Comic books are for everybody.
That is the subliminal rallying cry that underlies "Lumberjanes," the all-ages comic book series about the continuing adventures of the campers and staff at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.
Created by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson, "Lumberjanes" is first and foremost a mystery series and an adventure comic starring a cast of girls. A title that stands out in the sea of superhero and zombie comics tends to attract mainstream attention. Certainly it's gained the respect of the industry: "Lumberjanes" is up for two Eisner Awards this year for new series and publication for teens.
Launched in April 2014, the monthly series from Boom Studios introduced the world to best friends and bunk mates Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley, who are caught up in supernatural adventures in and around their summer camp. Stevenson, perhaps best known for her Web comics, was initially brought on board to help with the character designs before taking on a writing role.
"I believe that, originally, the descriptions that I was given were based on people that really existed," Stevenson said. "But I didn't know these people. I just kind of did the character designs based on my own image of them."
And for one character, Stevenson took a page from Jim Henson.
"I don't know if this is still canon or not, but it was described early on that Ripley played the drums," said Stevenson. "I ended up drawing inspiration for her design from Animal, the Muppet who drums. I didn't really realize I had done that, but it kind of feeds into her character in certain ways."
"April's the most intense one," she added. "She's not just the strongest one, she's kind of the most aggressive one of all of them. She's the one whose personality boils the closest to the surface. Whereas Jo is sort of stereotyped, I think easily, as the smart one, but she's actually a little bit unmotivated sometimes, so it's really interesting to see how their personalities bounce off each other in that way."
Prior to the launch of "Lumberjanes," Stevenson was known for her Web comic series "Nimona" about a shape-shifting villain-in-training and her relationship with her mentor, a villain with an honor code. The series was collected and released earlier this month in a single volume. "Nimona" is also up for an Eisner this year in the digital/Web comic category.
Stevenson spoke with Hero Complex over the phone to discuss "Lumberjanes," "Nimona" and her online roots.
"Lumberjanes" has been positively received pretty much from the start. Were you at all surprised at the response?
I don't think I was as surprised by it because I really felt that this was something that people had been asking for, and that the market had been lacking in, up until this point.
I think there are a lot of young girls in particular who are interested in getting into comics and there really hasn't been a lot to offer them. Just to have an adventure comic starring a cast of all girls, I think, was something that was just an obvious choice to fill this very glaring hole in comics.
So I was very pleased and I was very excited by the response, but I think that we were all doing this because we knew as kids we would've wanted this. It wasn't so much a surprise to me, I don't think.
Was it difficult to forgo major artist duties?
I enjoyed doing the character designs and I did the A covers for the first arc, but I think that Brooke [A. Allen] really just captures the spirit of "Lumberjanes" so well.
I think in my first issue that I wrote there was a part with Ripley — who was a character that we were still kind of trying to figure out — where Ripley falls out of a tree and she lands on the ground and her legs are sticking straight out in front of her. I wrote this in and I kind of wanted to draw it to show [Brooke] what I meant by that, but I didn't because it's not my job, and I sent it to her. Then when we got our pencils back, she had drawn exactly what I had been picturing. That was when I knew Brooke was on our wavelength. Brooke got it.
The way Brooke drew Ripley really informed the way we wrote Ripley. We were able to figure out who she was as a character through Brooke's art. I really think that Brooke's style as an artist really defines the voice of "Lumberjanes." I don't think I could ever do it better than she does. I am more than satisfied in turning it over to Brooke's artistic talents.
Did the early switch from "miniseries" to "ongoing" change the direction or elements in the initial eight-issue arc?
It did somewhat. There were certain things we had planned to resolve, or mysteries we had planned to answer at the end of the first arc that we didn't feel as much pressure to do that anymore. It was OK to leave some mysteries dangling because we wanted to have a place to build to.
The mysteries behind the establishment of Lumberjanes, the mysteries behind the bear woman and Rosie's past with the bear woman, all of that stuff is stuff we're actually getting into around 15 issues in. It's cool because it's a mystery series, so we got to kind of keep focused on a smaller, self-contained arc and leave ourselves somewhere to build to.
