ursula vernon

I am struck occasionally, usually while snuggling the cat, with our faith in domestication.

The cat is a small, ferocious predator, twelve pounds of…well, flab and fur, frankly, in Athena’s case, but what muscle there is is strong all out of proportion to her size. I have watched three 150+ primates try and fail to subdue a ten pound cat, and consider it not at all unusual. The cat is as flexible as a snake and as strong as an ox. She has quite dainty looking teeth and claws, but there’s nothing dainty about their ability to flay flesh from bone.

If the cat and I were in a duel to the death, I would almost certainly win. I am 15+ times larger than she is, after all, and while my teeth and claws are pathetic, I have prehensile hands capable of doing terrible things. But if I had to go in naked, as the cat does, (and assuming the cat was aware that she was going to have to kill me, and not taking a nap in the corner) I can pretty much guarantee it would be a Pyhrric victory. I’d look like I’d gone ten rounds with a wolverine. I would need stitches. A lot of stitches. Possibly a glass eye. And antibiotics by the truckload. It’d be a mess, and there would even be a chance of an upset if the cat managed to go face-hugger on me.

And yet, despite the knowledge of the shocking amount of damage my small predator could inflict, it never occurs to me to worry. I pick the cat up and she tucks her head under my chin and purrs, canine teeth centimeters from my jugular, and despite the fact that I am carrying a ruthless carnivore in a position where she could, with great ease, remove me from the gene pool, I am thoroughly content with the world. Even knowing full well that cats are not even a truly domesticated animal, that Athena’s kin might best be described as “consistently tamed,” my greatest concern is that my black tank top is now coated in white cat hairs.

We have such faith in the process of domestication, despite the sheer unnaturalness of what’s happening. Small predators do not curl up on the chests of large primates and purr in the wild. And yet, every now and again, generally when my small predator is purring on the chest of this particular primate, I think How strange, how strange… that we’re doing this, and even stranger, that we both take it completely for granted, and find nothing unusual in such a completely unlikely alliance.

So there we were, in full nerd-core D&D mode, when the party burst into a room where a horrible dark ritual was being conducted, including the obligatory scantily clad maiden dangling over a pit of ice, about to be sacrificed in order to bring about hell on earth, general badness, screaming and flaming death, etc.

MAIDEN: Save me!
PALADIN: We’ll save you!
DRUID: Uhm, Rooster, are we sure she’s on the up and up?
GM: As far as you can tell, she’s a normal damsel in distress.

After several moments of intense cogitation, Rooster the paladin dredged up memories of late-night studying sessions in little paladin’s school, and came to a conclusion.

PALADIN: And I mean this in the most detached, scientific way possible, but are her nipples….err…it’s cold…You know….?
REST OF PARTY: ….
GM: …I…what….?
PALADIN: ‘Cos if she’s human and dangling over a pit of ice, they’re gonna be all pointy, but demons don’t have working nipples. They don’t lactate! They’re not really mammals! They lay eggs. Sorta like echidnas…well, I mean, the succubuseses do, but that’s different. They use them for other stuff. Not like echidnas. Er.
REST OF PARTY: ….
PALADIN: It’s SCIENCE!
GNOME: What kind of school did you go to?!

Kevin (the GM) gazed out a dark window for a few minutes. He was already having a rough session, as we had refused to ring the obvious magic gong to open the door, opting instead to make an illusory gong sound (nobody makes us ring gongs against our will!) and there had been the lengthy discussion of whether Fizgig can break a magic circle by pooping on it during combat.

GM: …They’re pointy.
PALADIN: We’ll save you!

A few minutes later, the ostensible maiden mind-controlled our gnome. Her familiar, Lawrence the toad, began immediately to panic.

GNOME: Or as we call it in our party, interpretive dance!

While Lawrence danced frantically to express that Something Was Wrong, Rooster was forced to confront his own disillusion.

PALADIN: I can’t believe the nipples lied.
RANGER (with surprising venom): THE NIPPLES ALWAYS LIE!
PALADIN (meekly): Mine don’t. I have Lawful Good nipples.
DRUID’S PLAYER: Dear god, I cannot Tweet fast enough.

PALADIN’S PLAYER: Can I roll a religions check to see why the nipple check failed?
GM: Do it.
PALADIN’S PLAYER: 28.
GM: She’s a succubus. They’re the only species of demon that understand nipples.
PALADIN’S PLAYER: …fair enough.

