‘Girl’ Is Not A Personality Type: An Interview With The Creators of ‘Lumberjanes’
Lumberjanes is many things: paranormal adventure, ode to friendship, celebration of girlhood, viral success, emblem of a changing industry. A lesser book might have crumbled beneath these ambitions and expectations. It very immediately became not just a highly-anticipated comic, but — for reasons included the fact that it’s written, drawn, colored, lettered and edited by women — an important comic, and that’s as promising as it is dangerous. Privately, I had my doubts—it looked interesting, but I’ve been burned before by important books and I kept my excitement at a low simmer.
But five issues into the Brooke Allen-drawn series, Boom! Studios/Boom! Box’s Lumberjanes has firmly established itself as one of the cleverest, most good-natured comics on the market. The story of a delightfully plucky troop of wilderness girl scouts (not to be confused with the Girl Scouts) and the variously hilarious and supernatural adventures they get into at summer camp, the book is buoyed by the emotions and friendships of early adolescence, and can be enjoyed by neophytes and collectors alike—including, happily, young girls. It is never didactic or (most crucially) boring, and it balances character focus and plot extremely well.It is, simply and uncommonly, fun.
ComicsAlliance: How do you feel about where Lumberjanes is, where it’s going, the kind of response you’ve gotten?
Shannon Watters: Overwhelmed. Yeah. The main feeling is overwhelmed.
Noelle Stevenson: In a good way.
SW: Yeah, but it’s huge! It’s a huge thing now. It’s ongoing, and with that comes a lot of pressure and responsibility, et cetera. We’re excited, we’re excited about life but, it’s just… everything happens so much.
CA: So, something I find really interesting about Lumberjanes is the importance of social media, and especially Tumblr, in its rise. Tumblr gets a lot of crap, which is sort of its own discussion, but something that I think is really important about Tumblr is, in many ways, that it’s kind of a female space. I have so many friends who aren’t really into comics, but they’ve talked to me and have been like, “What’s this Lumberjanes thing? Can you get me a copy? Where do I go to get that?” Where do you guys think social media enters, in terms of new comics — especially comics by and about women — and where do you think it’s going? What kind of role do you think it’s played for you guys?
NS: Well, social media has played a really big part in me just getting into comics in the first place. Social media is how I found which [books] would be welcoming to me as a young woman in comics, so that’s how I found out about Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, that’s how I found out about Saga, Rat Queens, all those titles. If you’re not already deeply ingrained in that world, you wouldn’t know which issues were coming out. So, social media is really important, and word of mouth, especially among Tumblr people.
It is a safe space for female and queer people, and that was, I think, really important to tap into to attract readership. We wanted to bring new people into comic shops, people who wouldn’t necessarily have their finger on the pulse of which titles are coming out, tell them that this is a place that they could be welcome in, that they could come in and make their own place.
So, that was really important, and Tumblr did play a big part in that. The original announcement, which was on Tumblr, which is just the cover and the announcement that it was happening, it had twenty thousand notes or something insane like that.
CA: It was so funny, it didn’t even come from you, right? It was some comics blog that just posted the announcement and you reblogged it and then it just took off!
SW: I think a big part of this book has been teaching people how to buy comics. After the initial announcement, Noelle put up something that you can take into a comics store and give to them. It had the diamond code on it. Teaching people the importance of pre-ordering is going to be the next step in this evolution of the comics marketplace, and reaching out to groups that have been marginalized in the past.
The direct market, the way that it’s structured, is not necessarily the most favorable for new books that are not coming from a pre-established property or a creator. Retailers are at most times reluctant to take chances because their books are unreturnable on Wednesdays. They order one hundred Superman issues, and if they can’t sell one hundred Superman issues, they’re stuck.
So, they tend to be conservative and I think teaching people that, in the comic book space, when you love something, going into the comic shop and pre-ordering is the key to its success, that is really, really key, and I appreciate that Lumberjanes is a part of that kind of continuing education on the part of the ‘out of the ordinary’.
CA: Boom Studios in general is a really interesting place, between young adult work, all ages work, licensed work, original work — there’s a lot of really cool stuff happening. And they’re one of the only publishers that’s really taking risks on people who do webcomics, or are otherwise online. Boom is really ahead of the curve. What is it like to work for a place that’s really embracing these aspects of comics?
