Michael Moccio ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Executive Editor
Emertainment had the pleasure of sitting down with Noelle Stevenson, of Nimona fame, at New York Comic Con to catch up about Lumberjanes, her career, and the industry.
Emertainment Monthly: So, we got to do an interview with Shannon Watters [Lumberjanes editor] at San Diego this year and we wanted to do a follow up with you. I want to talk about how splendidly different Lumberjanes is and I think Shannon summed it up perfectly when she said, “There’s more than just white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered perspective in the world and we want to show that.” For us, it’s great because Emerson College is all about bringing innovation to communication and the arts, and we’re big on diversity and inclusion. Could you talk about that and how you bring that to Lumberjanes and what that brings to the table?
Noelle Stevenson: I mean that Shannon has a high stake in diversity. Shannon is a gay woman and it’s very important to all of us to bring that perspective. The perspective you haven’t necessarily gotten from any other major titles. Shannon is in a unique position to build that up. She’s been a badass since day one, bringing webcomic artists on Adventure Time. That was already a huge deal. Ever since she’s gotten this power, she uses the power to push for the values that she believes in, which is amazing. I think BOOM! Box is experimental at this stage, but it’s about letting creators do whatever they want. And when your creators are all queer women, what they want isn’t going to be the audience traditionally aimed at.
Lumberjanes was a miniseries when it was first announced, and you can pretty much do whatever you want with it because it’s a miniseries. I don’t think any of us expected it to be as huge or widely publicized as it was. I think we just expected to be doing our thing and have a specialized audience. And that’d be it. But, clearly that’s not what happened and it’s not just a specialized audience, which is amazing. There’s a reason I didn’t read a lot of comics as a kid—and I wasn’t even conflicted about it. I didn’t even wish I could. I just knew they weren’t for me and that I wasn’t going to be the kind of person who was going to be a professional comic book writer or artist. But if there was a book like this when I was that age, everything would have been different. I was kids out there, who don’t fit in and isn’t in that target group, that really narrowly defined target group, and pick up a book that’s you! Or, here’s characters you can relate to and this is for you. Someday, I hope those kids will make their own comics and have been accepted fully into that core demographic that has so far been definitely exclusionary for a lot of people.
Well, you guys are definitely doing a good job on making these characters relatable. I identify with so much that’s going on—I love that everyone can do their own thing and still kick butt. Every time Jen gets exasperated at what they’re doing, I get so excited because I was a camp counselor too. Which is great, because in the last issue, Jen wants to go with them!
It was very important for me to have Jen be a real character. We’ve this archetype before: this stick in the mud, no fun counselor who wants to stop the character from doing these things. And you understand why, because it makes complete sense. It’s very dangerous! I think she has the best arc, being like “Do I want to just be this reasonable person and hold back?” or “Do I want to join in and be a part of the fun?” That’s what I’ve struggled with as an introvert, which is why I think Jen is great!
When you found out you were moving from a limited series to an ongoing series, did you do anything to change up the story or structure? You started with an eight issue run—is that run still completely the same and you’ll build off that or did you change things up?
They’re not exactly the same. Sort of in the vein of a lot of supernatural, almost supernatural monster of the week type shows—each arc deals with a self-contained mystery and then there’s an overarching mystery. When we thought we were only getting eight issues, I don’t think we planned to explain everything or anything really. We were going to try to put in hints towards that overarching mystery, which will now play out in a much longer term, for however long this series goes.
I still remember the Cavern! I really want answers.
Oh, just wait! Just wait!
I think one of the really amazing things about Lumberjanes is that there’s still so much that we don’t know, but that doesn’t stop us from being engaged with the story. There are so many examples of writers keeping readers in the dark to be just as clueless, but you guys do it so well. What do you and the team purposefully do to keep us engaged?
I can speak for myself best, but I’ve always tended to gravitate more towards characters and atmosphere than I do towards whether a plot stacks up under scrutiny. I tend to let that slide. A lot. For example, one of my favorite shows right now is Sleepy Hollow. The show makes no sense and nothing adds up; if you try to figure out what their revelations are, nothing makes sense. But it doesn’t matter because the atmosphere is fantastic. It’s genuinely spooky. The chemistry between the characters is fantastic. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m looking for.
That’s how I’ve approached this here. I think you’re in this for the atmosphere and the characters. So, yeah, we have a convoluted plot and a lot of mysteries. A lot of mysteries won’t be solved right away, if ever. I’m of the firm belief that if mysteries are solved then the interest goes away. I’m not a fan of today’s world of rebooting everything, of doing sequels and prequels, and explaining everything. I like not knowing the effect that has on fans. It’s about a lot more than tying things together in a nice little bow.