There’s also the argument ‘Books are supposed to challenge you!’ which is an interesting argument, but I don’t actually like it very much. Most of my books aren’t actually supposed to challenge you, they’re supposed to comfort you because life is a hard country and we all need a little kindness along the way. (It is totally fine if other people’s books are supposed to challenge you, just…err…#NotAllBooks or something.) I do not actually feel bad about this, because I think comfort is hard to do and generally worthwhile.
—  Ursula Vernon, and as if speaking directly to me

Ursula Vernon wrote the most amazing very short story and I absolutely had to illustrate it. This was a super fun self-initiated project and I really enjoyed working in a slightly different style than I usually do. Also: coloured lines!!!

ursulavernon

It happened one summer that a curse fell on my family. The details aren’t important. We could be here all night with who married whom and who cursed what. There was a curse, that’s all you need to know.

All seven of my brothers were turned into swans. From loud, hard-handed boys, they became mute birds, with wings as white as cloud and eyes as dark as heaven.

There was a great deal of chaos. There usually is, when someone turns into a bird. They went mad indoors and had to be ushered out into the gardens, to flap and sulk and arch their necks in beautiful reproach.

The wise woman of the woods came to me, with her hair wrapped up in leaf and copper wire. She told me that I was given the task of weaving seven shirts in silence, and only then would they be restored to human form.

A single word spoken, a single stitch unsewn, and they would be swans forever.

As soon as the wisewoman left the room, I pitched my spindle into the fire and sang aloud the raunchiest song I knew.

I never liked my brothers. They made much better swans.

The End

I must remind myself—

they can’t tell that I didn’t write this bit immediately after that one

the six months where I ignored the manuscript are not visible to the naked eye

the bit where I put my head in my hands and muttered “I have no idea what I’m doing” takes place in the single space between the period and the next capital letter.

As soon as I shove that character in, she has always been there

and someone will probably say that she’s the emotional center

and the book couldn’t have been written without her

and nobody will know that I thought of her three thousand words from the end and scrolled up and shoehorned in a couple of paragraphs near the beginning because, for whatever reason, the story needed an elderly nun

she was almost the cook

and for about ten minutes she was the earnest young village priest

and now she has been there since you started reading.

I am sanding down the places where my editor found splinters

kicking up a fine dust of adjectives and dropped phrases

(Wear a breath mask. Work in a well-ventilated area. Have you seen what excess commas can do to your lungs?)

and eventually it will all be polished to a high shine

and hopefully when someone looks into it

they’ll see their own face reflected back

instead of mine.

— 

Editing

I was supposed to be working, but there was a thing going to draw yourself as a pokemon trainer, and…well…

I’m weak.

Poke-verse Ursula is a gardener who grows Grass-type pokemon in an effort to attract provide rare Bird and Insect types with a safe haven during migration. (That these occasionally chew holes in the Oddishes is, after all, the reason she grew them in the first place. Fortunately Oddishes respond well to pruning and many sport punk haircuts as a result.)

She writes a regular gardening column “Beyond Butterfree: Habitat Gardening For Less-Charismatic Pokemon.”

She is prone to collaring strangers at parties to inform them that Tall Grass has declined in the last century to unsustainable levels. “Do you realize that less than 5% of Tall Grass remains untouched in this country?” she cries, brandishing her mojito. “If something isn’t done to stop habitat loss, wild Pokemon may become something only seen in zoos!”

(She will also tell you things about the mating habits of Gyrados that you were probably happier not knowing. It’s best just to nod and back away slowly. Depending on the number of mojitos involved, there may be hand gestures.)

When not documenting the migratory habits of Mothim, she occasionally goes off to watch Bird-types, accompanied by her faithful Quagsire, Quag-Bob.

