There was a time when labeling a comic book as "for kids" was an insult. Throughout a long stretch of the industry's history, comic book creators, writers, and artists worked to ensure their books were "grown-up." That's why many comic books became more noir, like Frank Miller's Daredevil; more violent, like Todd McFarlane's Spawn; and more sinister, like The Walking Dead. The trend eventually trickled its way up and manifested in mega blockbusters like Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and TV shows like Marvel and Netflix's Daredevil.
Created in 2014 by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Brooke Allen, the Eisner Award–winning Lumberjanes is about a squad of Girl Scouts who deal with supernatural forces like yetis that sport Justin Bieber hair swoops, lazy-eyed sea monsters, and angsty merwomen. There's a Buffy-esque spirit about Lumberjanes — teen girls versus the world — but the comic also swirls a frenetic, slapdash sense of humor with the earnest themes of friendship and empathy.
In a world that's so desperate to grow up, Lumberjanes is in no particular rush. It's a book for kids and the joy of being one. That's resonated with readers of all ages, resulting in wildly impressive sales figures. And in May, news broke that a movie adaptation is in the works.
At New York Comic Con last month, I got the chance to speak with Lumberjanes co-creators Brooke Allen and Shannon Watters about the comic, its audiences, and the logistics of punk-rock merwomen.
Alex Abad-Santos: The one thing everyone talks about when we talk about Lumberjanes is its success. What's that been like?
Brooke Allen: Surreal. I think surreal is the first word.
Shannon Watters: Exciting.
BA: Yeah, very exciting. I've been able to meet a lot of people who influenced or had a huge impact on my earlier comics career, like Sean Murphy. I studied his work, and then later at a convention he was like, "Oh, yeah, Lumberjanes." I was cool, but if I hadn't had Lumberjanes ... we wouldn't even be talking right now.
AAS: Lumberjanes has a very distinct voice. Did you start out with an idea of what kind of reader you wanted to reach? Is that who your readers are?
SW: I can say I wasn't really ever thinking about the demographic in particular, but it's been really cool. It is a really wide audience, especially when it's marketed as, like, "Oh, this is like a girl comic for girls."
BA: I think the amount of dudes that come and pick it up is awesome.
SW: It's just nice; you're like, "Thank God everyone likes it." It's hilarious. That's one thing — girl comic, whatever comic. If it's funny, people will read it.
BA: I'm glad that we just made a heck-a-funny comic. Heck-a-funny.
AAS: You're often asked about what got you into comic books. Do you think Lumberjanes is a gateway for a lot of young readers?
SW: I hope so. Every time somebody says it was their first comic that they bought in a shop and started their pull list — it keeps us from becoming hunched, shriveled, like, "Oh, the work, just working, doing work." It really is such a joy. It makes me very emotional to think about.
AAS: What makes you emotional about it? Please don't make me cry.
BA: Young people reading your book. When we have young fans who come up and freak out and get really excited.
SW: Yeah, we've had kids that have made their own badges and stuff [the Lumberjanes are scouts, and have badges] that are brilliant. There's this one kid, I believe her name was Heather — so, shout out to Heather.
SW: Yeah, she came up with the "grin and bear it" badge, and she drew it for me. It's just a hand and a giant bear paw wrestling. To get the badge, obviously, you have to arm-wrestle a bear. That's the thing. I was like, "Wow, I'll be buying your comics one day." Just to be an influence on anyone's creative life is such an honor and, the opportunity to do that is — I still can't wrap my head around it.
BA: Yeah, definitely not worthy. [does a mini Wayne's World bow]
SW: Not worthy, not worthy.
AAS: Do you ever wish Lumberjanes or a comic like it had existed when you were a young reader?
SW: I don't know. I just liked what I liked, but I do think about if I had been a kid and I had seen myself portrayed more it might have made getting older easier.
SW: Just, like ... I don't know. Being a tomboy, being gay, being ... it would have made a lot of things easier. I liked a lot of boy things.
BA: Same. "Boy things."
SW: I remember my mom taking me to Walmart, and I wanted Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers pajamas. My great-granny, who was a really sweet lady but definitely a princess who liked girl things, was like, "You want those [princess pajamas]. They're great pajamas."
I was like, "Excuse me? Hello, these are awesome pajamas, and these are the pajamas that I want." I would always get Barbies for Christmas, and that was really rough.
BA: I think we definitely made the comic with that in mind.
