A World of Hardcore Lady Types: Janelle Asselin and Lumberjanes

It’s an odd but fortunate state for us here at the Recorder when we discover something we think is important to write about, only to find that in the time between getting the article idea and writing the article that its importance has grown.

A lesson I’ve learned in my four years in the comics world is that there is a multitude of people whose names never appear in large print on the covers of monthlies or graphic novels, but who command respect and are universally loved, people who have thousands of Twitter followers and hold court at hotel bars and after-parties at every convention. Two years ago in New York, I was very humbled to have what so far has been my only meeting with one of these people, Janelle Asselin (@gimpnelly).

Asselin, a project editor at action figure giant Sideshow Collectibles, previously was an editor for DC and Disney  and has written at length about how hard it is to analyze both writing and art and then to make them both better. In our one brief encounter, it was clear to me how much Asselin loves comics and understands them in ways I never could, and equally clear how so many in the comics community adore her and seek out her opinion.

But not everyone loves Asselin and people like her.

One lesson I’ve sadly learned in four years in the comics world is how ready male fans can be to rail at female fans, accuse them of lacking proper nerd credentials or feigning their devotion to traditionally male-centric properties, and commit flagrant acts of sexual harassment. At my last convention, I was disgusted to see a soft drink company had shapely women passing out samples of a new soda in the crowded lobby, with a slogan involving the term “Big Cans.” I cannot bring myself to fully imagine what men might have said or physically gotten up to with these women when I wasn’t looking, and reports of aggressive and inappropriate behavior towards cosplayers emerged, as they frequently do.

Asselin, who knows market research well, took a wonderfully proactive step towards dealing with this state of affairs. She created a survey (which I took along with thousands of others) regarding sexual harassment in the comics industry and at conventions, trying to create a breakdown of what happens to people and with what frequency. At the same time she posted the survey, she wrote an article for Comic Book Resources titled “Anatomy of a Bad Cover” in which she meticulously–and with objective fairness–criticized the first issue of DC’s Teen Titans relaunch for having a cover which got almost everything wrong…again, picking up on subtleties people like me would never catch.

Although nothing about this cover makes me want to buy the comic, I’ll say that much.

The reaction to this simultaneous release was a tempest not even Storm and the Weather Wizard combined could have concocted. Artists who had nothing to do with the cover went on the attack and called Asselin out for nit-picking, while pure fans filled comment threads for both article and survey with anger, misogynistic humor, and ultimately rape threats. Rape threats. At least one of which was a group rape fantasy involving Asselin and other female commentators, one of whom has been a friend of mine since my first book was published.

I want us to seriously think for a moment about a part of the entertainment world in which a woman bringing the skills we used for grad school term papers to objectively analyze art is getting rape threats as a result. I want us to think even more seriously for a moment about Asselin’s attitude towards these attacks, which is extremely admirable but also the worst commentary there is on what has happened to the comics world. In a piece for xojane about the threats, Asselin began by stating “Every woman I know who has any sort of online following gets harassed, and most of them get rape threats. It’s become part of doing business if you write online at all.” The implication, which was backed up in several other pieces, is that women enter public forums prepared to be threatened with rape, are now expecting it. This is akin to how our culture, in a great phrase fellow Recorder-writer Karen Martin taught me, teaches women how not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape. This is the default setting.

Think about that and try not to weep.

Now that you have thought about it, here’s a happier thought: the outpouring in support of Asselin was magnificent, most hearteningly from men who brought their own vehemence in rallying to their side. Andy Khouri of Comics Alliance basically issued a challenge to men in the comics world to put a stop to this behavior, that we quit enabling others and acting in any way, shape, or form that could be interpreted as misogynistic. Greg Rucka, the genius behind Queen and Country and many DC and Marvel gems, took Khouri’s words further, stating that ANY attack on women, especially charges of fakery, should be seen as an attack on all our female colleagues, friends, significant others, wives, and daughters.

He’s aces in my book now.

Rucka’s words especially resonated with me. Every day, when I sit down to write, I feel so blessed and fortunate to be carving a successful little spot in comics, and I owe this success to so many women. Rebecca Taylor, my editor, has made me fifty times the writer I was when I started out in this field. Jill Pantozzi of The Mary Sue kick-started the acclaim for my first book. And right now I am working with three magnificent artists, all of them women, including Kate Kasenow, who illustrates my book that comes out next year and whose art is so beautiful it makes me cry like a baby. I would be nothing without all of them. So yes, like Rucka, I treat attacks on women in comics as attacks on those whom I love.

