Set in the world of Overside, Vattu is the story of the eponymous member of a tribe of nomad hunter-gatherers whose lives are disrupted by forces of change. The story follows Vattu as she is taken to a foreign society, and gradually accumulates other characters — a struggling artist, a member of a secret society, a young apprentice in an alchemical enclave, and many more.
The webcomic consists of four books, beginning in June 2010 and finishing in September 2022.
Book One, The Name and the Mark, develops Vattu's origins in her tribe of those marked in white, with the various struggles that can exist in that context. By the end of the chapter, she has been sold into slavery to the imperialistic Sahtans. Later, it introduces the War-Man and intersperses flashbacks to his story between segments of Vattu being taken to Sahta. Over the course of the chapter Vattu and the War Man become friends, get separated, and then are reunited.
Book Two, The Sword and the Sacrament, introduces a whole host of new characters, and the select stories of denizens from varying classes are explored. Having escaped servitude at a Sahtan house, Vattu now steals and hides to live, receiving further martial training in secret from the War Man and encountering many other residents of the city.
Book Three, The Tower and the Shadow, begins with a shift of focus upon the Emperor Arrius, and shows hints of the history behind the empire and how the present world has come to be.
Book Four, The River, follows the various factions fighting for control of Sahta in the aftermath of the death of Emperor Arrius.
Vattu contains examples of:
- A God Am I: Gasha declares himself to be Tirkatesh, the Grish god of the current.
- Action Girl: Vattu wields a sword nearly her height and don't even care! She also loots for her food and fights her way out of problems without hesitation. Played with by Dahm as she isn't physically imposing by far, but nor is her stature played up as anything special. Possibly a moot point considering Fluters have nothing to do with human cultural constraints - but since she goes from being 'it' to 'he' when a couple of guards catch her with her sword, there is at least basis for it within the empire.
- Gradually becomes more competent with her weapon, and eventually, proficient; rumours abound of the 'Fighting Fluter', and Calirus himself (in charge of the expansion efforts) is surprised/amused/respectful enough of her to allow her nightly pilgrimages.
- Almost exactly a year into her sparring sessions, Vattu easily disarms the War Man.
- Addled Addict: Velas' unweight habit, which steadily gets worse until the Emperor's death, at which point he's barely able to function without it.
- Altar the Speed: After Emperor Arrius dies, Asria and Velas get married by Asria's mother Enteyer to shore up their line's legitimacy.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: Junti towards Vattu as she struggles to hold the latter from falling.Junti: I love you.Vattu: Be ready.[Vattu falls]
- Anthropomorphic Personification: The basis of Vattu's tribe's religion is the massive river they live by, known as Ata.
- Art Evolution: Around the latter parts of book two, Dahm intentionally simplified his inking style, with thicker, smoother lines and less detailed shading. Compare the first appearance of Sahtan soldiers with their return to the Flutelands, 750+ pages later.
- Arranged Marriage: Marria with Lord Morrian, of the political sort. As opposed to the usual trope, the marriage itself isn't paid much attention; instead, it is used to set up Marria's affiliation with the Sisterhood (see below).
- Batman Gambit: Junti's enlisting of Vattu in her secret research. "I hope you would not tell, but they would not listen if you did."
- Berserk Button: Kadarsh can't stand the sheltered Junti, who doesn't know a thing about the impoverished underbelly of the city.
- Break the Haughty: Emperor Arrius was an arrogant brat as a child, until in a fit of bravado he drank his father's wine in full view of his advisors. The wine turned out to be poisoned, and left Arrius permanently disabled and in constant pain. This and his later experiences in the city slums left him much more humble and empathetic, though constantly in doubt of his capacity to rule right up until he was poisoned again, this time fatally.
- Category Traitor: Various people see Vattu as one after she starts living in the Imperial Tower and becomes an emissary. Deconstructed Trope since many accusers are considered traitors themselves, by OTHER people. In a story about colonization, few of the subjugated can really do much against the ruling power.
- Character Catchphrase: Otti:"You are an idiot."