SW: A little wish fulfillment.
BA: For sure.
AAS: I think a lot of books that are aimed at younger audiences and categorized as "young adult" tend to make teens grow up really fast, you know?
AAS: I think there's something to be said for a comic book where someone is freaking out over mermaids.
BA: Yeah, just be a kid. That was important to us, too, that they [the characters in Lumberjanes] were definitely kids.
SW: We have a ton of teenage fans, and obviously we won an Eisner for being a teen book, but I think there's some element of, when you're a teenager, you are in that in-between stage, you know? You are having to face a lot of things that make you grow up really fast, and it's great to have books out there where you can read about those challenges. It's also kind of great to pick up something where it's like you get to be a kid for a little while. You get to be a kid in a really cool, exciting way.
BA: It speaks to everyone.
AAS: Is it "merwoman"? Is that proper?
SW: Yes, that's proper.
AAS: Okay. This is one sad arc.
SW: It continues to get sad. I mean, the ending is kind of sad. There's some sadness. Everything doesn't have to be all roses and warm and fuzzy, but —spoiler alert — sometimes friendships have hard times, and sometimes those hard times get better with time, and sometimes they don't. This is a book about friendship. This is a book about the positive relationships we have in our lives, and sometimes that doesn't always work out the way we plan.
AAS: I'm in shock, because I don't want to be sad about merwomen and mermen.
SW: No, it's okay.
BA: It's happy. Nice things happen in the end too. What happened, Shannon?
SW: You know, it's an interesting story, because there's this whole thing. I liked it being an April-centric thing because April [one of the scouts, pink hair, completely enthusiastic] loves her friends more than anything in the world.
AAS April doesn't half-ass anything.
SW: That's April's thing, right? She wants you to be your bestest, most essential self all the time and be 100 percent into everything. I think that's something we wanted to explore more — the fact that your friends are not always perfect either, and you love them anyway; you forgive them. So I thought that was kind of an important thing to communicate in Lumberjanes but also keep it happy. Keep it light, you know? This is a story about her going to a mermaid music festival. How do they work electric guitars down there? Don't worry about it.
BA: I remember I sat in on a story meeting, and you guys were like, "What do you want to draw?"
BA: I was like, "Oh, werewolves, mermaids."
AAS: April is my favorite.
SW: I really like writing April because she's so bombastic. April is full of possibilities. April holds many secrets, I feel like. April is the kind of person who, like, knows a fact and files it away. Not in, like, a slinky way but in a, "I might want to go do this someday. I'm just going to hold it in my brain, and I'm going to come back to it."
AAS: I want to know what April's Netflix queue is like.
BA: Yes, me too. I'm sure she likes ... What are her top five?
SW: Clueless is definitely up there. She admires Cher's ambition.
BA: Oh, definitely.
SW: She admires Cher's go-get-it-ness and can-do attitude. Then it's definitely, like, a Planet Earth or something.
BA: Yeah, totally. Wait, what's the bird one?
AAS: Do you have a favorite character whom you identify with, or is it like they're all your children and you love them all equally?
BA: I mean, all of our ... Our favorite character is maybe Jen.
SW: We love Jen. She's the best.
BA: Jen is our favorite character, as a team, I think. She's sort of wrangling all the kids, and I feel we —
SW: We sort of feel the same way, wrangling the kids. It's very much like everybody is herding cats all the time.
AAS: There's an ongoing conversation about diversity in comic books. Lumberjanes is part of that conversation. What have you seen? Do you feel like there's been a change for the better?
SW: I want to say that this discussion is limited to mainstream comic books, direct market, because indie comics have been the place to have diverse stories told for one million years. But mainstream comic books, they follow the money too.
Making decisions about what is getting greenlit and what is getting money — that is so massive. That is a huge, huge, huge thing for changing our industry, because, I mean, I'm a queer woman. I'm a lesbian, and that has definitely influenced the choices I make as far as publishing decisions. I think it's been a really great thing for a certain corner of the industry, and that would not have been the case if I had been a white dude in my position.
AAS: How so?
SW: It just wouldn't. The same decisions would not have been made, and that's a fact. When you're talking about bringing massive change to the industry, there is a foundational change that needs to occur, and I think it's starting to happen, but I don't know that it's happening as quickly as we all would like.
BA: We'd always like it to happen a little quicker.
SW: Just a little faster.
BA: Just catch up to, like, just already be.