Evan Dahm’s webcomics are set in the fantastical world of Overside, a land where sentient machines predate biological organisms and psychedelic landscapes cover the earth. But his latest comic, Vattu, could be as easily rooted in a realistic setting as a fantastical one. It tells the tale of a young nomad who becomes enslaved to a growing empire.
Dahm began is Overside stories with Rice Boy, a surreal comic that flings a potential messiah all across Dahm’s invented land, introducing us to a bizarre variety of peoples and creatures. He followed that up with Order of Tales, a more classically structured epic centered around the significance of storytelling. Vattu is, by contrast, a more intimate work, one that brings us far closer to its protagonist than Dahm ever has before.
Born long before the events of Rice Boy and Order of Tales, Vattu is a young member of a tiny nomadic tribe. Her people are called “Fluters” by the outside world because of their traditional instruments, but they identify themselves through the marks upon their heads, which separate them from the similarly shaped unmarked people, whom the Fluters call the “Dead.” Vattu finds herself clashing with her tribe’s priest, and decides to leave the tribe. Hardly has she left, however, when the representatives of the Sahta Empire approach, looking to assimilate the Fluter tribes. When Vattu makes an ill-timed return, she’s taken by the Sahtans as her people’s tax and made a slave to Lord Morrian, the dog-headed Emperor Double-Proxy.
On her way to Sahta, Vattu befriends a War-Man, Morrian’s similarly enslaved bodyguard, who, despite being non-verbal, bonds quickly with the young Fluter. Eventually, the golden meadows of Vattu’s homeland give way to the bustle of the city, where many fellow Fluters live as slaves and bodyguards. Once settled in Morrian’s household, Vattu attracts the contempt of Morrian’s other Fluter slave, Otti, and the curiosity of Morrian’s superior Calirus, who seems to view Fluters as noble savages.
Vattu follows a much slower pace than Dahm’s previous comics, but we get a greater richness and depth in exchange. Vattu explores the early days of colonialism, a time when many Fluters aren’t fully aware that they’re being colonized. Otti has been fully indoctrinated by the Sahtans, to the extent that he views the Fluters, especially those who have not lived in the city, as inferior. Life in the city and as a slave will have enormous consequences for Vattu’s identity as well. On the one hand, she is learning that the world is far wider than Fluter tradition held; on the other, she must decide what from her former life she is willing to hold onto. And Dahm is careful in his treatment of the colonizing forces as well. The Sahtan proxies engage in slavery and conquest, but there are those among their number, notably Calirus, who are thoughtful and not personally unkind. In the city, the Sahtans have their own problems, their own personal choices to make that have little to do with the larger empire.
Empire-building is not, however, without its consequences, and it seems likely that Vattu will get caught up in the rebellions threatening to errupt. It is a good thing that she, and she alone, will visit the War-Man, who is teaching her to spar, a skill she never needed among the hunters of her own people.