The Webcomic Overlook #127: Digger
After writing 127 large reviews, I become very self-aware that I’m repeating the same references over and over again. It can’t be helped. Writers are only human, after all, and the big moments stick out so prominently in our memories that we relate our new experiences quite often to similar experiences in the past. This is why “The Sports Guy” Bill Simmons will always refer to Karate Kid and Rocky IV and why Roger Ebert will always mention “uncanny valley” and “meet cutes” as if he invented those terms.
One reference I’ve considered retiring was Jeff Smith’s Bone. After a quick search, I discovered I’m mentioned that comic in reviews of Order of Tales, The Meek, Ding!, Sequential Art, Subnormality, Gunnerkrigg Court, and Sugary Serials.
“What’s with this guy?” you’re likely thinking. “Has he only read one comic in his life, ever?”
True, Bone is one of my favorite comics of all time… the high standard for traditional cartooning and fantasy storytelling. However, I should probably let off on the references, lest you get sick of the hero worship.
That said, Ursula Vernon’s Digger makes it very, very difficult not to fall back on that chestnut one more time. Here’s the tale of the tape: Digger‘s heroine bears a resemblance to a plush toy. She’s thrust into a strange world far away from her own. The strange new world features cartoony talking creatures of various shapes and sizes, and she’s thrust into a tale that turns out to be more cosmic than it seemed at the onset.
I’d be a fool if I didn’t start, uh, gnawing at the bone for a gratuitous Bone comparison.
Digger creator Ursula Vernon has had quite a career. While she’s best known for Digger, her Wikipedia entry shows that she’s also written a few children’s books, has developed some video game artwork, and was responsible for painting a toothy pear that apparently has gained international attention as the star of a popular internet meme. Digger itself has accrued some acclaim. Most notably, the webcomic accrued a nomination for the 2006 Eisner Award in the rather nebulous-sounding (and, I think, currently obsolete) category of “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition.” Plus, the site’s banner features a quite impressive quote from the New York Times, which calls Digger “a visually powerful strip.” Groovy.
Digger is a name of little wombat who specialized in, um, digging. She’s dug into the earth, picked up a fossil that she wasn’t supposed to, and manages to goof up the very laws of nature. When she heads toward the surface, Digger finds herself in a terribly unfamiliar place. The presence of a tiled floor, is her first clue. The second is a statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. It turns out that Ganesh can also talk and is a rather pleasant chap, but when he tries to figure out the weird situation chock full of ominous foreboding, Digger’s all like, “LOL wut.”
Just kidding. Still, Digger’s typical reactions to the weird occurrences do somewhat resemble the double-takes very often found on internet message boards. Digger can often be found squeezing her eyes tightly and putting her paw over her face when confronted with a mind-bending development. And then there are times when Digger reacts with a very modern “Ooooookkkkaayyyyy.” Fairly incongruous for a setting that seems to take a lot of cues from ancient China … but, then again, Bone and his cousins were introducing 20th Century vaudeville to medieval Europe, so it’s all good.
To elaborate, the world Digger finds herself in is a very Bone-like amalgam of anthropomorphic societies, shaolin warriors, and spiritual beings. In particular, there’s a race of magical, prognosticating snails that reminded me a lot of Bone‘s talking bugs. Ms. Vernon spends a lot of time developing the societies of the Digger-verse, and these snails are no exception. We learn that they’re ace prognosticators. We’re even treated to an oral history lesson where we learn that the snails’ abilities come from the ultimately destructive actions of a well-meaning druid.
Ms. Vernon gives the hyenas the most lovingly developed back story, and within the pages of Digger she fleshed out a society replete with ceremonies, traditions, and religion. We learn a lot about them from the friends Digger makes. Digger befriends Ed, a pathetic yet soulful hyena, early in the story. It turns out he’s a bit of a storyteller and a historian, and he gives the low-down on the hyena myths. Later, we encounter Grim Eyes, a representative of the warrior class who is incredibly butch and chauvinistic. Vernon reverses roles here: in the world of the hyenas, it’s the men who take on “feminine” attributes while the women fight and hunt.
The world includes plenty of humans as well. There are human settlements patrolled by shaolin warriors, lead by the irascible Captain Jhalim, who act as the local police force who eye the anthropomorphic denizens with suspicion. Digger is especially worrisome, since things have gone down hill since she arrived. Plus, she’s been making some suspicious alliances. There a little childlike named Shadowchild who follows Digger around. But appearances can be deceiving: the creature eats shadows (which turns out to be a very bad thing) and it can become very terrifying very quickly. Perhaps the humans are right this time and Digger shouldn’t be hanging around something so potentially dangerous.
Not all humans treat Digger as a threat, though. Digger also encounters Murai, a Ganesh worshipper. Digger, ever so practical and very suspicious of magic due to her staunch wombat upbringing, initially brushes Murai off as a crazy godlover who lacks the basic sense of self-preservation. Later, though, after Ganesh more or less forces Digger to take Murai on her journeys, Digger eventually becomes protective and sympathetic towards her.
