The peculiar, pragmatic adventures of a wombat engineer

The webcomic Digger features an unusual epic protagonist. For one thing, she's a wombat. For another, in contrast to the dead gods, shadow demons, hyena warriors, and vampire squash around her, Digger is decidedly down to earth.

Ursula Vernon's Digger opens when Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels (Digger for short), a wombat miner, hits a patch of bad air while digging and emerges far from where she began, as if she were mystically transported to another land. Being a wombat, Digger is none too fond of magic or gods. When you live underground, that sort of thing is less exciting than it is troublesome. It's just her luck that she pops her head out of her hole and finds herself at the foot of a living, talking statute of Ganesh.

The peculiar, pragmatic adventures of a wombat engineer

Digger finds herself confronted with a couple of problems. First off, she needs to find a way home, and using her magicked up tunnel is out. Second, there's something sinister happening underground. But Digger doesn't despair. "'Can't carve a tunnel with tears,' as my grandmother used to say." So she rolls up her sleeves (so to speak; she's wearing a vest after all) and sets to work.

The peculiar, pragmatic adventures of a wombat engineer

As a protagonist, Digger is a delight to watch. She's gruff but softhearted, tough but concerned with the rules of polite wombat society. She has a no-nonsense approach to life; anything worth doing is worth working hard for, and unusual problems often have surprisingly simple solutions. Lacking any guile, Digger says just about everything that pops into her head, and the peculiarities of wombat culture make for hilarious dialogue (Digger frequently launches into anecdotes about this public works project or that great-aunt who was killed by a cave painting) and epithets ("Remember Tunnel 17!"). And there's something to be said for a heroine who loves the humble, hard-laboring life she left behind, and wants nothing more than to get home and get back to work.

The peculiar, pragmatic adventures of a wombat engineer

But before she can do that, Digger has to contend with all manner of craziness. There's the Shadowchild, a chipper, demonic creature who takes to following Digger around asking questions – "Am I a wombat? Am I a hyena? Am I a water sapphire?" There are the fiercely matriarchal hyena warriors who alternately threaten to eat Digger's liver and force her to ingest distressing food-things (another hyena's liver and warrior herbs to help her – ahem – mark her territory). Plus, there's the occasional prophetic slug or vampire squash. Much of the comic's humor derives from Digger's reactions to such insanity (she frequently squeezes her eyes shut, as if willing herself to wake up from this ludicrous dream) as well as from the profound clashes in cultures and personalities.

The peculiar, pragmatic adventures of a wombat engineer

But there's a story in there, too. Unlike many webcomics, Digger opts for a novelistic structure in lieu of discrete plot arcs. Digger's relationships with various factions and characters shift and grow over time, and she has to contend with the nature of good and evil – especially as she attempts to instruct the increasingly dangerous Shadowchild in the basics of morality. And Vernon explores some interesting ideas about storytelling, myth-creation, and the relationship between worshipers and the divine.

The peculiar, pragmatic adventures of a wombat engineer

At nearly 900 pages, Digger is a bear of a comic, even as it's coming to a close. But it's worth the time for Vernon's striking and expressive black and white art, her oddball ideas, and – of course – for Digger herself.

[Digger]