Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 45: Vattu

Today is all about world-building. When we tell stories, those stories take place somewhere. They may take place pretty much right here and right now. They may take place long ago, or far in the future. The storyteller has to determine which aspects of the setting are familiar, and invent fitting concepts for those that are strange.  If a setting has little or no connection to reality, then the storyteller must invent everything that fills it, from ecosystems to cultures to technology. Sometimes a storyteller will only invent what is necessarily revealed by the plot. Sometimes a storyteller will get so caught up in the world they’ve invented that the story and characters in that world feel secondary. Rarely, a storyteller strikes the perfect balance, presenting a rich, lush world inhabited by compelling characters going on meaningful journeys. In these cases, you get stories like Vattu.

Vattu is the tale of a defiant young girl who consistently fights for her right to self-determination. That’s a familiar premise, the kind that is made or broken by its execution. In this case, the complexity and otherness of the setting are what make the story stand out. There’s clearly much more going on than what the reader ever gets to see. Just enough information is provided to demonstrate that there’s a larger, complete picture, and while the reader can make certain inferences, most of it remains a mystery. For instance, the people marked in white view the river as a god, while the Sahtans likely held a similar reverence for the river long ago, since their name for it is closely connected to the name for their god. (It’s entirely possible that I’m off the mark with this but the similarity totally stuck out to me.)

One of the major sources of conflict in this story is the clash of cultures, where dissimilar groups meet and have little means to understand one another. As Vattu is out of place in an unfamiliar city, center of an empire she hadn’t known existed until recently, she and the reader are at similar disadvantages, taking information about the city and those who live there as it comes. The reader has something of an edge on Vattu, since she comes from a nomadic tribe without a written language, and has little world experience nor education about anything outside her tribe’s experience. On the other hand, Vattu probably has a decent understanding of her tribe’s culture, at least, whereas the reader has all of that to learn or guess at, as well.

Note: Vattu is a story-driven comic that must be read in order from the beginning. So much of reading Vattu is about the pacing and the atmosphere that I’m not so concerned about spoilers. This is a journey-over-destination type story; even if you know where it’s going, you should be more interested in how it gets there.

I cannot stress enough the appeal in glimpsing different cultures that show up in Vattu and drawing comparisons. I already mentioned the river being treated as a god, which parallels certain aspects of human development in lands fed by river water. There’s also the use of marks on one’s forehead to indicate name or accomplishment. And then there are the aspects of cultures in Vattu that come from interactions with a phenomenon unique to that setting. What’s amazing is that these cultural developments still have parallels in human behavior, despite emerging from something totally alien.

Unweight is fascinating. Cultures aside, unweight is probably my favorite thing in Vattu. It exhibits some sort of extraordinary gravity-defying property. I’d call it buoyancy except *engineer hat on* buoyancy has to do with displacement, meaning you can only lift up the same mass as the air that would fill the volume you’re inhabiting. Unweight clearly lifts far greater mass than the volume of air it displaces, so its lift must come from something else. *engineer hat off*

Lifting force aside, unweight is apparently an intoxicant, used as a holy sacrament by the Surin, who extract it, and as a pricey street drug by the Sahtan. Surin chemists study unweight and learn how to extract it, but they treat this practice as religion, not science. Students must treat High Chemists with appropriate deference, and questioning is strongly discouraged. They seek not to gain greater understanding of unweight, but to maintain the practices and methods that were already established long ago.

Vattu is a beautiful comic, one that makes excellent use of visual storytelling. Sometimes long passages will go by without any spoken dialog, letting the reader in on quiet moments, the process of traveling or practicing a skill, where words would be redundant at best or a distraction at worst.

A particular race, the war-men, are mute, meaning that everything we see of them and their history is communicated through pictures. Their communication with other characters is done entirely through gesture, and it’s wonderful seeing how expressive they are, even lacking the ability that humans most often associate with self-expression.

I alluded to pacing earlier, but I didn’t go into detail. Vattu is a story that takes its time, lingering on details when introducing new places or characters, letting the reader take in everything that’s happening. Even so (at least in my case), there are details that escape notice, simply because there’s so much to pay attention to. This is one of those comics that rewards rereading. It’s hard to pay attention to the details when you’re still trying to get a grasp on the big picture. Going back once you already have an idea of how these cultures fits together provides room to notice smaller things, and to gain appreciation for the depth of the story’s setting.

Conversations often make ample use of what my high school drama teacher referred to as filled silence. Characters take their time in speaking or reacting, important revelations take place over multiple pages, and dialog is given time to sink in. Finding examples to include in this post has been challenging, because in order to get a good feel for Vattu you kind of need to read at least a few pages in succession. For the most part, a single page is a bad unit by which to judge this comic; the individual pages are but necessary subdivisions of a sprawling tapestry of storytelling.

That’s not to suggest that Vattu is slow-paced. There’s plenty of action and excitement, and a few key events have gone by so quickly that initially I found it hard to believe they’d actually happened. It’s also a quick read. At this point, I can get through the archive in a couple of hours. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading it that fast, because then you miss a chance to linger on details, but you don’t need to be worried about getting bogged down in a long, intractable story.

Vattu is the third long-form work set in the world of Overside. You don’t need to worry about reading those first; they’re all independent stories set in different regions and eras in the same larger world. I read Vattu before I’d read anything else on that website, and I was no worse off for it. If you enjoy Vattu and you’re looking for more, then feel free to check out Rice Boy and Order of Tales. Much of what I’ve said about Vattu applies to these other works, particularly the depth and intricacy of the world-building. These different stories have different tones, and certainly feel like different reading experiences, but they’re all beautiful and strange and compelling.

Read Vattu, and you will be rewarded with action, adventure, friendship, exploration, mystery, all those keywords that make for a good fantasy tale. Read the story of a girl who just refuses to accept a bad situation without doing something to fight it, and while those around her all find their own ways to deal with changes to their world.

Vattu is written and drawn by Evan Dahm and updates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Do you like stories that toss you into a strange and unfamiliar setting and let you get acclimated at your own pace? I love it when stories do that. It’s like teaching you a language by dropping you off in a foreign country, except with far fewer chances of getting robbed or ending up hopelessly lost. Let the characters put themselves in danger for your amusement while you stay safe at home, and watch history unfold before your eyes.

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