NS: This is Shannon’s whole deal.
SW: Outside of being a co-creator for Lumberjanes, I’m the senior editor of the Kaboom line and the Boom Box line at Boom Studios, so all the Kaboom books are my fault, sorry about it.
When I came to Boom, my taste was not superhero comics; I didn’t like the average direct market draw, you know? I didn’t know that Sean Gordon Murphy was a huge deal, and my deal was indie comics and webcomics, that’s where my expertise was. I’ve been following people like Dylan Meconis since we were all in college and they were just drawing comics up on the web.
I used to think to myself when I was in college, I wish I had money to make comic books because I would publish these people — I didn’t understand why people weren’t publishing them. Now people are, thank god. People beat me to it, but I feel like my natural inclination is to look for interesting stories being told from different points of view and I’m lucky, because I’m a gatekeeper for the direct market, essentially.
I’m the gatekeeper for a direct market comic company and I’m lucky because my boss is trustworthy and will allow me to do — I hate to say it — whatever we want. But they let me take chances on stuff, and as a queer woman it is my responsibility to be socially aware of the stories that I’m telling and allowing others to tell. I try really hard to make sure that I’m bringing new people into the fold and also that people who are extremely talented and deserving and have a career on the web — they don’t need me, but I would like to give their work more exposure in any way that I can.
If that’s writing an Adventure Time mini-series or doing a cover for Lumberjanes, whatever that is, I want to do that. I want there to be a generation of kids that love Ryan North, that read A Softer World, and that read Octopus Pie. That’s important to me. It’s important to me because these people are incredible, they deserve to have long fruitful careers outside of writing Adventure Time.
NS: Yeah, that’s basically how I ended up with Boom in the first place, since I was on Tumblr and I needed an internship, and I wanted to see if anyone who follows me maybe knows of an internship I can pursue. So I made a post to see if anyone knew of any internships, and Shannon reached out to me and was like, we have an internship!
So, I flew out in the summer of 2012 to intern with her and Shannon has really been my mentor in comics. Ever since then, I had no idea what I was doing at any point, but she really took me under her wing and I had such a great time. I just knew that this was where I belonged, and that’s definitely the first step, I’m one of those baby ducklings that were plucked out of the waters of the internet and placed in a bigger pond. (laughs)
Grace Ellis: I mean, this is my first foray into comics, period. I didn’t come from the web comics world, I came from the gay internet — I write for Autostraddle.com, which is a queer women’s website, and Shannon really liked it, so I think that it’s really amazing what’s happening at Boom right now because it feels like anything is possible, that … anyone can rise above the fray of the internet and reach the direct market. It’s an amazing thing you’re doing.
CA: What I find really interesting about Lumberjanes is that, having grown up in the 90s and 2000s, I grew up with a lot of media aimed at young girls that was really boring and very obviously, “Hey, this is a good role model for girls. Hey girls! Hey look, she’s swinging a sword around — that means she’s totally cool.”
Something that’s really impressed me about Lumberjanes is that it really doesn’t feel that way. There is very obviously no wrong way to be a girl here. Even in the clothes, you have flannel, you have raccoon skin caps, you have adorable headbands. The fact that this is an all-ages series and you have a queer romance? That alone is huge. It’s incredibly tragic that it is huge, but you guys are really representing a spectrum of girlhood in a way that I haven’t seen a whole lot. How did you develop that? How are you maintaining it?
NS: I know that when I was a kid and I was reading whatever I could get my hands on, I didn’t associate myself with the girl characters. I was like, “Oh, you know – you have the team and I’m the girl,” [but] I was like, “That’s not me.” Her personality is ‘being a girl,’ and that is not a personality. I’m nerdy so I like that one over there; I like the nerd. Usually a boy character. It took me a really long time to get past all of that internalized dissociation with being female that I was being given by media
I was really into Star Wars as a kid, and my favorite Star Wars character was a character that not that many people noticed, or know exists — but the second I found out that there was a girl bounty hunter in one of the Star Wars prequels, I flipped out, and she’s still my favorite Star Wars character, despite about five minutes of screen time. It’s Zam Wesell.