- Child Prodigy: Downplayed with Junti; despite being an unremarkable student and the properties of Unweight being pretty well-understood, she still manages to puzzle out the mechanics of Unweight-powered flight and create a working design for a flying apparatus (in this case, a kind of personal levitation harness) in the span of a few months through sheer deduction. Later on, she puts this discovery to good use when she breaks Vattu out of the Imperial Tower's prison with an Unweight airship.
- Cigar Chomper: Bakrah is rarely seen without one. Later on he switches to a pipe.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Played straight for Surin and Sahtan architecture and the general aesthetic of either race. Sahtans tend toward red, gray and brown, while Surin go for blue and purple.
- Contemplate Our Navels: Velas' Unweight-induced high gets a little intense.
- Covert Group: The Sisterhood, composed of women connected to major political figures, who share information amongst each other. Although it is "not as secret as it was".
- Crutch Character: Junti to Vattu, in a sense, regarding her mission to scavenge Unweight; she is rostered onto the Honour Guard, and Vattu has to do it alone.
- Curiosity Is a Crapshoot: Junti. Her abundance of questions regarding the enclave, Sahta, and Unweight gain her more ire than sympathy.
- The Cycle of Empires:
- Expansion: The Sahtan Empire took wide strides to conquer the War-Men horde, proving to the world that they could take on the most barbaric outlands and win.
- Stabilization: By the beginning of the story, the conquerors are taking more calculated risks, conquering beings who have little to produce and next to no military strength, and the emperor is busy pacifying his annexed subjects.
- Decay: In response to the feeble placating compromises to the third-class citizens, the nobles plot to usurp the throne, the Surin enclave secedes, and the emperor dies.
- Long Night: Vattu seizes control of the throne, but not to stay its next tyrant. With the credibility of the title of Emperor in tiny pieces (what with Vattu being a sub-Sahtan, a commoner, and the woman who murdered the previous emperor), every edict she makes hastens the death of the Sahtan empire, and she eagerly commands the Fluters to prepare its funeral.
- Decompressed Comic: The first scene. Lampshaded by Evan in the accompanying news post: "Dialogue will happen very soon! And it won't all be as ridiculously decompressed as this first scene, rest assured!"
- Descriptively-Named Species: The Fluters and the War-Men, reflecting how Sahta sees them.
- Don't Call Me "Sir": The small band of Surin who appear to be acting independently of the enclave. Is the first inkling that the higher ups are not as single-mindedly devout as they seem.
- Early-Bird Cameo: Unweight and a Surin are first seen in one of Dahm's short stories, "The Tethered Isle".
- Emotionless Girl: Otti, though male, comes off as eerily affectless.
- The Exile: Seri in Book 1, after causing the events that lead to Vattu's temporary abduction by the Dead.
- Expy: Calirus drew a lot of comparison to Tywin Lannister - both highly competent and ruthless elder statesmen whose machinations drive much of the story's events, and who have their own plans for the throne.
- Calirus' son Caniri is likewise almost certainly an analogue for Joffrey, both of them being horribly unqualified Royal Brats whose families plan to use them as a Puppet King, with dire consequences for everyone else. Tanniri even shares Joffrey's habit of hysterically calling for executions whenever he's threatened. Fortunately, Vattu's rebellion destroys all of Caniri's support, and he's left unable to do anything but ineffectually protest as she takes the throne.
- Eye Scream: Bakrah gets an eye gouged out in a fight.
- Fantastic Caste System: Conquered races are subservient to the Sahtans by default. The War-Men living in Sahta have a comparatively easy deal as they are given room and board in exchange for permanent military service, while Grish are segregated in their own neighborhood of Grishet and mostly left to their own devices; Fluters, who largely reside at the bottom, are either pressed into indentured servitude or live in the streets. The Surin are seemingly external to this, shutting themselves off from the world where possible. (Compared to the lowest castes, though, their living quarters elicit much envy.)
