Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Lumberjanes

I talk a lot of negativity. I am aware of that. I spend a whole lot of time complaining about what I don't like in culture, and what makes me mad, and how I think that all media, especially children's media, is terrible and being a bad influence on us. 

So, I thought it would be a nice break to talk about an all-ages comic (that means, yes, you can show it to your children) that actually does things right. A lot of things. Arguably even all of the things.

I'm talking about Lumberjanes, the new BOOM!Box comic by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen. You may know of Noelle Stevenson because of her freaking awesome Nimona webcomic, which we'll get around to discussing one of these days. The comic is sort of a friendship adventure story about a bunch of girls (five girls) at a summercamp plagued by supernatural weirdness. Not scary supernatural weirdness, mind you, just...weirdness.

The first issue (there are only two so far, but it just got picked up as an ongoing series, yay!) drops us into the middle of the action to find our heroines deep in the woods fighting a bunch of three-eyed foxes. In the middle of the night. And they're not in their cabin!

The girls (Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley) are presumably twelve or so and are campers for the whole summer at Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, a camp for Lumberjane Scouts and "Friendship to the max!" They snuck out of their cabin because they heard a bear-woman attacking, and then ended up fighting the three-eyed foxes (which mysteriously turn into a pile of gold coins when you punch them in the third eye), and there was some kind of prophecy about "Beware the Kitten Holy". It's all very whimsical and weird, and it can be hard to figure out what's really going on.

That is not, for the record, a bad thing.

Upon returning to their cabin in the first issue, the girls are caught by their not at all easily duped counselor, Jen, and brought to the camp director, Rosie. While Jen is miffed that her girls tried to sneak out, Rosie is intrigued by their adventures and doesn't punish them. She also kind of suggests that there might be more supernatural stuff going on at this camp, which makes sense, but is still intriguing.

In the second issue, the girls have to contend with a really crazy and scary canoeing trip, as well as a battle a three-eyed river monster. But honestly, you don't end up paying a lot of attention to the exact details of the zany adventures the girls get into, mostly because they're, you know, zany adventures. The point isn't what happens, the point is how the girls deal with it.

And I have to give major props to the writers here: every single girl is well-characterized and interesting, distinct both visually and personality-wise. Also, can you name the last time you read a comic that had literally no male characters? Like, none? I can name about ten off the top of my head that have no female characters, but this is the only one I know of with no dudes in it. Just saying. Not that dudes are evil or bad or anything, but that it is really fun to have a comic all to ourselves.

Sure, we're only two issues in, but it's still really easy to tell the differences between all of the girls. Differences that give a really good representation of all the different ways you can be a girl. This isn't Cars. These characters are all super proud of being girls, but do it in totally diverse ways and that is awesome.

Like, April is super girly. She has Princess Ariel level red hair and smacks evil animals with her pink diary and always does her hair really well and delicately and looks super cute. But she's also very clever, and she's the one who thinks to write down all the weird stuff that happens to them. Then there's Jo, who's tall and lanky and very tomboyish, also of vaguely not-white ethnicity which is rad. She looks like the badass of the group, but actually Jo is the one always remembering and citing the rules and trying to get everyone to stick together.

Molly and Mal are best friends, super close, and just honestly really fun. Molly is a hyper-capable experienced scout. Out of all of the girls, I probably relate to Molly the best inherently, because there's this one moment where she's annoyed because they don't have any life preservers big enough for her, and man do I feel that. I felt like Godzilla until the other kids my age started catching up in high school. (I still feel like Godzilla sometimes, but that's another issue entirely.) Mal is a city girl who watches way too many Discovery Channel shows about river monsters and things that can kill you. It's funny because Mal looks really tough, but spends most of the second issue freaking the crap out.

In her defense, there is totally a river monster. So there.

And then there's Ripley, who is a total bundle of crazy and energy. She's devoted to her friends, a complete spaz, very lovable, and likes punching things. Ripley is the kind of girl who would dive over a waterfall to save her friends (and does), but also the kind of kid who will chase down an eagle because it stole her chocolate bar (she does that too). In other words, Ripley's the wild card.

Oh, and Rosie is basically Ron Swanson only a lady, and Jen is the one sane person in the whole story, which means that most of the time everyone is ignoring or mocking her.

My point here isn't just that Lumberjanes is silly fun and that you should probably read it, though it is and you should, but rather that I like to hold this comic up as a rebuttal to everyone who claims that kids' media has to be sub-par, or that little boys can't get into a story with a female protagonist (or five), or that it's just too hard to make a piece of media that is child-appropriate, feminist, diverse, and still fun.

It's not. Read the comic. It's seriously not impossible. The writers even make it look easy.

Part of the reason I love this comic so much, though, is because it reminds me of when I was a kid and I went to summer camp. It was the highlight of my year. I looked forward to it pretty much from the moment I left to the moment I got to go back. Now, I didn't go to a camp as clearly amazing as the Lumberjanes Scout Camp, but Happy T was pretty cool in its own way, and the memories I have from it are the kind of stuff that make you look back and both cringe and grin.

Let me put it this way: I am still very close friends with the camp counselor I had when I was ten. She's a big part of why I moved to Washington in the first place. At my sister's wedding, I was in a dance group with like seven of my former counselors and a couple of former fellow campers. These people, yeah, they were just people I saw at camp, but somewhere along the way they became a part of my family. 

When I read Lumberjanes, I like the wacky adventures and the way that they all say "What the junk?!" instead of the swearier alternative, and I love how they use feminist icons as verbal punctuation. (As in, "What the Mae Jemison are you doing out here?!") But what I read the books for is actually the relationships. The friendships. I read it and I see myself and my friends and all the people I know who built really strong friendships at camp. Or in general. This book's motto is "Friendship to the max!", and that totally shows.

Ultimately, I think that's why I want to recommend this book to everyone I meet. When you get an all-ages comic like this, usually it goes one of two ways. Either the story is light and fluffy and nothing really happens, or it's dark and depressing and hard. It's pretty stinking rare to have a book that's all about girls being friends and going on adventures. The adventures aren't without stakes - Mal gets pretty badly hurt in the second issue, and it's actually a little concerning for a second - but they aren't big balls of angst either.

This isn't Supernatural. Sure, we've got protagonists hunting down weird supernatural stuff (and why do all the creepy animals have three eyes, huh?), but they're not upset about it. They're excited! This is camp and they're having an adventure and doing it with their friends. 

I mean, isn't that the kind of message that you do want to send to children? That the world can be big and scary sometimes, and that we don't always know what's happening, but that if we work together we can make it good. And that as human beings we have a duty to make the world suck less for the people around us, because we're all in this together.

Basically, friendship to the max!

Amen.

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