Monday, March 2, 2009

"Digger" Shows How Deep the Wombat Hole Goes


Since I've never paid for Graphic Smash's subscription-based webcomics service, I've remained woefully ignorant of Ursala Vernon's Digger. But now that Graphic Smash has spun Digger off into its own website, making the entire series available for free, Gary Tyrell at Fleen can barely contain his excitement, gushing over the black-and-white adventure comic. So, as I dove headfirst into the archives, I was prepared to like Digger, but maybe not as much as Tyrell does.

All I can say is: wow.

Describing Digger's premise doesn't do it justice. On its surface, it has a lot of qualities that would ordinarily prejudice me against it. It features an anthropomorphic lead (here Digger, our eponymous wombat heroine), an increasingly complex mythology filled with dead gods and the premise that belief influences reality, and fantasy tropes like medicine-wielding hags, barbarian tribes, and masked religious warriors. These things don't in themselves make for a bad comic, but the Internet is littered with mediocre comics that rely on these and similar elements.

But nothing about Digger feels cliche. From the moment our heroine pokes her head out through the floor of the temple of Ganesh and learns, to her mortification, that someone has magicked up her hole, blocking her route home, she charms with her no-nonsense attitude, ability to fiercely stand her ground, and utter bemusement with everything she encounters in this far-flung world. And there is a lot of weirdness here -- a statue that speaks with the authority of Ganesh, a shadow-eating demon child as deadly as it is eager to please, a tribe of hyenas whose matriarchy has yielded a profound sense of female chauvinism, lizards born from the skins of dead men, and, of course, vampire squash. It's enough to give any self-respecting wombat -- a species that eschews gods and magic and prefers to spend its days digging root cellars and building cantilever bracings -- a splitting headache, but Digger handles each new and bizarre development with decisive action, casual kindnesses, and a delightfully offbeat sense of humor.


On top of its unexpected twists and turns, its surprising characters, and its chuckle-inducing dialogue, Digger has a unique visual style. Vernon's human characters aren't much to look at, but her animals and supernatural beings are phenomenal in every flavor, from the strikingly beautiful hyenas to the more cartoonish snails and demon child to the macabre skin lizards. And the larger scenes, with their finer details carved out in careful wombat scratches, evoke the lovingly handmade look of woodcuts and screenprints. It's the sort of homespun but well-made creation that Digger herself could appreciate.

It all makes for an epic as engrossing as it is unusual. Hopefully now that the entire archive is available subscription-free, it will attract the audience it so rightly deserves.

[Digger]
[Buy Digger, Vol. 1]

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