- Fantastic Drug: Unweight, the blue, paint-like fluid that forms the focus of the Surins' institute. Particularly well-off Sahtans may also get their hands on it.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Sahtan Empire, which is Roman in nature. They even have extremely similar armor and the famous "scutum" shields.
- Flash Back: When the chief of the war-men remembers the time before he was captured by Sahta, and when Arrius the Seventh remembers his childhood.
- Otti versus Vattu, the former assimilating into the slave system while the latter rejects it.
- Kadarsh, upon meeting Junti, represents the interracial hostility bred by an unequal caste system; Vattu has had little time to be inoculated with it, and puts it aside.
- Promptly subverted when she lockpicks a sacred room.
- Foreshadowing: During one of Junti's early meetings with the Weightless One, they mention that "one pinch more" of Unweight than normal would send them flying high above the city. Sure enough, they end up doing just that once the Surin Enclave is blasted out of Sahta.
- Four-Fingered Hands: Sahtans have four fingers on each hand, while War-Men and Fluters have only three. The Surin have five-fingered hands.
- The Ghost: The Emperor Arius is often referred to by many characters, but he isn't actually seen until book 3.
- God Before Dogma: The Sisterhood seem to be this with regard to the Sahtan religion.Carlae: It is said that when you are on the righteous side — the side of Tarrus Himself, no matter what the church says — these things have a way of falling into place.
- God-Emperor: The Sahtan emperors are considered to be the mortal hand of Tarrus, the Sahtan god.
- Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Bakrah is a heavyset, amoral and very cunning businessman, and is usually smoking a cigar. Seeing as how he's the only character in the entire comic who smokes, it also serves to emphasize his foreign origin.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: Though it's easy to assume the Sahtan Empire are the 'villains' as a conquering society, Dahm goes to great lengths to dispell such a clear-cut perspective — the Empire is very much as amoral as any civilisation in our own history.
- Hot-Blooded: Vattu — subtly, but pervasively so. This starts as early in the comic as her first dialogue, and then...
- Icy Blue Eyes: Calirus sports some.
- Inadequate Inheritor: There are many who feel that Emperor Arrius is not fit to rule Sahta due to his physical frailty. He doesn't feel he's right for the throne either, though not due to his physical shortcomings.
- Insistent Terminology: It's Lord Morrian, Vattu. Get it right!
- Internal Reformist: Vattu attempts this in the comic's latter half, with dismal results. One of the story's aesops is that change from within is impossible for imperialist systems, as the system will simply use such attempts to further extend its own power.Vanni: The sword is always there. Even when it's left on the ground. Always.
- Ironic Echo: On pages 769 and 771Junti: Who are you?
Bakrah: In this sort of work, one must accept a certain level of ambiguity.
Bakrah: Why are you having weapons made?
Junti: I'm sorry, but — you must accept a certain level of ambiguity.
- Jump Scare: In-universe, when Kadarsh pops up to greet characters at the canal.
- La Résistance: Between Vattu stirring up the street population, the Surin plotters making ready for a coming change, and the members of the Sisterhood looking to gain political significance, the seeds for this have certainly been sowed.
- Made a Slave: Vattu, sold to the Sahtan Empire.
- Fairly soon into her stint, she's not.
- Mood Whiplash: Junti, causing some trouble after snooping around the Unweight greenhouse, suffers a gruesome-looking fall during her escape.
- Vattu, also meeting trouble in the Flower Room, finds out she's learnt swordfighting a little too well.
- Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: The Unweight flowers grown in the Surin enclave's greenhouse, though in this case, it's less the flowers themselves and more the substance extracted from them: Unweight is a popular narcotic in Sahta and is used to make blue paint, but naturally has "negative weight" and falls upward; this property is exploited by the Surin to make aircraft.
- Mushroom Samba: Vattu has a very short one after being given some Unweight by Velas, providing the page quote in the process.
- Naming Ceremony: Priestess gives fluters of Vattu's tribe their name and mark after their first turning-move.
