Critters: Underdark

18 December 2019

Critters: Underdark
by Allan Dotson
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-781988-783437

How best to describe Regina writer, artist and teacher Allan Dotson’s monster-inspired graphic novel, Critters: Underdark … a 153-page, 10-years-in-the -making labour of love, and black and white demonstration of great talent? An equally touching and humorous allegory for our socially-fractured and racially- divisive times? A textual and artistic tour-de-force? Each of the above applies, but at the heart of this fantasy’s success is the creator’s unique imagination, his skill at storytelling, and his deft ability to create individuated “monsters” – both visually and literarily – that readers of all ages will quickly care about.

It’s easy to suspend disbelief and get wrapped up in the train-wrecked world of innocent Eddy – a pincered “ettercap” who looks like a louse – and his first friend, the snaggle-toothed monster Sally, who tells also-caged Eddy: “You’re not alone. We’re all scared.” Eddy’s toddler-like diction is adorable, ie: “Is we all getting’ stuffs? Like weppins?” and “O nos! Thems gonna git us!” Many things are “skeery”.

In the first few pages we learn that these creatures, captured along with several others by the dwarves at the bidding of the medusa queen, Dread Lady Linnorm, both miss their mothers. The train’s taking a variety of critters “to the north to the wizards’ market” where they’ll be sold to humans. Lady Linnorm’s daughter, Lena, is watering the imprisoned critters when the train crashes and releases Eddy, Sally, and monsters of all kinds. The pair bond with strong Gronk – part cat, part dragon – and journey toward “freedom,” battling opponents and gathering comrades along the way, including spidery Uriel, who’s in the habit of saying “Heehee,” and ascertains that Lena, who’s travelling with them, can be both “slaver” and “one of [them]”.

The mother-child relationship is explored through Eddy, Sally and Lena. Sally’s mother is a kindly swamp hag who taught her daughter “how to cook and stuff”. Lena’s powerful mother is desperate to find her. Eddy’s mother will break your heart.

Dotson uses diction – and spectacular images; even caves have character – for humour and to create individuality. Lady Linnorm’s minions speak with a Scottish brogue: “Thar be sum more o’ tha wee beasties!” Evil, elephant-trunked Slithirgaddy is amassing an army to “follow [their] unsuspecting quarry deep into the stygian gloom of the endless underdark”. Lena and sharp-toothed Sally exchange barbs, ie: Sally’s superpower is the ability to turn invisible. Lena says: “That’s great, Sally, then we won’t have to look at you.”

Dotson teaches science and art at an elementary school, and I can see how this novelwould enthrall students and educators: he’s made it user-friendly for classrooms via a teachers’ guide, available online.

A longtime comic afficionado, sci-fi and fantasy fan, and founding member of Regina’s Valuable Comics collective, Dotson also designs and publishes role-playing games. Critters: Underdark is his first novel, and the first volume in his Critters Saga. Readers can next look forward to Wandering Monsters. I wonder if foes Sally and Lena will become friends?


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