My professional reading practices have changed in the last year. I am slowly working through a subset of all the graphic novels published in the last 10 years or so. I read, graphic novels with female protagonists that might show up in a k-12 classroom almost exclusively .
That means I’m reading within genres I’m usually not interested in and books that I wouldn’t usually open. Although it might not be exactly what Gene Luen Yang had in mind when he started Reading Without Walls but it has opened my eyes to lots of new authors. Besides that, it has changed the patience I have for books. I tend to stick with them past the first 10 pages, even if I am NOT in luuuuvvvvv with the book.
One of the books I would never had picked up, if not for this project, is Digger: Volume One by Ursula Vernon, published way back in 2005. Originally a web comic Digger, a no nonsense wombat, ends up tunneling into Lord Ganesh’s temple and talks to the resident statue. The black and white graphic novel begins as a fairly traditional “stranger in a strange land” narrative. It takes a bit of time to get into this story and to appreciate the odd mix of a very stoic character dealing with fantastical elements in a non-nonsense manner.
The true strength of the book is in the characters. Digger is both kind and snarky, giving a genuine portrait of a hard working wombat who is trying to figure her way out of a very weird situation. There is also a hyena sort of thing (who Digger names Ed), ShadowChild who recently emerged from an abandoned egg, a slug who listens to the leaves, and a whole bunch of librarians and resident temple rats.
Vernon provides us with a long list of interesting and individualistic characters that have a wonderful assortment of flaws and charms. The book, with all it’s charm, basically comes down to a representation of a hero’s tale. Digger works hard at understanding how her new world works and how she can get back home.
I have to admit, I didn’t love this graphic novel in the beginning. It was a difference in taste. I tend to prefer graphic novels that stretch the reader, creating lots of open space between the images and the words for me to figure out. In the beginning of this books there seemed to be too much that is both shown and stated. I think Vernon’s over reliance on Digger’s narration made it hard for me to get into the book. For instance, there is a terrific series of panels where Digger and ShadowChild are trying to retrace her steps back to Ganesh’s temple. The route is marked by a series of statues whose large and pointed tongues point (quite literally) the way to the temple. The images, along with her progress, made it clear, but Vernon chose to include dialogue that simply explained what was clear from the images. The explanation, for me, was unnecessary.
Because of my commitment to reading graphic novels with female protagonists I kept reading well past when I would usually let this book go. And, I am glad.
The book passes the Bechdel test early and often with many named female characters talking to each other, almost exclusively about something other then a man. In fact this book shows a series of strong female, male and non-gendered characters moving through an interesting landscape, evolving and revealing more about themselves and the world they live in with each step. Once I became accustomed to the symmetry between the images and the words, I began to enjoy the story. There are many interactions between the characters that made me laugh, and then think, and then laugh again. Vernon takes on many philosophical and religious ideas without preaching.
Although this is a very female-centric book, there are issues with some of the characters as I reflect on the way race and ethnicity play out. Ed (the hyena character) speaks in an odd manner, mostly because he was shunned from his “tribe” and has spent so long alone. Yeah, honestly, a warning signal goes up when I read the word “tribe” and the character that comes from a “tribe” is shown to be … not as sophisticated. Ed wears a loincloth and a necklace of odd-shapes stones. He speaks English in an oddly formal and yet stilted manner. In one scene, after Digger has slept for many hours in Ed’s cave, he offers Digger a warm cup of something,
“Is warrior herbs. Is make hunter’s water strong! Smell for miles! Digger-mousie marks territory now, all people know is fierce mousie, respect mark. Digger-mousie new, need respect to win territory”
Later on in the book Digger is being hunted by Ed’s old pack-mates who have the same sort of stilted,awkward speech pattern. They wear loin clothes, carry spears, have painted faces and feathers. It is not clear to me what indigenous community is supposed to be represented here but it gives me pause.
I encourage people to pick this Hugo award winning series. I worry that in order to gain a strong, complex female protagonist the book provides am indigenous trope. It is worth a read, and a discussion.