KUEC #176 1:14:00 onwards
  • Kevin: Uh... Red Velvet Oreos.
  • Ursula: I HAVE to give them a five, and again, as with the Chips Ahoy Root Beer and other things, this is a completely unnatural food made with alchemy. This is not food, this is extremely artificial, but it is EXACTLY what it says it is: it tastes exactly like it. It's honestly kind of horrifying, but there you are.
  • Kevin: Really, the fact that it's completely chemically made is the part that is making me allow it for a five, because those things are fucking delicious. I'd eat that whole bag!
  • Ursula: It's like having sex with an android.
  • Kevin: ...What.
  • Ursula: It's like having sex with an android! It may be a physically satisfying experience, but it's not real: there is no human connection...
  • Kevin: What...?
  • Ursula: ...Fleshlight. Fleshlight's a better one. It may be a totally sensually accurate experience, but it is still basically unnatural and there's no love there.
  • Kevin: ...Okay. I... don't know what to do about that analogy. I mean, I'm tempted to take it out back and shoot it, but I can't come up with anything better right now. So I'm just going to move on!
  • Ursula: So, I got yelled at once at a sex toy party! I went with my friend Carlotta, and it was a good friend Laura, who was lovely, and she did, we called them "Fuckerware parties", where she sold vibrators and whatnot. And the end result was that there was one person in our entire social circle who knew what all of us were into that we would never admit to another soul. And they were basically Tupperware parties, except they were vibrators and whatnot. And she was very honest, I would go be like, "That thing looks interesting", and she would be like, "Yeah, they'll fall apart after one use, don't bother." ...But she did yell at me once. Or rather, she gave me a very stern look. And that was when Adam and Eve (I think it was Adam and Eve who was doing it at the time) had just perfected what amounted to a fake skin texture.
  • Kevin: Yep.
  • Ursula: And they were selling dildos and vibrators in the fake skin texture (and this is why we put the adult content warning on this show). And they handing them around, and it FELT like a penis! It had skin, like a penis! This was very similar, but there was something wrong with it. And it was the Uncanny Valley of texture. It was like, it was almost perfect but it failed in some aspect and that failure made it infinitely more creepy than if it had just been, like, hard plastic. So I'm sitting there, next to I believe Carlotta, as we're staring... Maybe it was Mur? I don't remember, anyway, someone was with me, and we're staring at this at this sex toy. And suddenly it hit me: it was room temperature. It wasn't hot!
  • Kevin: Hahaha.
  • Ursula: And because I have NO tact filters, whatsoever...
  • Kevin: None! You should see the prep before sending her out to do a school presentation. "Don't say fuck, don't say fuck, don't say fuck!"
  • Ursula: Yes, I spend five minutes in the car going, "Don't say fuck, don't say fuck, don't say fuck!" Anyway, so... I burst out, in... Perhaps more loudly than I should have... "Oh my God, it's cold! It's perfect for all your necrophilia fantasies!" ...And I got such a Look. I don't happen to HAVE necrophilia fantasies, which is probably why it was creeping me the hell out. But the point is, if you make something that is absolutely 100% texturally perfect but wrong, it's wronger than if it just wasn't perfect. So what I am getting at, is that Red Velvet Oreos are like fucking a fake corpse. ...Moving on.
  • Kevin: ....... I got nothin'.

I have come to realize, after yet another D&D session that ended with Kevin holding his head in his hands and moaning as the plot jumped the rails, went down an embankment, and burst into flames, what precisely the problem with our D&D group is.

We mean well.

This is what gets us into trouble.

When there are straightforward bad guys, we kill them. Occasionally we flirt with them and then kill them. We’re complicated people. But the situation is hardly ever straightforward, and if the NPCs say anything—or god forbid, Kevin attempts to provide a little local color—it’s all over. We begin to sympathize. Unless they’re mindless zombies or malicious demons (the paladin belongs to a demonslaying order) or abominations (the druid has issues) we have a bad habit of trying to work out the best possible solution, because damnit, we are all well-meaning, basically decent people. (The rogue has a heart of gold. Really.)

So we rescue the little caged monster because it Looked Sad, and we joined the local adventurer’s co-op and we bend over backwards to make sure that Lawrence, the artificer’s spirit-toad familiar, never finds out that he’s not a real toad, to the point where we started buying ghost-cicadas on a ghost-stick to feed him.

In this most recent extravaganza, we were fighting a wood-woad, and it occurred to me to ask it why it was so angry. Kevin, who had not actually expected us to talk to it—it’s been sending wasps to poison the water supply—summoned up his growly wood-woad voice and said “Uh…humans take water supply! Humans cut trees! Always cutting trees!”

Well. What can you do? Clearly the wood-woad had been wronged!

The paladin wanted to find it a nice new home, the druid thought it was an invasive species and wanted it killed. It came out that it had slain all the local beavers, which was enough to enrage the paladin. We beat on it for awhile. Finally:

PALADIN: Can we ask it to surrender now? Offer it terms?

DRUID: It’s a wood-woad! It…y’know, sure. Fine. See if it’ll accept terms.

PALADIN: (Rolls natural 20 on Diplomacy roll.) Excuse me, Mr. Wood-Woad, sir…if you stop now, no more of your little wasp friends will be hurt, and surely we can work something out where nobody will take your water supply again…?

DRUID: (sighs heavily)

GM: (weeps into hands)

So now we are traveling to an orchard owned by the paladin’s order, with a wood-woad stuffed in a half-barrel full of potting soil, which is tied to the back of an elephant, because the rogue happens to own a wondrous elephant. Y’know. Like you do.

This, ladies and gentleman, is my holiday card.

Those of us who have ever bothered to look it up probably know by now that winter celebrations have a long and glorious history, of which Christmas is only one of many, probably because at this time of year it’s so cold and grim you can either throw a party or slit your wrists. (This is the Reason for the Season. Well, that and axial tilt. All the rest is just excuses for the party.) We all know about Yule, and the winter solstice, and Saturnalia and all the rest.

