I read a lot of webcomics. Back when I was writing Cowboys and Aliens II for Platinum, I started reading a bunch of the comics that were up on the now-defunct Drunk Duck and I got hooked.
What happens when you start reading webcomics is that you often follow links to other webcomics, until your bookmarks bar is full of comics you’re following on a regular basis and your inbox is full of recommendations from friends of the comics you should be following. That e-mail from a friend is how I discovered Digger by Ursula Vernon, which was the Hugo Award Winner for best graphic story and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winner, both in 2012.
It starts with an anthropomorphic wombat named Digger who, by page 6, has met a statue avatar of the god of wisdom Ganesh. Wombats being a race of logically minded architects and engineers, they don’t care much for gods and magic — but Digger is thrust into the middle of a story that has both. Magic has deliberately interfered with her tunnel, something no wombat takes kindly, and her sense of direction is askew, meaning she can’t get home until Ganesh helps her figure out just where home is from where she’s ended up.
While researching a trip home might seem like a harmless endeavor, it’s not as simple as it sounds, and soon Digger is up to her ears in strange characters: a young healer known only as the Hag, a shadow child who might or might not be a demon, an unnamed hyena exile who Digger calls Ed, a female warrior monk who is probably insane, and a whole tribe of hyena people who might want to eat her.
This might sound like a lot of silliness in one webcomic, and Digger has its share of humorous moments. But what happens between the words, the art, and the story is the stuff of magic — quite possibly the kind that Digger herself would approve of.
Despite being a talking wombat, Digger is deeply human, an everyman type character thrust into a world in chaos. She does her best to make sense of things, and ends up sorting out the world for those around her. For the Shadowchild, she provides a moral compass, teaching a creature who others fear and condemn how to care about others and become a good person. For Ed, she offers a return of his personhood; despite Ed’s tragic past and his aloneness, he becomes a great friend and a hero, all because Digger cared enough to treat him as a person. And Murai, the insane monk who is — according to others — destined to be a hero, learns from Digger that embracing her destiny and choosing her own path are not necessarily such different things.
Digger accomplishes those changes in others not through being particularly heroic, or because she sets out to change the world, but simply by being herself: a good person striving to make sense of a crazy world.
In cartoon black and white images, Vernon introduces a world with a deep cosmology, where gods are punished and revived and demons tempt and torment. But lest you think the story presented is also black and white, what impressed me most about the story is how Vernon manages to present some of the best scenes of cultural relativity I’ve read in fantasy.
Vernon also presents characters who force themselves and others to truly look at a situation and see not their ideals, but consequences they can’t undo. The art is perfectly suited to the story, and Vernon coaxes an amazing range of emotion out of a shadow without a concrete face, a host of humanoid muzzles, and an elephant god’s statue that doesn’t move.
Digger completed a Kickstarter to publish an omnibus of the six volume series in July, but the entire webcomic is available online at Diggercomic.com. It’s well worth checking out as a fun — and ultimately deep — story about magic and gods and what it means to be human. Even if you’re a wombat.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and worked as the writer for the webcomic Cowboys and Aliens II. She is the author of three novels (one recently funded by Kickstarter) and two multiple-choice novels for Choice of Games. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.