It’s amazing to see BOOM! valuing innovation and aligning so much with their mission statement in everything they do. Is that emphasis on innovation discussed, like when you’re making the book, as an ongoing conversation or does it just happen naturally?
I can only speak for Lumberjanes, really. I haven’t really been involved in a creative team outside of Lumberjanes, but I was an intern for BOOM!, but I was a design intern and so my involvement was fairly limited.
But for us on Lumberjanes, it’s a constant discussion we’re having. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally… to anyone, I think. It takes a conscious effort to do; it’s about subverting stereotypes and what’s expected while not throwing out every storytelling trope that’s familiar. A lot of tropes are harmful and perpetuate harmful attitudes. Subverting tropes often leads to reactionary tropes, which can also be harmful. So, if you’re tired of just seeing girls who sit in the corner, who are always getting captured and weeping and crying, that’s fine. But if you react and make girls that are so strong, they have a sword and a gun and she kicks all the boys in the face, that character is also not a real character to me. That’s a reactionary character and not an organic one or interesting.
We tried to build a core cast of people who were not strictly subversions of tropes. April is the most femme character of the group and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, she’s also the strongest. Just because she’s strong doesn’t make her any better than any of the others. Everyone has their own strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. And that’s what makes a real, organic, and nuanced character. That’s why I said Jen is my favorite character. Jen doesn’t know karate, she doesn’t have a sword, and isn’t particularly brave or strong. But she does have strengths. Her arc is finding that strength.
Has there ever been a point in your career—as a student, as an intern, or even now—where you doubted yourself and thought “Maybe I won’t make it” and how did you deal with it?
Oh, all the time. Does anyone not have that? I went to art school and I came from the south, from South Carolina, where there isn’t really much art appreciation there. I was that big fish in small pond, as the only one who really drew seriously in my immediate friend group. I was a little big for my britches and assumed I’d go to art school and be great at it. Even just going into my first portfolio day, seeing those kids with huge oil paintings… I have these crayon scribbles by comparison. And you start to feel that doubt. But that’s good, in a way. I found it good, because it made me want to do better. If I stayed a big fish in a small pond, then there’s nowhere to go.
I think there’s a lot of fear, like in Jen’s journey. You have to seek out that discomfort and that fear and put yourself in it in order to grow as a person. There was a time when I thought I wasn’t going to get into art school or have enough money to go. And, through all that there was just the decision to keep going and to keep trying and to use it to my advantage to get better. I’ve always tried to take the criticisms that can help me and just shrug off the rest. I hope I don’t lose that discomfort or that fear, because I think that’s important to keep making new and interesting stuff.
We’re finally starting to see things come to a head with Diane and the girls. What can we expect to see?
Okay, it’s going to get bonkers. You’re going to love it—it’s awesome. There’s a lot of mythology going on and more figures coming into play. Some things will be answered and some will not. You’re going to meet some of Diane’s family members!
Without giving anything away, the last page of issue 8 is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written and also one of the dumbest. This will make a lot more sense when it comes out, but I don’t want to ruin anything!
Your team has been so on point in terms of synergy. How do you do that when you’re spread out across the world?
I have trusted Brooke since the first time I saw her test pages for Lumberjanes. There were people that asked if I was going to draw, and I saw Brooke’s art and I was blown away. The character designs were mine, but she only based it off that. Her monsters and environments are so atmospheric, which is so important. I always look forward to her pencils and always look forward to her inks. There’s a trust that we’re going to improve each other!
If you could give any advice, specifically college students, what would you suggest that they do to prepare?
Networking is great. The big one, though, is relax. This might not happen in college—it didn’t for me—but it’s important to have balance in your life. You can go without things like sleep and food for awhile, but you need to take care of yourself.
Also, don’t measure yourself by other peoples’ standards. Don’t look at your friend who got a really great job and think of yourself as a failure because you don’t or that you’re so far behind them. Life isn’t a ladder, nor do I think that it should be viewed like that. It implies it leads to something final. If you find yourself somewhere you didn’t expect to be, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed at climbing the ladder. Everyone’s path is different and everyone’s path will take them somewhere different and your path won’t look like your friends’ path. And that’s okay, because it isn’t a race to the end because there is no end.
I think the most harmful thing you can do is look at accomplishments and see them as life mile marks. There’s a certain amount that healthy competition can do for you, but you can’t take it too much to heart, otherwise it will end up holding you back more.