My personal favorite, however, and the one I choose to celebrate because nobody knows what the hell it is, is Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. It falls on the 25th, and celebrates the birth of the god Mithras, a Christ-figure from Zoroastrianism, who managed to pre-date Christ by a coupla centuries. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti is probably the reason we celebrate Christmas on the 25th rather than on the Solstice, because Mithraism rapidly achieved a life of its own and was hugely popular as a mystery religion on Rome for centuries, until at last being eclipsed by Christianity. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, they ignored the fact that Jesus was probably born in spring, and promptly christened it Christmas. 

This is fine. Religions do this stuff all the time, you should see some of the Santeria/Catholic fusions, and whatever you call it, it’s still a party.

Mithraism, however, was one of the great Olde Time Religions, a really rip-snortin’ man’s man machismo kinda faith, a fraternal god worshipped by soldiers and sailors and travelers far from home. It was macho. Had I lived at the time, I would have undoubtedly despised it, but with a coupla thousand years worth of distance, I can think of Mithras in much the same way I think of Ricardo Montalban–with a sort of vague dreamy expression and the thought that man, he was a stud in his youth. (KHAAAANNN!)

In keeping with their pure machismo, Mithraism’s greatest sacrament was to find a pure white bull without blemish, cut its throat, and bathe in the blood. (We are REAL MEN! We can swim in bull blood AND ENJOY IT!) Animal sacrifice was all the rage at the time, everybody was doin’ it, but this was pretty dramatic even for the day. White bulls without blemish ain’t cheap.

I will not be doing this for Christmas. 

However, in my perfect world, where all faiths come together in a glorious orgy of tacky decorations, where light-up Baby Jesus rides light-up reindeer and light-up Isaac Newton bears gifts to light-up Kwanzaa something or other and the light-up Solstice Chicken flies over head bearing a menorah and we find some form of light-up Ramadan thing that doesn’t violate the rules about idols and everybody’s faith or complete lack thereof is utterly degraded by cheap merchandising and we all come together to bitch about how commercial it all is and how we shopped for hours and the kids are playing with the bubble wrap, for god’s sake, and thus are unified in a glorious, pan-religious celebration of our mixed feelings for the season–in this perfect world, there is a light-up plastic white bull, with red christmas lights wrapped tightly around its neck, spilling light-up gore onto the snow. And perhaps a small hamster with a butcher knife. 

And a merry Dies Natalis Solis Invicti to all! - Ursula Vernon

3

[DIGGER, by Ursula Vernon]

Very interesting use of cover art here!

In the previous page, we merely see the shadow of this mysterious, threatening character, whose approbation will determine the heroine’s survival. Then we get the most DETAILED close-up - in color, too, and way richer, more vibrant, than the comic’s usual style. And we come back to the pages.

Vernon uses the distinct status of cover art, both part of the narrative flow and independent picture, to highlight Boneclaw Mother’s weight, magnitude and mysticism. The title itself could almost be part of the dialogue: “I have been expecting you… DIGGER.”

at some point Our Heroine (I don’t know her name, I don’t know anything about her) is walking through the woods, and stumbles across a girl wearing a red hood, who has a finger in her mouth and is drooling a bit.

“Oh lord,” says the wolf behind her, “not another one!”

The wolf and Little Red Riding Hood are partners. Sometimes he kills her and sometimes she kills him and sometimes they’re lovers and sometimes they’re mortal enemies. It’s just the way things are. She always reappears on the path, and he always finds her. Pas de deux.

And then one day Little Red Riding Hood showed up without a mind. And the wolf, not knowing what else to do, takes her back to his den and feeds her and tries to figure out if this is just the latest variation on the theme, or if something else is going on.

And then another one shows up. Which is outside all experience–there’s one Little Red Riding Hood, she’s an archetype after all. And then another one and another, and they can utter maybe a word or two and aren’t housebroken and the wolf is collecting them because he simply doesn’t know what else to do and Our Heroine goes to his den and finds a dark room full of grimy girls wearing rags, staring out with bright, feral eyes, and eating the meat the wolf brings them raw.

“One of them got sick once,” said the wolf miserably, “and I left to find medicine for her, and by the time I got back, they’d eaten her, too.”

“Why don’t you just…let them go?” say our heroine, who can tell that the wolf is on the last edge of exhaustion, and isn’t sure there’s anything left in the girls to be worth saving, even assuming they’re actual people and not something else entirely.

“If I let them go,” says the wolf, “they try to go to Grandmother’s House.”