Digger

by Ursula Vernon

Cover image

Publisher: Sofawolf
Copyright: October 2013
ISBN: 1-936689-32-4
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 837

Buy at Powell's Books

As Digger opens, the eponymous wombat is digging a tunnel. She's not sure why, or where to, since she hit a bad patch of dirt. It happens sometimes, underground: pockets of cave gas and dead air that leave one confused and hallucinating. But this one was particularly bad, it's been days, she broke into a huge cave system, and she's thoroughly lost. Tripping on an ammonite while running from voices in the dark finally helps her come mostly to her senses and start tunneling up, only to break out at the feet of an enormous statue of Ganesh. A talking statue of Ganesh.

Digger is a web comic that ran from 2005 to 2011. The archives are still on the web, so you can read the entire saga for free. Reviewed here is the complete omnibus edition, which collects the entire strip (previously published in six separate graphic novels containing two chapters each), a short story, a bonus story that was published in volume one, a bunch of random illustrated bits about the world background, author's notes from the web version, and all of the full-color covers of the series chapters (the rest of the work is in black and white). Publication of the omnibus was originally funded by a Kickstarter, but it's still available for regular sale. (I bought it normally via Amazon long after the Kickstarter finished.) It's a beautiful and durable printing, and I recommend it if you have the money to buy things you can read for free.

This was a very long-running web comic, but Digger is a single story. It has digressions, of course, but it's a single coherent work with a beginning, middle, and end. That's one of the impressive things about it. Another is that it's a fantasy work involving gods, magic, oracles, and prophecies, but it's not about a chosen one, and it's not a coming of age story. Digger (Digger-of-Needlessly-Convoluted-Tunnels, actually, but Digger will do) is an utterly pragmatic wombat who considers magic to be in poor taste (as do all right-thinking wombats), gods to be irritating underground obstacles that require care and extra bracing, and prophecies to not be worth the time spent listening to them. It's a bit like the famous Middle Earth contrast between the concerns of the hobbits and the affairs of the broader world, if the hobbits were well aware of the broader world, able to deal with it, but just thought all the magic was tacky and irritating.

Magic and gods do not, of course, go away just because one is irritated by them, and Digger eventually has to deal with quite a lot of magic and mythology while trying to figure out where home is and how to get back to it. However, she is drawn into the plot less by any grand danger to the world and more because she keeps managing to make friends with everyone, even people who hate each other. It's not really an explicit goal, but Digger is kind-hearted, sensible, tries hard to do the right thing, and doesn't believe in walking away from problems. In this world, that's a recipe for eventual alliances from everything from warrior hyenas to former pirate shrews, not to mention a warrior cult, a pair of trolls, and a very confused shadow... something. All for a wombat who would rather be digging out a good root cellar. (She does, at least, get a chance to dig out a good root cellar.)

The characters are the best part, but I love everything about this story. Vernon's black and white artwork isn't as detailed as, say, Dave Sim at his best, and some of the panels (particularly mostly dark ones) seemed a bit scribbly. But it's mostly large-panel artwork with plenty of room for small touches and Easter eggs (watch for the snail, and the cave fish graffiti that I missed until it was pointed out by the author's notes), and it does the job of telling the story. Honestly, I like the black and white panels better than the color chapter covers reproduced in the back. And the plot is solid and meaty, with a satisfying ending and some fantastic detours (particularly the ghosts).

I think my favorite bits, though, are the dialogue.

"Do you have any idea how long twelve thousand years is?"
"I know it's not long enough to make a good rock."

Digger is snarky in all the right ways, and sees the world in terms of tunnels, digging, and geology. Vernon is endlessly creative in how she uses that to create comebacks, sayings, analysis, and an entire culture.

This is one of the best long-form comics I've read: a solid fantasy story with great characters, reliably good artwork, a coherent plot arc, wonderful dialogue, a hard-working and pragmatic protagonist (who happens to be female), and a wonderfully practical sense of morality and ethics. I'm sorry it's over. If you've not already read it, I highly recommend it.

Remember tunnel 17!

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-11-06

Last modified and spun 2016-11-06