The first arc was more action-based than character-based. Now we're trying to take a breath and slow down and see how each Jane would respond to any given situation.
How has it been getting to explore more of the characters' personalities after the first arc?
It was great. I think I felt like, overall, the first arc had to be very frenetic and very energetic, which was good for a miniseries, but if we were to continue going with it, we needed to really figure out who these girls were and what they're individual struggles were.
Even outside their relationship to each other as a team, we really wanted to know where each girl came from, what their background was like, what their family situation was like and how they felt being here at camp with this group of girls and this environment.
Issues 10 through 12 were more focused on Mal and Molly's relationship and on their individual background and how they felt about what had been happening, while Ripley and Jo and April continue to be sort of just kind of comic relief. They get some character development, but overall their side of things is a little less deep, I think, but they will get also their moment to shine and have deep and profound thoughts and things like that.
We've gotten to see Mal and Molly's relationship unfold in a kind of refreshing way, where coming out and acceptance are not really the issue. Can you share some thoughts on the current landscape of queer storytelling?
I personally always have a hard time relating to queer characters in media because I didn't really see myself in them. They were kind of pigeonholed early on as the gay character, and they would naturally end up with the other gay character who would emerge at some point as their love interest.
There was very little that was organic about it. There was very little that was natural. They just kind of fell together and that was it, and I didn't really find much to sink my teeth into there or to relate to personally as somebody who had more in my life than who I was interested in.
With Mal and Molly, we really wanted to show a relationship between these two people as it was developing organically between two very young characters who may not know exactly who they are yet or what this is.
Even just young love in general; you don't know what you're doing at that age. This is maybe the first time you've ever had this with anybody, and we just wanted to show that in a very sweet and thoughtful way. Something that I was looking for as a kid and that I never quite found.
"Lumberjanes" in general sort of defies the notion of there being labels.
Exactly. We wanted to kind of set up this safe place that was sort of set apart from the rest of the world. No one here is going to react to Mal and Molly with homophobia. No one's going to judge their relationship.
This is a safe place for our characters. Mal and Molly aren't the only characters who have gender and sexuality to figure out. [These are] facets of their personality to be addressed by the story to be figured out by the characters while they're happening. We really want to have a variety of those things and a range of those things because it's not just one way that it happens.
This is a safe place for them. Well, not physically safe, it's just the opposite of that. But this is a supportive environment, whereas some of their home lives might not be so supportive or so safe. Molly's backstory is a little bit of that.
How do you think social media and your start in Web comics affected your journey into comics?
I wouldn't be in comics at all if it weren't for Web comics. I just never even would have thought of that, you know. I think it's definitely helped us find our audience with "Lumberjanes." A lot of advertisement for comic series is done over social media these days. There's a pretty strong comic fandom online, and a lot of it is word of mouth. A lot of it's just done over Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit. All of these places are great places to build hype to get the name out there.
People who maybe only read comics online, we kind of want to reach out to those people and say, you know, there's something here too for you that you can read as well. That the world of print comics is not off limits to you. Even though most of what you read are Web comics, or no comics at all, you can also be welcome here.
I hope that I've been able to gain some trust with my social media presence. Especially to people that are disenfranchised in some way or who might be hesitant to pick up a comic because comics have sort of a history and a reputation as making mistakes or further disenfranchising people. I want to be somebody who is safe. Not just safe, but is actively trying to be fair and to treat people well, so you know you won't get a homophobic joke or a sexist joke or a transphobic joke from me.
I also want people with similar interests to know when there is something I'm interested in so that they can pick up the book and see those stories represented just based on what I'm interested in outside of social issues. If you want to read about shape-shifters, if you want to read about mountaineering, or if you want to read about any of these specific interests that I have.
As a creator and as a personality, I guess, these things are tied together because every story that I tell comes from me, and from my own interests and my own background and my own life story. Those are connected to each other and they can't really be separated.
