The Webcomic Overlook #207: Vattu
Imagine a story centered around a nomadic tribe. They voyage the plains, perhaps resembling the African savannah. They live a sort of insular lifestyle, dealing with issues on a small, community-based level. What do we do when the herd we’ve been tracking suddenly moves? How do we deal with conflicts with neighboring tribes. And so on and so forth.
Suddenly, though, this tribe comes across a huge Empire that has ambitions for expansion. The Roman Empire, lets say. One of the people in that tribe is suddenly conscripted into the service of the Empire, and must now deal with a frightening new world, with new moral standards, a stratified class structure, and people who don’t look very favorably upon a simple tribesperson from the plains.
The set-up is pure Joseph Campbell and is a very popular one to use in historical or fantasy fiction. It sounds a lot like Conan the Barbarian, in fact. But … what if Conan was a girl? … OK, that’s just Red Sonja. BUT … what if Red Sonja was also a salamander creature?
While you’ve still got a way to go before this analogy starts making any sense, your starting to get close to Evan Dahm’s lastest incursion into the Overside: a little webcomic about a female, sword-wielding, salamander creature named Vattu.
It’s kinda odd how, as we delve farther in the Overside, the original comic, Rice Boy, starts feeling more like the odd man out. Rice Boy (which I reviewed here) was more symbolic and psychedelic. It was filled with epic fantasy themes, sure, but it also had some simple character designs that they stepped out of the nightmares of Pablo Picasso. With giant eyes and weird doodle-like people everywhere, it’s a comic that would be most at home in an indie magazine given out for free at small art schools. The follow up, Order of Tales (which I reviewed here) reigned the designed elements to more familiar anthropomorphic tropes. Our hero was a lizard, and he was trying to escape the clutches of an army of what looked like crows. The black and white illustrations felt like they would be at home in a mainstream collection of children’s fairy tales.
Vattu represents a return to color, which, on the surface, recalls Rice Boy. The rest of the comic, though, is more spiritually similar to Order of Tales. Our plains people (who are called Fluters by outsiders) resemble amphibians, not that visually dissimilar from Koark. Vattu features a crypto-Roman Empire called the Sahta Empire. They’re depicted as an army of anthropomorphic canines, not too dissimilar from the Order of Tales‘ crows. The most surreal creatures in the comic are the silent, golem-like War-Men, who seem to have one large stone for a face. (They almost look like a more organic version of The Electronic One from previous adventures, a recurring character who has yet to show up in Vattu.)
However, the evolution of Mr. Dahm’s style, which gives more attention to textures and details on articles of clothing and accessories, gives all the characters more solid appearances than ever before. These clay humanoids never seem all that incongruous with the other more animalitic races. This is in stark contrast to the prickly, uneasy feeling you get when, say, Rice Boy suddenly found himself in a room full of eyes.
(By the way, it isn’t necessary to read the other two stories to jump into Vattu. However, since both Rice Boy and Order of Tales are excellent, you should check ’em out anyway.)
The story follows a character named Vattu. She is born under ominous circumstances. The tribe needs hunters, and hunters can only be males. Vattu, however, is female. It should be noted, by the way, that the tribe is matriarchal. Their leader is a grandmotherly priestess, who dispenses justice and assigns fates. The expectation that hunters should be males is driven less by male chauvinism and more about expectations on how things have always been.
Vattu origins have the hallmarks of legend, like the ones where the hero is born under a red star or whose birth is foretold by a coven of witches. Dahm, here, is more practical. He takes time to explain why Vattu’s birth is tied to fate rather than leaning on that old fantasy chestnut, “legend foretells.” Vattu’s birth means that the tribe can’t move for a while, since it may be too dangerous for a newborn. Meanwhile, the animals that they hunt has moved down the river, the nearby foraging has been picked clean, and tarrying too long could mean less food for the tribe. At one point she’s kidnapped, which the Priestess interprets as an omen that the tribe was supposed to leave.
Yet the signs are unmistakable. Vattu was destined never to be with her tribe. Though the ramifications may be tied to real world concerns, they nonetheless speak to Vattu’s destiny. It seems as if only her father’s interference keeps her in the tribe.