As a thoroughly modern (and intentionally androgynous) girl, the character of Digger is a stand-in for the reader. She is utterly practical and direct. Her point of view is grounded in hard science and rationality. While she doesn’t doubt the existence of gods and magic, she’d rather play around with things she understands. Things like soil composition and the wonders of civil engineering.
This makes her the most level-headed character in the comic … and also the most prickly. Ganesh seems to be cool with it, since he finds it a little refreshing that there’s someone around him who isn’t either a fawning acolyte or an out-and-out phony. But to most everyone else she acts a little arrogant and superior to everyone else. That’s a total Miss Manners faux-pas: you don’t act rude to the hosts in their own house, and Digger gets called out on her behavior from time to time.
That said, there’s something karmic about Digger. It’s a little understated, but when our title character steps out of her comfort zone to do good, she reaps the rewards. Digger extends a hand to rescue someone who, moments before, had been baying for her blood. The character she rescues later becomes a staunch ally. In another related scene, Digger, a vegetarian, has to defy her own biology to eat meat at a highly important ceremony. While this makes her very sick, it’s the gateway for her acceptance into a once hostile community.
Vernon’s artwork, a combination of heavy dark inks and cross-hatching, resembles the minimal brushstrokes you’d find in a Japanese tapestry. Fitting, I think, for a world that’s an amalgamation of Indian, Chinese, and African traditions.
The art really shines, though, when the story goes underground. The caves and tunnels provide a new playground more at home with myths and legends than with reality. While the light of the above ground world is powerfully bright, the underground world is one of mystery where candlelight dances across the characters’ faces and provide a third dimension not see in daylight. Ms. Vernon gets a lot of detail from showing things using only minimal outlines otherwise submerged in shadows. Sorta makes sense that one of the main characters is a shadow, huh?
Where Vernon falters is when she has do draw faces. Simple designs based on basic geometric shapes, like Digger and Shadowchild, come off pretty well. However, Vernon seems to has a bit of a problem illustrating human faces. They tend to look lumpy and mushy. There’s a scene where the Hag, who functions as the local doctor, asks Digger whether she’s seen a Hag so young. It’s because she’s nineteen, and not because she’s pulling our leg. The illustrations don’t support her claim: at most angles, the Hag looks like she’spushing forty. The mouths, particularly, look inconsistent, as if there were no bone structure keeping the facial features in place. I’m wondering if Murai, the most prominent human character, wears a veil over her face nearly full time in order to mask Ms. Vernon’s artistic limitations.
Humans are kept either covered or off-screen most of the time. However, I’m not to thrilled with the look of the hyenas, either. For a race that’s supposed to be lean, mean killing machines, they come off looking like Droopy Dog most of the time.
The overall story is about a dead god. I suppose that’s a bit of a spoiler, but Ms. Vernon includes it in her subtitle so it’s fair game. Now, I didn’t care too much for the main mytharc. Fantasy tales always attempt to establish the legitimacy and realism of their world by introducing tales that are older than the characters involved. While the retelling was full of grandiose elements common in ancient myths, the stories didn’t feel authentic because to me they felt a little contrived and self-aware. Part of it is context. Murai, at one point, retells the story of a Christlike figure which , for the most part, goes absolutely nowhere. All it does is provide some tangential clue as to why she’s mad. Fair enough, but did we really need to spin our wheels for pages when a two-panel explanation would do?
The whole affair with the dead god, too, gets quite convoluted, almost as if the story were being awkwardly hammered to set Digger up into a standard “Chosen One” trope. Fortunately, I can say with relief that I did enjoy the story outside the mytharc. Also, that I was happy to see that plenty of the good stuff did not require you to keep up with dad gods and prophecies and whatnot.
Digger contains a lot of very touching elements, such as Digger and Shadowchild’s parent/child relationship. While Digger can be morally aloof at time, she tries her best to try to quantify the definitions of good and evil with he kid. The back and forth discussions are charming and funny, and the payoff is a bit of tear-jerker.
Also wonderful is Digger’s relationship with Ed. While this starts of antagonistic, with Ed trying to eat her, the two end up being the best of friends with Ed acting like a mentor. The creature who tried to eat her instead becomes her dear confidante when Digger has a crisis of conscience.
There are many other fine moments in Digger. Like Digger’s dinner with the hyenas, which I alluded to earlier. Or when she’s simply chatting with a shrew who thinks he’s a troll. While the stuff about the dead god left me frustrated, the segments involving the evolution of interpersonal relationships were top notch. It’s a wonderful thing when you find a webcomic that has a heart and soul.
I’ve heard it been said that Digger is the only good furry webcomic. I think that quite a few webcomics short, including some I’ve reviewed on this blog. However, Digger is definitely worth checking out. Be patient with the slow parts, because there’s definitely a lot of good stuff in store for the patient reader.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
NOTE: I think I should elaborate on the patient reader thing. At around 600 pages, Digger is a long webcomic. It also feels like you’re not going anywhere at the beginning. That’s because, in the first two years, Digger was on a one page per day update schedule. So, if you read a hundred pages (which is quite a feat), you’ll notice that you’ve only read through three months of the archive. It’s something you have to adjust to, especially if you’re used to webcomics that only update twice a week (which is a schedule Digger has currently shifted to).