Thursday, 24 April 2014

#CBR6 10: Digger: The Complete Omnibus Edition, Ursula Vernon

Page count: 850 pages
Time taken: 4.5 hours

Digger-of-convoluted-tunnels is a wombat who accidentally finds herself digging to the surface through a temple to Ganesh, where the statue of Ganesh - also a god in its own right - helps her to work out where she is, what's going on, and what she needs to do to get home. Unfortunately, things quickly stop being simple, as Digger meets a weird shadow creature who needs lessons in basic morality, and a nameless hyena she calls Ed after he agrees not to eat her. And that's just Chapter 1. Lots more stuff happens, involving mad priests, dead gods, why obligatory herbivores shouldn't eat meat, ghosts, vampire squashes, and things that skin people and wear their faces as a mark of respect and are actually really cute.

This is an omnibus edition of a webcomic that ran for several years, although I'd never come across it until a friend told me I would like it. She was right. I read chapter one one evening, and then I read the next eleven chapters instead of playing Mass Effect one morning. That's how good this graphic novel is. The humour is mostly dry, the action is compelling and the characters are lovable and memorable even several weeks after I read it, last month not having been a great month for blogging because of health stress and laziness.

Unlike a couple of the webcomics I follow, Digger stuck to one story arc which by and large sticks to the initial premise: the plot resolves, the characters develop and move on in the way you expect, and there aren't many new characters after the first couple of chapters. This makes it a much better candidate for novelisation than, say, Least I Could Do, or even than Garfield and Peanuts: short story arcs followed by random funny interludes don't really work as novels, although they're great bathroom books for precisely the same reason.

However, webcomics are different from graphic novels in that it's a more organic process of development over time, and reader interaction can be much easier, so this isn't quite the same as reading 850 pages of Sandman or Preacher. It's tightly written and plotted, but there are a few points which feel much more "I have a cool idea about vampire squashes" rather than  "I shall now introduce the major plot element of vampire squashes". I'm pretty sure Vernon just likes the idea of undead gourds.

The artwork is lovely, black and white with good shading, and it's easy to follow what's going on. I really enjoyed this, and I recommend it without reservation to everyone regardless of how much of a comic fan you are; it's very accessible and a really good example of what the medium is capable of. It's also a lot easier to read than most of the big names in quote-unquote literary graphic novels, whilst still being complex and thought-provoking.

#CBR6 9: NOS4A2, Joe Hill

Page count: 720 in paperback, although once again, I read the Kindle version
Time taken: seven hours?

Victoria McQueen is a kid when she discovers an unexpected talent for finding lost things. A creepy talent, which only gets weirder as she gets older. Charles Talent Manx also has a creepy talent. He kidnaps children and takes them to a magical place called Christmasland, where their teeth turn into tiny hooks and they play forever. Their paths collide several times, and Vic is forced to repeatedly confront the dark places in herself and others, and question how much she is willing to lose - and sacrifice - on the way.

This book creeped the everloving shit out of me. I read it in feverish chunks over several days, unable to put it down for hours at a time until I was forced to stop because oh my god, little hooks for teeth, or something worse. I enjoyed it immensely, which I did not really expect, and I really empathised with the ensemble cast of weirdos and fuckups (except Manx, I hate that guy) - unexpectedly so, given how badly they mess up their lives and the lives of people around them at times.

The book touches on a lot of really complex ideas, like the nature of identity, the destructive power of genius, and the surprising and unexpected inheritances we get from our parents and theirs. Hill is no doubt deeply irritated with people doing this, but to me it pretty clearly drew on elements of his own life - his father is Stephen "I write all of the books" King - albeit I really, really hope his home life was nothing like the lives of his characters. Still, as someone who regularly thinks about her own physical and psychological inheritances, I was particularly struck by those motifs in the later parts of the book.

Hill deals with various different kinds of mental illness, destructive personality traits, and conflicted relationships really well, whilst never really making it feel like a effort or an object lesson. Occasionally, this cut really close to the bone for me, but never passed across the invisible line into triggering. I would exercise caution if you're particularly sensitive about issues surrounding child abduction, addiction and self-harm, and mental breakdowns, as the book returns to these themes pretty regularly.

My favourite part of the book was where Mr De Zoet was listening to the Cloud Atlas symphony, because I love David Mitchell too, and I'm always thrilled when writers I like like other writers I like. I've only read another couple of Hill's works, some of the Locke and Key graphic novels, but I will absolutely read more when I get the chance.