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A No-Nonsense Wombat Leads a Peculiar Cast in the Fantasy Webcomic ‘Digger’

This past month, Ursula Vernon’s webcomic Digger received a Hugo Awards nomination for Best Graphic Story, making Vernon one of three webcomics creators to receive the Hugo nod. (Howard Tayler received a nom for an arc of his long-running Schlock Mercenary, and xkcd‘s Randall Munroe was nominated for Best Fan Artist.) Digger is a rare high-fantasy comic that doesn’t feature tough-talking warriors, charming rogues or mysterious mages. Instead, it focuses on a no-nonsense wombat who just wants to get back home to her burrow and her nice, predictable engineering job. Before she can do that, though, she has to deal with a naive but dangerous demon child, a tribe of warrior hyenas, talking snails and more magic than she would really care for. And that’s all before she contends with the dead god who is blocking her passage home.Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convulted-Tunnels (just “Digger” for short) hits a pocket of bad air one day while tunneling. After spending hours, perhaps days in a disoriented state, she tunnels upward and finds herself in a foreign land, at the foot of a statue of the elephant god Ganesh. Wombats aren’t much for gods (in true pragmatic wombat fashion, they view the divine as more trouble than they are generally worth), but Ganesh welcomes Digger and helps Digger realize her predicament: Digger stumbled onto a patch of buried magic that has transported her far away from her home burrow. Digger can’t go home the way she came, but Ganesh assures her they’ll figure out a way to transport her home, either there in his temple or in the nearby town. Digger, ever one for practical solutions over emotional freak outs, decides to explore the surrounding area while Ganesh further studies her dilemma.

This land isn’t just far from Digger’s burrow; it’s filled with strange creatures. Digger finds herself fist to face with a nameless hyena (“Man, don’t you know not to mess with a sleeping wombat? We swing pickaxes for twelve hours a day. We’re like biceps with feet.”) whose loneliness is far more powerful than his hunger. She attracts the curiosity and dubious protection of a childlike creature born of shadows, who quizzes Digger constantly on every aspect of the world, especially the nature of good and evil. She becomes protector to Murai, a devotee of Ganesh who is sometimes insane. Chaotic magics have leaked into the very earth, bringing with it all of the strange surprises wombats have learned to mistrust. With each fresh and freakish encounter, Digger lifts a paw to her put upon brow and wonders aloud why she bothers to be surprised any more.

Digger is a rare beast among fantasy protagonists, and not just because she’s a wombat. Years of building tunnels have left her tough and strong, but she prefers not to resort to violence unless attacked. She has a powerful moral center and a strong sense of etiquette. She’ll apologize for trespassing in your cave, even if you tried to eat her a moment ago. When she realizes the Shadowchild’s deadly power, her impulse is not to flee but to educate him on right and wrong.

She’s a magic-hating pragmatist, but she has a soft heart, even where the most mystical beings are concerned. When she scolds others for their misbehavior, she does it with a mature authority — one she unexpectedly shares with a matriarch we meet later in the comic. Digger doesn’t see herself as a hero, just an ordinary wombat who tries to do the right thing. But it’s that very down-to-earth sentiment that causes so many powerful beings to fling themselves, unbidden, into her orbit.

There is a larger epic behind Digger, centered largely on a dead god who is not permitted to die and various religious tensions ready to explode into fully fledged conflict, but this is a largely character-driven story. Digger is sometimes a dark comic. Many of its characters have tragic histories; others have violent abilities. Vernon has an amazing handle on the unexpected, and the characters who might initially seem silly or dense will end up wounding your heart. But she balances that darkness with a wry sense of humor, one that finds its levity in seriousness and tragedy.

The Shadowchild’s chirping naiveté is hilarious because the stakes are so high; Digger has to impress her worldview on the Shadowchild or risk releasing a dangerous, amoral creature into the wild. Digger is prone to utterly serious curses and battle cries that are ridiculous to our ears. (“Dip me in chalk and call me a limestone conglomerate!” or “Remember Tunnel 17!”) One of the comic’s funniest scenes takes place at a funeral. On top of that, Vernon does a lovely job tying together the seemingly disparate story elements; by the end, we have a much richer understanding of the cosmology of the Digger universe without ever having to sit through tedious info-dumps.

Vernon has a background as an illustrator, and the artwork on Digger reflects that, with black and white scenes that almost resemble woodblock prints more than ink paintings. Her strengths don’t lie in conveying motion or human character design, but her backgrounds, be they forest scenes or underground, are lush and ominous, and she captures a hyena’s scowl and a wombat’s harrumph with perfect pitch.

Ultimately, Digger is more than just an epic tale of gods and magic. It’s a comic about the power of stories and beliefs, the values and hazards of tradition, and just how much conflict can be resolved by an ordinary wombat with a good heart and a sturdy pickaxe. It’s that elevation of the fantasy epic that makes Digger worthy of its Hugo nomination.

Digger is available in its entirety online, as well as in six print volumes from Sofawolf Press.

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