So it makes sense, to me anyway, to choose the stories that you want to read and to choose the stories that you choose to buy when you might not have seen the content of it itself. If you know the creator, you sort of know what you're getting ahead of time, you know.
How is it working in all-ages entertainment at a time when there are a lot of projects in various forms of media that have embraced the all-ages category to really mean "for all ages" instead of just "for kids"?
"Nimona" is also sort of a young adult, all-ages-style story. I don't think naturally I tend toward anything that's really distinctly branded as adult.
I feel like I sort of write for myself as I would've been at 12 or 13 years old. That's sort of the idea in my head of my audience when I'm writing. I kind of want to reach out to girls who are looking for these stories and haven't found them yet.
We try not to talk down to kids, you know. I feel that kids are smart, and I feel that kids will understand things even if they don't understand them from personal experience. Stories are kind of how you flesh out your point of view of the world when you're young like that. It was certainly the way I knew how to understand things around me.
It's just trying to tell the stories that are approachable by anyone that have that extra layer for older people who might be able to relate to it personally a little bit more. I think that kids are still capable of understanding that that they are interested in that even.
Some of the most thoughtful and incisive commentary that I've seen is in quote-unquote children's entertainment like "Adventure Time" and "Gravity Falls." These show that are aimed at children but adults find something to enjoy in it as well. Those truths are the same for everybody regardless of what walk of life you're in.
"Nimona" is also out as a book now. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be?
"Nimona" was a story that I felt very passionately about. I didn't want to wait for a publisher to come along. I didn't want to compromise on the narrative for anybody. I just wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell and put it out there and have people read it and whatever would follow from that would follow.
I'd mostly been known as a fan artist up until that point, and I really wanted to show people that this was what I had in me. That this was what I was passionate about. That these were the stories that I wanted to tell and these were the characters that I wanted to spotlight.
Really, it was me exploring. It was me trying to find out what my voice actually was and what stories I did want to tell. I didn't really have a plan beyond that. A lot of it was very off the cuff, very seat of the pants, on the fly stuff.
The good thing about posting it in installments like that is that you do have room to kind of grow as you're doing it. I grew as an artist. I grew as a writer. The characters developed just in the process, and they kind of grew on their own and I understood them better.
Everything was kind of evolving under the eyes of the readers, which I think was an interesting experience for people who were following it in real time, and I hope an enjoyable one for them.
The good thing about doing a comic that's entirely my own voice as a debut is that people approached me with similar jobs, with stuff that they knew that I could do justice to because they had read what I'd already done. It meant that I was getting jobs that I was actually interested in and I didn't have to prove myself on someone else's property. I had already kind of shown what I was made of with something that was very, very, wholly mine. I was very pleased with that and very happy that I had had that opportunity.
Having started with "Nimona," where you have complete creative freedom, how is it shifting to work on other properties that kind of come with preexisting constraints?
I actually enjoy it in its own way. There's something about being able to play in someone else's sandbox in a way. You have these guidelines to go by and to operate within so that also kind of brings up something new in your voice and in your work that you maybe wouldn't have chosen to do on your own but you learn that way.
That's how you grow and that's how you learn. It can also be it can be stifling as well. You might have to do things that you don't actually enjoy doing, but I still think there's always an opportunity to learn.
Whereas I don't know how many "Nimonas" I can make if that were my full-time job. That's a lot of work and it's exhausting and it's so rewarding because it's your vision and only yours, but it's really hard to crank those out. They're very personal, and I'm very much looking forward to getting started on my next personal comic project, but I've also really enjoyed my time kind of getting to play with these other kind of licensed properties.
With Marvel, and with DC with Wonder Woman, and I'm writing for Disney right now on their animated show "Wander Over Yonder." I've just learned so much through doing that and I've learned new things that I can now incorporate back into my personal stuff.
They both have pros and cons. Both can be very rewarding or very frustrating but they've both been a really good experience.
You mentioned Wonder Woman. How was it switching hats from writer to artist for "Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman"?