But yet a third perspective on the issue came from another fellow Recorder writer, Chris, who told me in a Facebook thread that he largely stopped reading comics and playing video games because of this issue. I can’t say I blame him. If people you abhor are going to unwelcome extremes to praise and defend parts of our culture, why would you want to indulge in that aspect of the culture? Why would you want to associate yourselves with comics when comics, judging by “he who speaks the loudest”, are the province of sexist jerks?

Which brings me to Lumberjanes.

Lumberjanes, a new series which debuted last month from Boom! Studios (and FULL DISCLOSURE: Boom! is the parent company of my publisher Archaia Entertainment), is the brainchild of editor Shannon Waters, writer Grace Ellis, and one of the few people in comics who turn me into a drop-to-my-knees fanboy, Noelle Stevenson (@gingerhazing and maintainer of the webcomic “Nimona” and the tumblr “How Are You I’m Fine Thanks,” which should be a must for anyone who loves art and pop culture). The title is the chronicle of April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley, five members of the Lumberjanes (think Girl Scouts but with the motto “Friendship to the Max!”) spending their summer at Miss Quinzella Thisquin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. Before the story’s three pages old, they’re taking on a rabid band of supernatural foxes. Before the issue’s over, they’ve found enough magical creatures and artifacts to fill a five-hundred page novel.

Lumberjanes is everything a great first issue of a comic should be. The characters, setting, and main storyline are introduced well, and the unique tone is set. Stevenson and Ellis balance out ripping adventure sequences and clever dialogue laced with irony, wordplay, and little jokes you pick up on with each re-read. Brooke Allen’s art mixes a cartoonish, childish whimsy with a force of line and a poetic, evocative style for the backgrounds which is supremely effective. (Stevenson contributed to the character designs.) The bright-colors-meet-scary-story-blackness palette of Maarta Laiho and the rounded, varied lettering of Aubrey Aiese round off the atmosphere very well.

And if you paid close attention to the last two paragraphs, everyone who works on Lumberjanes is a woman. All the characters–the Janes, their counselors, the tattooed and big-hearted camp president, even the magical potential antagonists–are women. This is the most female-dominated comic I have ever read. More importantly, it is an awesome comic.

There is nothing about the story and writing which had to be gender-specific. An all-male or coed team could have spoken these lines and fought these fights with no difference. But in creating a world full of female characters and engaging only women to craft it, Stevenson, Ellis, and Watters have struck a titanic blow against comics misogynists. Their title is full of humor and action and all the illustrative attributes which make a great comic book, but it is also a celebration of female strength, solidarity, and friendship: the page near the end of the first issue with “the Lumberjanes Pledge”, codifying these ideals, is enough to induce a lump in the throat.

I’m not one to buy issue after issue of comics. It’s tough for me to pay $4 a pop, the same price that gets me at least one thick novel at a used book store, for a fragile magazine that takes me fifteen minutes to read at most. But I’m making an exception for Lumberjanes. I want this book to be a giant hit, a book created by people who can never be accused of being fake geek girls, who prove all the points made by Janelle Asselin and my friends through aesthetics alone, who could inspire so many more women to make comics and add more, needed diversity to the culture we share. I want this book to be a giant hit so it can get the ball rolling on a change in the norm, a change in which women who love and write about and make comics are not faced with derision and the terror of violation but with welcome, eager curiosity for the ideas and innovations they will bring to the table. And I want it to be a giant hit because it is so, so excellent.

Plus, I want a world with more Noelle Stevenson in it. She's as nice as she is brilliant.

Plus, I want a world with more Noelle Stevenson in it. She’s as nice as she is brilliant.

Read Lumberjanes. And blast “Edge of Seventeen,” “Say You’ll Be There,” and a little Tegan and Sara and Jenny Owen Youngs while you read it, just like they suggest on the back cover.

(NOTE: Janelle Asselin’s job title was changed to its full and accurate wording after Ms. Asselin read (and liked!) the above and sent me a tweet with said description.)

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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