The Fluters are drawn with big foreheads and giant eyes, perhaps to accentuate innocence and wonder. They’re also a little hard to tell apart, save for the impermanent markings on their foreheads. Normally, I’d rail on an artist for doing very little to differentiate their characters, making a narrative mess of a visual medium. Here, though, I am 100% sure that this is by design. The Fluters, as a community, are a singular character. They are visually what we think of sometimes when we encounter people of another race… how everyone at first glance looks alike. And, bit by bit, we see that one character fragment into smaller individuals. Vattu is perhaps the most visually distinct. As the youngest, she’s shorter than the other tribespeople. She also bears a unique mark: two slashes across the forehead. (The Priestess calls it “The Wing of Shira.“)
One fateful day, members of the Sahta Empire visit the village. The tribe is now run by the crippled Vanni, who recognizes that change is afoot and the tribe has not done much to adjust to it. The Sahtans are far too powerful to confront. Without any resistance, the tribe accepts rule by the Sahtans by painting their mark on their tents. The Fluters are a little confused as to what all this means. We as readers, though, probably have a good idea of what’s in store: the old nomadic ways are coming to an end.
Vattu, in the meantime, has grown to be a hunter. She is just as capable as the males. She has a hard time gaining acceptance despite moral support from the late Priestess. However, her role in the tribe is cut short. Vani sends her out to meet the strangers. She thinks she’s giving them a gift from the World-In-The-Box. The Sahtans laugh it off. It turns out, however, that the game piece wasn’t the gift. Vanni offers Vattu as a tribute to the Sahtan Empire. (The Sahtans have no idea that Vattu is female, which might have affected their estimate of her worth.) And thus, like Joseph being sold to the Egyptians by his brothers, Vanni’s fate is given to a far more powerful civilization.
Vanni, perhaps, senses that her talents are being wasted in this tribe… or maybe he sees an opportunity to restore order to the tribe while, at the same time, appeasing his new masters. The webcomic doesn’t dwell on Vanni’s motivations; I’m assuming that Dahm is leaving this intentionally vague. I think Vanni thought it was futile to thwart Vattu’s destiny any longer.
Vattu doesn’t respond with anger as you might expect a protagonist would at this betrayal. (Though she does seem to be in shock.) It could be because Vattu herself also senses an opportunity. After all, now she has a small sense of freedom. She is no longer shackled by the expectations of a tribal community. Instead, she gets to explore the world beyond her confines.
At the same time that Vattu discovers her newfound individuality, there’s a startling change in the cast of characters. For the most part, she’s the only Fluter amidst a sea of anthropomorphic canines. Ironically, this time it’s the Sahtans who all look the same. It serves to highlight Vattu’s loneliness. The Sahtans look down on those who aren’t like them, and Vattu has a hard time making friends. The only other Fluter she knows is somewhat of a brat. While the War-Man never talks, he may be her only friend.
She sees how other people interpret the world: a god is merely a river to the Sahtans, and a religious artifact is just a game to be played as a leisure activity. She soon lives in a walled city, where she comes into contact with characters of high political power… more power than that simple tribal priest who gave her as a captive to their new masters. She befriends a hulking War-Man, who teaches her how to fight with a sword.
In fact, she’s the only person who’s unafraid of the War-Man. Maybe she’s the only person the War-Man trusts. It’s something that doesn’t escape the Emperor-Proxy’s eyes. She may be small and of one of the least respected races in the Overside, but she has potential and the power-brokers know it. When Joseph arrived in Egypt, he spent some time in captivity but eventually became a trusted minister for the Pharoah. It looks like Vattu may be following the same destiny.
Mr. Dahm has a style that’s light on dialogue but heavy on illustrations that convey a sense of action without relying on motion lines. In absence of onomatopoeia or motion lines, the fight scenes feel balletic. Other times, they remind me of the grand battle scenes as depicted in Romantic Era paintings.
The coloring is also fantastic. Rice Boy‘s palette was bright and garish, which heightened the sense that everything was a fever dream. Here, though, the palette sticks closer to earth tones. The wide yellow swaths of the plains highlight the isolation of the tribe in the early pages. The War-Man’s red-tinted flashbacks, on the other hand, makes their scenes seem more crowded, as if the armies were themselves mere features of the landscape.
The colors enhance the character of the land itself. Empty. Sweeping. A great space that will be transformed into neat geometric patterns when the Sahtans arrive. For some stories, the arrival of civilization would be a tragic development. In Vattu, it’s seen more as the way things are. Heck, at least the city provides three square meals a day, and the city walls keep all the dangerous animals out. The Sahtan Empire represents a change in the way of life. One that’s unavoidable and inevitable. The survivors in this brave new world are people like Vattu — they are fearless and indomitable.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)