That was so important to me, because I had been watching Star Wars but I wasn’t a princess and I wasn’t a belly dancer — those were the only choices, so I was like, “I’m Luke Skywalker.” That’s who I want to be. I don’t want it to be about my body or my royal lineage — I want to have a light saber and go out and fight and go on adventures. When I saw someone who was a girl and it wasn’t a big deal that she was a girl — she was just there, and she did a really bad job and died — but it was still really important to me, just to see that.
So, I think, with Lumberjanes, I wanted everybody to have a character that they could choose and be like, “This is the one I’m like,” you know? Or a combination of all of them, and be like, “You know what? They all have these different personalities, no one has to be ‘the’ girl, no one has to sum up being a girl for everyone else.”
You don’t have to be, “Well, I’m not like that — so I guess I don’t like being a girl, I’d rather be a boy. Boys are cooler, boys get to do more stuff.” These girls, they don’t have to try to be something, they just are who they are, and that’s something I would have really liked as a kid at that age. Just a kid who’s out having adventures in the woods with very little of that outside influence.
I didn’t like the stories where it was people telling girls that they couldn’t do things and girls did it anyway. I didn’t want people to be like, “No – you’re a girl.” I didn’t want people to make a big deal out of them being a girl. I just wanted them to have fun. So it was very important with Lumberjanes — we didn’t see any male characters until book four. I just didn’t even want that to be an influence on them, I just wanted them to be on their own and we tried to avoid a lot of the whole, “Girls rule, boys drool,” whatever. I’m not interested in that, it’s very boring to me. Boy characters are just more characters for them to interact with.
GE: I agree. It rubs me the wrong way when people are like, “Lumberjanes! Girl power,” you know? First of all, there’s a lot attached to the phrase of ‘girl power.’ You get the nineties, the Spice Girl sort of thing, and Lumberjanes, it’s less about, like, she’s the sporty one and she’s the one with red hair or whatever.
CA: I feel like there’s a real renaissance happening with kids comics. Boom and First Second and a number of other publishers are doing really incredible work, telling interesting stories — and not even just for kids, but that everybody can enjoy. Boom has so many different imprints aimed at so many different kinds of people and different ages. How is Boom handling work like that?
SW: That’s what I do, I oversee all the all-ages content outside of the Archaia line, which is overseen by the amazing Rebecca Taylor. It’s me and my assistant editor. We handle a lot of that, and I think the most important thing when you’re making kids’ entertainment is to not condescend to kids.
I think that some people do have a disdain or contempt for the experience of being a kid. I think sometimes it can be a power trip and sometimes it could be somebody not necessarily sitting down and thinking about what it was like to be a kid, and to be small, and scared, but also powerful. They don’t stop to think about that, and the most important thing you could do when making all-ages entertainment is to remember when you were a kid you had this incredibly rich life and you were an incredibly rich being already.
I find kids amazing and fascinating and I find the way that they move through the world amazing and fascinating and their sense of discovery and their sense of curiosity. … A good all ages book is one that tells a truly good story and does not condescend to the idea that kids are dumb or weak. Kids are smart and powerful beings, and I think that the best way that you can make good all-ages entertainment is to make good entertainment for you that does not condescend “what kids want.”
GE: Just tell a good story. Kids are smart, they’ll get it. You know? Just don’t swear and don’t put in a lot of sex and nudity. I mean beyond that, you just have to tell a good story and that’s all it is.
CA: I hate that propensity among fans to be like, “Well it’s not really for kids, because it starts with the genocide of the Air Nomads and that’s really hardcore.” My little sister is ten and she loves Avatar. Kids can handle those kinds of things.
NS: The first movie I saw was Prince of Egypt — that was the first movie I saw in theaters. It starts with the genocide of thousands of children, baby children. There’s a lot of dead babies.
CA: It’s ridiculous.
NS: I’m working on an animated series with Disney, as a writer — that’s Craig McCracken’s Wander Over Yonder — and we’ve been having this conversation a lot about the kind of the stuff we grew up with, and the stuff that people assume that kids can’t handle, and I always think of The Neverending Story, which I didn’t see until I was an adult, and I was shocked by the scene with the Artax and the swamp. I was like, “How is this ever for kids? How could you watch a horse die like that?”