- No-Respect Guy: Vanni, prior to Priestess' assignment of him as her successor, is ignored or dismissed by most of the tribe due to his inability to hunt. After he becomes Priest, Hunter contemptuously asks him, "She chose you?" and Vattu outright dismisses his authority. This has consequences for the hunters once Sahtan colonization begins and Priest decides which aspects of fluter tradition he is willing to defend.
- Outside-Context Problem: Sahta to the fluters.
- Pals with Jesus: Vattu considers herself the personal friend of Arrius the Seventh, mortal hand of Tarrus.
- Precision F-Strike: "Damn Ata."
- Public Execution: Book Two opens with a Grish shipbuilder being hanged by Sahtan authorities for selling to enemies of the state, and not paying taxes to the Emperor.Shakkiz the Red: I spit on your Emperor!
Sahtan spectator: We spit on all the Grish!
Shakkiz: No. You simply kill us.
- Race-Name Basis: The Sahtans who take Vattu to Sahta call her only "Fluter." She doesn't like it at all.
- Racial Remnant: The Surin's enclave is the last remnant of their once-great culture. Except they aren't, but their culture has stagnated enough to exile an entire enclave to The Empire as a peace treaty.
- Rags to Riches: Vattu goes from being forced into servitude to homelessness, living by a canal and stealing food to survive, to being taken into the Imperial Isle as an advisor to the Emperor.
- Rite of Passage: Surin girls visit the Weightless One when they are of age (or maybe later) in order to join the acolyte classes.
- Schizo Tech: In a few instances it is shown that the Surin use lighters, in a society otherwise analogous to Classical Rome.
- Significant Wardrobe Shift: Each book has one for Vattu, as her status and role in life change.
- Starving Artist: Velas.Bread costs more than it did a year ago. Six flatters now. Paintings still cost the same, though.
- Sue Donym: "Va... nni."
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Asria tries to take charge of a deteriorating situation by disarming a defecting guard and ordering the arrest of the usurper for trying to buy the throne with drugs. Except everyone is more worried about the patriarchal succession crisis and immediately detains her.
- Take Away Their Name: After Seri hides a Sahtan game from the rest of the tribe and several fluters die as a result, Priestess takes away her name and mark. Vanni/Priest threatens to do the same thing to Vattu.
- Tempting Fate: Gasha, immediately after claiming to be immortal, gets shot through the neck and dies on the very next panel.
- The Blank: The War-Men have no facial features.
- The Hermit: Oh, Velas. Struggles through formal (or even common social) etiquette... avoids opening the door... (His 'best friend' just lets himself in, really.)
- He does make an effort to be nice to that little street Fluter, though.
- The Quisling: Otti scorns the Fluter way of life and reveres the Sahtan empire, considering it to be the superior civilization even though he is enslaved by it.
- The Speechless: The War-Men, and apparently everyone from their home continent of Grenth.
- The Watson: Junti's late initiation allows lots of info on the Surin culture to be fed to the audience.
- Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: Well averted; many species only demonstrate dimorphism through their costume, and the Fluters are distinctly ambiguous from our perspective - as well as everyone else's. Played with, as Fluters easily divine each other's genders.
- Dahm has said that male Fluters have more angular heads, and within their own culture, wear brighter colours.
- Tribal Face Paint: Indicative of a tribesman's name. A big deal in Fluter culture; when someone is dishonored and cast out, their name is forcibly washed off.
- Vattu clings to these standards in Sahta: when Otti berates her for repainting her mark, she claims that because he has none, he has no name — and she shouldn't even talk to him. As of Book 2, though, the mark is gone for more practical reasons.
- As beggars and street rats, for many of the Fluters, the memory of their name is all they have left. Vattu, as seen, is highly protective of hers. As she matures and finds new purpose, she lets her obsession go.
- Uptown Girl: Velas, a starving artist, falls in love with Asria, the emperor's daughter.
- Willing Channeler: A part of the Grish religion is a fighting ring in which the contestants are said to be vessels for the will of the gods.
- Later, Gasha claims the god of the current is speaking through him.
- You No Take Candle: Kadarsh is a subtle example, occasionally dropping his auxiliary verbs.