[Outside the Frame] A Wombat, A Dead God, and A Hugo: Ursula Vernon’s “Digger”

This past August, Digger by Ursula Vernon won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, beating out comics published by Vertigo and IDW, including such heavyweights of genre comics as Fables, Locke & Key, and The Unwritten. Before that, Digger had won the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards in the categories of Outstanding Black and White Art (2005, 2006) and Outstanding Anthropomorphic Comic (2006). It was also nominated for the 2006 Will Eisner Comics Industry Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition.

Now available as six trade paperbacks from Sofawolf Press, the series began first as a collection of illustrations, then as a webcomic through the Graphic Smash website, before Vernon started her own website to host the comic online. Digger has evolved, over the last several years, both in how the comic was presented to its readers and in Vernon’s drawing style.

But how does a comic that first became popular six years ago end up winning the Hugo in 2012?

In part, it was because the nearly 800-page comic had finally come to an end. After years of building a fan base, Digger was running out of time to be nominated for the Hugo award, and its fans made sure that the comic got the recognition they’d long felt it deserved. The rest comes from Vernon’s story, illustrations, and determination to keep creating a comic not just week after week, but year after year, until the story was finished.

After Digger won I started from the beginning and read through the entire story, and I have to agree that Vernon’s comic deserved to be appreciated. The titular character is adorable, an anthropomorphic wombat living in a world where humans, animals, and aggressive vampire vegetables all have their place. She (and much has been made of Vernon’s gender-bent universe, where a female main character exists among strong women and delicate, emotional males) gets lost, digs her way up to the surface, and finds she’s tunneled into a temple of Ganesh.

Instead of having the talking statue speak with the voice of a Hindu deity, the statue is its own person, well aware of the role that he plays as Ganesh’s representative, but unable to reveal too much of the god’s plans. The other characters have their roles to play as well, especially the young Hag (the village’s 19 year old medicine woman) and the hyenas, who include a fierce warrior woman and an artistic loner named Ed.

Along with some villains – plus at least one character who might be a villain and who might just be a friendly shadow-eating demon – the characters move in their own circles around Digger’s quest to understand what’s happening to her. It’s easy to believe that they have lives off screen and don’t simply exist to further the main plot, which is refreshingly interesting.

It’s that oft-mentioned dead god that really moves the story from slow-moving adventure into full-scale metaphysical mystery. You catch a glimpse of … well, parts of it … early on, and Digger spends a lot of time trying to figure out what begins to be obvious to the reader. This is because Vernon has created a beautiful combination of backstory and local myth, and seeds hints throughout the tale. There is so much depth to what might otherwise have been a long, drawn out, story that it’s worth staying with, even through 700+ pages.

Vernon is having more than one conversation with her readers, and Digger is about more than the power of women, and more than the usefulness (or not) of religion. There’s also the dialogue about magic, which shows up surrounding the character of Shadowchild – a creature so much of magic that it doesn’t have a physical body (or typical appetites). There are magic tunnels, magic fossils, attack vegetables, and oracular snails. Throughout this world so populated with magic walks Digger, who doesn’t appreciate any of it, and would really rather not have to deal with any magic at all, thanks. Who’s right? The world, or the wombat?

Oh, and because it’s the holiday gifting season: Digger would make a great gift because the entire story is available in print, the story is complete, and it’s long enough to savor over time. Plus, adorable wombat! Who bludgeons bad guys!

Learn more about Vernon’s artistic process in this 2004 interview at Epilogue. Plus she’s on Twitter as UrsulaV.

You can read the whole series online, starting with the first page here.

Next week: Royden Lepp’s Rust V. 1, out now from Archaia Entertainment.

Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at carriecuinn@gmail.com, or leave a comment below.