But, like The Iron Giant — or anything like that — they were heartbreaking, truly heartbreaking, and the other one I go back to all the time, I go back to a lot of the old Winnie the Pooh movies that I grew up with. Winnie the Pooh’s Grand Adventure — the movie where Rabbit adopts a baby bird and raises her and then the bird grows up and flies away and leaves him — I cried. I was devastated by them, but they stayed with me forever.
That was important to me because I need to know how to be sad, and that it was OK to be sad as a kid. I enjoyed that feeling in some way, it helped me grow as an emotional being, and I think that kids these days, they’re the same as I was. They can handle that, and they need to be able to handle that. Just protecting them from every bad feeling in the world does nothing. They can handle it, they can, and just because they’re crying or they feel sad is not a bad thing. It’s good to feel things.
The Prince of Egypt is still my favorite movie, and I watch it all the time and I love it. They didn’t pull their punches. It wasn’t sanitized, it didn’t speak down to me, and that is very important to me, and I think that’s still very important. I suspect that maybe we aren’t giving as many kids’ movies these days that devastate them.
SW: Pixar is really the only place..
NS: There’s Pixar and then there’s Adventure Time, I think. Those are the two big ones that are not pulling their punches when it comes to children.
SW: I was thinking about that. I was a big [Don] Bluth fan when I was younger because I wanted to be an animator. I studied really hard but couldn’t pull it off. But my God, The Land Before Time and An American Tail — a beloved family film about some Russian Jews fleeing death and persecution and then getting separated in New York City where their names are changed to Americanize them.
GE: They might not get every aspect of it, but they don’t have to yet.
CA: I think that Lumberjanes is a really great emblem of how we’re expanding our ideas of what comics can be. Where do you guys think comics will be in five, ten years? Are you fundamentally hopeful? Fundamentally pessimistic?
SW: I mean, I’m outrageously hopeful. I feel like we’re moving on up. I do feel that, especially at an upper management level, there needs to be more diversity, and a viewpoint of more queer people, more people of color, just more women.
Nobody is trying to storm the castle — we don’t want to burn your paintings, we don’t want to break your furniture. Giving voice to others who maybe don’t share your specific experience, giving them a place to tell a story, is only going to enrich our medium and our business. I want to keep making comics in ten years, I don’t want everyone to age out of comics because we’re making comics for kids — that’s nonsense. Why would we do that to ourselves? That’s how I feel about that.
GE: Yeah, you took my answer. I feel really optimistic about the direction that comics are going in. I think that we’re starting to get more variety of voices, and there are a lot of stories to be told through this medium specifically, so I feel really good about it.
NS: The rise of web comics is really exciting to me. That’s how I got into comics in the first place. I didn’t think of women as making comics; I didn’t have a huge diversity of comics in my upbringing. I had Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, the newspaper funnies, but It wasn’t until I saw Kate Beaton and other web comic artists like her, [and] I went to Mocca Fest for the first time in 2011, and I was looking around and I was like, “These people are neat!” They’re young, they’re women, they’re queer. I can be here.
And I had always thought as comics as a terrifying place that only had these kind of condescending guys who look down their nose at you, like, “Oh, what do you mean you haven’t read Watchmen?”
My friend lent me Sandman, and it was my first comic series, and I was reading it and was so excited. I told my friend I liked comics and he was like, “Oh, everybody reads those.” I was like, “Well whatever, dude.”
I haven’t read Maus yet — I’ll read it some day — but I’m just starting out. That’s why webcomics are so exciting to me; there’s so much diversity and you can just see how many of the main characters in webcomics are female as opposed to every other thing ever that is being made.
That’s so cool to me and I would really like that to start being reflected more in the kind of prestigious, inner circle of comics. With the Eisners and the Harveys, I want people to start taking them seriously. Just because they’re young people and they’re women and they’re not getting officially published or they’re not making money from it, they’re still some of the best stories I’ve ever read, and they’re amazing and so rich.
Nobody is tied down by any restraints. You can tell whatever story you want to tell, and I think that comics need to take that seriously, and I really like that Boom has given those people an avenue to print comics as well. I think that’s going to be the really defining wave for comics.