I had a great time. I hadn't really been drawing comics since I finished "Nimona." I kind of prefer to only draw my own stuff just because drawing is so time-consuming. It takes a long time to draw one comic page and if I'm going to be putting that amount of work in and that amount of time in, I really want it to be something that I care deeply about and that resonates with me. Because I can write multiple projects at once but I can really only draw one thing at a time.
I was lucky with this one that the writer was my friend James [Tynion IV]. We know each other, he kind of knows what I'm about and I know what he's about.
The script was great from the get-go. It was already something that I was interested in and that he knew I'd be interested in it — this kind of YA, teen Wonder Woman having adventures and making friends and eating ice cream and playing "Dance Dance Revolution." Everything that is really fun and exciting to draw with this character that I never, ever thought that I would be drawing.
I didn't think that anybody would ever let me draw a Wonder Woman comic in my life, so I really jumped at the opportunity. How could I let this one pass me by?
We just had a lot of fun and they really just let me do my thing and I am very glad that I did it.
How was the shift to working on TV? Did you ever expect to become a television writer?
It's been awesome. I had no experience with writing scripts for TV at all and I was very, very fortunate that kind of that amount of faith was put in me and it's been the best possible first experience I could've had with animation writing. The whole team is really supportive and friendly, which is a great environment to kind of be finding your legs in.
I've always been a huge fan of cartoons and so to kind of see how they're being made step by step and being allowed to contribute at various stages of that is so exciting and rewarding for me.
I'm just kind of a geek about it. I'm just kind of excited and giddy to be able to do this.
I really didn't see it coming. I didn't know if I could do it, if I was equipped to do it. It was really just a learning experience. When I started I didn't really understand how anything worked and I was very fortunate to be working under people who were patient and who were supportive and really gave me time to find my legs.
Working as a team, especially if the team jibes together in a good way, is one of the most rewarding experiences that you could have.
Do you have plans for your next personal project? Will it be on the Web?
I do! I'm hoping that it will be another Web comic. I'm kind of open at this point. I haven't ever done a graphic novel project that wasn't on the Web, so we'll see. We're still kind of early on to say anything for sure. But the characters are kind of figured out, the story's kind of figured out. Most of what's to be done is just to start writing and just start drawing. We'll see how that goes.
Do you ever think you'll revisit "Nimona"?
I don't know. I care very deeply for the characters of "Nimona," and for Nimona herself, and I would love to. But, on the other hand, I'm very nervous about undermining my own work by my inability to move on, which I think we've all kind of seen a lot of media these days with reboots and sequels and prequels. I think they kind of weaken the strength of something that is freestanding and is good already on its own and I don't want to do that.
I don't want to weaken the canon by revisiting it too often or too soon I think. I'm certainly leaving it open. If the right story is presented and it's right.
Like "Nimona," I knew that it was the right thing to pursue because I knew what the story was and I knew where it went and I knew what the heart of the story was. If there were something else like that, I would certainly think that it was worth pursuing, but as of right now, I'm very satisfied to just kind of let it be ended and let it be its own thing, its own self-contained thing.
I think a lot about TV shows, and how the most popular TV shows, the ones that have frenzied followings are the ones that maybe ended a little bit too soon.
Maybe our desires to spend more time with characters isn't the most important thing. Maybe the characters themselves will remain stronger and remain more likeable and more important to us if we have less of them, in a weird way.
Is there anything new in the "Nimona" book compared to what was on the Web?
Yes. Some of it's been redrawn. The earlier chapters especially, since they were kind of done in a different style since I was just figuring out what style I actually wanted to do it in. There's a few extra pages here and there and there is an exclusive book-only epilogue, as well as some sketch pages and development and stuff like that.
Any more villains in your future?
Absolutely. Villains are my favorite subject. I think it's safe to say there will always be plenty of villains in everything that I do, and plenty of heroes who are villainous in their own ways. Villains who are heroic, and heroes who are villainous.
Let's tweet about villains @tracycbrown