head for years, only for the comic to reappear on my radar with the 2012 Hugo nomination slate. I was delighted when it won, as I had fond memories of the opening chapters. But it was really a recent episode of the SF Squeecast that spurred me to buy the whole thing.
God, there’s so much to love about Digger. It takes all of the best aspects of Jeff Smith’s Bone – the black and white art, the relateable main character, the epic mythology, the length – and piles on deadpan humour, pathos, even more kick-ass female characters, and such difficult-to-address topics as…
- the nature of faith
- culture shock
- domestic abuse
- the meaning of familial bonds
- the nature of evil
- how to brew a good cauldron of druid beer
That last one is a bit of a joke, of course, but the others in that list are true. What does it mean to believe in a god? How do you show respect towards the dead if paying that respect involves doing something against your nature? If people avert their eyes to avoid addressing a bad situation, are they any less to blame when that situation gets markedly worse? Vernon touches upon all of these issues and more.
That said, there are other places where the comparison to Bone isn’t so positive. Neither comic quite stuck the landing, I feel. In particular, with Digger, the final confrontation with the antagonist happened much more quickly than I expected. Also, the motivations and actions of the secondary antagonist (Captain Jhalm) were underdeveloped: I never truly understood why he felt that his course of action made sense.
However, against the rest of the book, those are smaller concerns. What’s really valuable here is that this is a compressed time capsule of years upon years of work. All stories are like that, but few stories show that progression so linearly – you can see it in the change of Vernon’s drawing style, as she moves from a style that’s scratchy and linear to one that’s more fluid. It’s like watching a river find its own particular riverbed. And it’s definitely worthy of a Hugo.