Review: Lumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy trade paperback (Boom! Studios)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!, with special guest Amuly]

This review has been in the pipeline for a long time. When I was picking books for Indie-Pendence Month last July, I made sure to concentrate on independent books that had or deserved a wider acceptance. I added Lumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy to the list after news broke of an upcoming television adaptation. After not liking GI Joe: Cobra, a cult favorite, it’s with both that regret and not a small amount of fear that I make this admission: I really didn’t like Lumberjanes either.

From the reputation around Lumberjanes, I expected nothing short of a masterpiece. It won several Eisners and has been cited as one of the best works for bringing new, young readers into comics. There’s a definite truth to the all-ages nature of the book; kids will definitely get a kick out of it. But I had several issues with both the artwork and the writing that prevented me from enjoying it, starting with a lack of background information. We’re dumped into the world of Lumberjanes long after the main characters have met each other, so it’s difficult to get into their heads without proper introductions.

One of my biggest criticisms is how “precious” the writing seems. The characters constantly name-drop female writers and feminist icons in their dialogue, which is kind of adorable but mostly off-putting. Because I don’t have any idea about who these girls are, it’s very weird to me that a bunch of elementary school students are referencing Mae Jamison or Phyllis Wheatley. Not helping is the general obnoxiousness of the characters from the main girls to their counselor and other authority figures.

All five main girls are hyper and off-kilter, and it was hard for me to figure out who’s who at first because some of the girls look very similar. The character models make it hard to determine if the girls are all the same age because some seem to be clearly younger, yet they’re all sharing the same cabin. What’s really distracting is that one girl, April, looks like a typical comic book character, while almost everyone else has pinpoint eyes and other caricature features. I would’ve enjoyed the all-caricature look as demonstrated on an issue #1 cover by co-writer Noelle Stevenson. Instead the characters are difficult to look at, making it hard to get invested in reading all the way through.

It became apparent to me that I’m not the intended audience for Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy. My dislike of the book made me question my judgment of previous and future reviews. For a second opinion, I decided to seek out the help of someone more in the book’s intended demographics. I thus turned to writer and slash-fic enthusiast Amuly for a second opinion:

“In response to your critiques, I'd like to first point out that there’s definitely a degree of piecemeal flashbacks coming your way as the series progresses. It’s not that it doesn’t bother giving you that background info on the characters/histories, it’s just that to a certain degree that background information is intertwined with the mystery of the place, and so by feeding it to the reader of the course of the series they’re slowly revealing more of the mystery. It's designed to be in medias res as a way of withholding information from the readers and the characters themselves. For instance, in a recent issue one of the girls managed to contact the outside world and although they thought they’d been at camp for months, it had only been a week or so in 'real time.' There's a tactic of doling out information in small chunks that is part of the design of the book -- whether that works for you or not is something you can protest!

“The 'precious' thing is definitely going to be a subjective thing, and something that doesn't bother me at all. I think it’s cute and fun, and it comes off to me kind of like a younger-age cartoon: sugar-fueled and manic but with adult jokes for the parents. So sure, the girls are name-dropping notable feminists, but that's the 'parent' joke thrown in there amongst all the sight-gags and crazy humor. One thing I would like to point out is that I wish something like this had existed (and I had been aware of it) when I was younger. Characters like these girls are able to balance being girly while kicking butt, and the quick asides to feminists or casual way they do math one minute and make glitter dresses the next is exactly the sort of thing girls -- and boys! -- should be reading. Had I grown up with these characters I wouldn’t have been so vehemently against everything 'girly' until I was well into my twenties, so I appreciate Lumberjanes for that.

“I am utterly unqualified to offer anything to counter your objections to the art except on a personal basis. Though when you take issue with the character design I feel like it must have more to do with the execution than the original design itself. The girls are all very different looking, if you just line them up. You have a blonde, broader tall girl with a braid; a tiny red-head who dresses kind of preppy; a punk girl with an undercut and piercings that dresses 'punk'; a tall, darker girl who dresses and has the body of an engineer-type, etc. Therefore on the surface I’d say their character designs are very distinct and pretty immediately tell you what 'type' of girl they are: engineer, prep, punk, peacemaker, wildcard, and so on. Maybe your dislike of it has something to do with the kind of minimalist, really clean line art and coloring (which is something I really like about the look of the series), or how quickly the panels 'flick' past. Those might be contributing factors to feeling like the art isn't distinguishing enough.

“Ultimately, I think most of your complaints are characteristics of the book that are by design, not on accident or through a lack of quality. It’s an all-ages book, intended to draw young readers in. Because of that, you get stuff like sugar-crazed stupid humor interspersed with jokes just for the parents, or clean, minimalistic art with chunky lines. If that isn’t working for you, then it isn’t working for you, but I do think it was purposefully designed to be that way.”

I think Amuly makes a lot of sense. There’s a logic behind Lumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy that can appeal to a lot of readers ... I just happen to not be one of them. Conversely, next week I’ll review a female-centric comic book story that I feel was one of the best of 2015 as Kamala Khan faces off against the destruction of all reality.
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3 comments:

  1. Ah, that's disappointing. I too was hearing all this hubbub about lumberjanes and I guess I would fall in your camp when it comes to it. Oh well, there's tons of other indie titles I like out there.

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  2. For me, the reason I enjoy Lumberjanes is the attitude. I had trouble initially keeping the characters separate - took me until about the second trade and talking with a friend who loves the series to get a good grasp (and even now I'm not fully sure) - but what kept me reading was the spirit of the book, the sense of fun and wonder and exuberance. That, and Ripley is just the most wonderful all-ages character (right up there with Maps Mizoguchi from "Gotham Academy").

    I will admit, though, I'm not digging the series as much now that Noelle Stevenson and Brooke Allen are (for the moment) not involved. There's a plot line about merpeople and werewolves that just doesn't jive with me. But as you note, to each their own, and I'm glad that the book has an audience who needed it.

    Finally, there's a moment in, I believe, the second trade - which I won't spoil, but it's a marvelous counterpoint to the sort of thing that DC and Marvel typically pat themselves on the back for executing. Instead, in Lumberjanes, it's so matter-of-fact that I missed it at first!

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  3. So it's not just me! I've tried reading this series three separate times, and every time I feel like the little kid in the parade crowd asking, "Why is the Emperor in his underwear?"

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