In the first five pages of the Lumberjanes comic series, five girls triumph over a small army of three-eyed foxes. Each panel is a flurry of haymakers and karate kicks, action-font WHAPs and knockout-star PUNCHes. The series, illustrated by local artist Brooke Allen (right), pegs these tough young women as “hardcore lady types.”
At 26, Allen has drawn Lumberjanes, a fast-growing national series about a girls summer camp and its supernatural happenings, since its first issue in April. Its main characters are five best friends (Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley) who solve mysteries, wrangle creepy critters, and kick butt—a kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The X-Files meets Bug Juice. It’s a comic meant for preteens, so its issues are short and silly, full of pop-culture references and quirky Diablo Cody-esque catchphrases like “friendship to the max!” and “what the junk?”
From her home in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood, Allen churns out comic-book panels at a rocket-fueled pace of 22 pages a month. Deep into the night, Allen gulps coffee, puts on an episode of This American Life or Snap Judgement, and draws panels full of hipster yetis, Jurassic Park-esque velociraptors, and the comic’s five punky protagonists in faux Boy Scout regalia. “I draw best at like, 3 a.m. That’s when I’m clear,” says Allen. “I don’t know if that means I’m only going to live until I’m 50.”
In addition to Allen, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, the feminist comic is assembled by Noelle Stevenson, writer and creator of the popular webcomic-turned-graphic novel Nimona; writer Grace Ellis; and Boom! Studios editor Shannon Watters. Lumberjanes’ first eight issues drip with the kind of humor and heroics commonly prescribed to male protagonists in traditional comics. And in the second issue, two of the characters share a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation-turned-kiss. Though Allen and Stevenson both braced for a backlash—Allen dubbed the drawing the “One Million Moms panel”—Stevenson wanted those two characters’ queer sexuality to be as clear as possible. “With Nimona, I had a same-sex couple that I never explicitly named as a same-sex couple, and it always bugged me that people missed it,” says Stevenson. “Coming into Lumberjanes, I said, ‘we’re not going to leave it ambiguous.’”
Allen takes particular joy in drawing scenes like these. “I hope that more comics, especially the big comics, have gay characters and characters of color and characters that break out of the norms,” she says. As a 7-year-old growing up in Wilmington, N.C., Allen broke from the norm, too. While her peers were babbling through The Little Engine That Could, Allen was scaring herself to death with Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, a graphic, illustrated book that she hid from her fundamentalist Christian parents. “[Cycle of the Werewolf] blew my mind. Like, it was amazing,” says Allen. “I think maybe I was just a morbid kid or something.”
By middle school, Allen was thumbing through Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, tracing characters from Disney movies, and gushing over the artwork of The Secret of NIMH director Don Bluth. “I wanted to be an animator, first and foremost,” says Allen. “I made a club at school called the Disney Club. I would make all these drawings of Disney characters and then Xerox them. It was my first foray into publishing, I guess.”
Even after she discovered female comic artists like Blue Monday creator Chynna Clugston, Allen felt like something was missing from the narratives she read on the page: She couldn’t find a fully fleshed-out female character to relate to. “I identified with all of these male characters because I really liked the characters,” says Allen. “I didn’t identify with Poison Ivy or anything like that. When I was a little kid, I was like, oh yeah, I am Batman.” When Watters told Allen about Lumberjanes, Allen says a lightbulb went off in her head. The comic’s strong female leads were exactly the kind what she wanted to read about when she was younger. “The characters were so realized,” says Allen. “I was like, finally, this is a comic I wish I had when I was a kid.”
Still, it can be grueling work translating Ellis and Stevenson’s script into pictures that make sense. Sometimes, Allen has just a one-sentence description of what the characters are doing to work off of. In one instance, the script narrated the girls doing a super-secret Lumberjanes handshake (above). It was up to Allen to figure out what that handshake would look like. So she rounded up some friends and made a handshake on the spot. “I sent [Watters, Stevenson, and Ellis] a video of us doing it,” says Allen. “We had some really funny ones. The moves were all about chopping up things.”
Drawing the comic goes like this: On a drawing program called Manga Studio, Allen scribbles out a rough draft, or thumbnail. Much like a film’s storyboard, it’s a rudimentary interpretation of the action meant to establish panel size and placement and basic plot action. Characters are represented by humanoid shapes identified only by their names in red. Allen lays out text boxes as blobs and sketches rough character poses and some important facial expressions. It’s a quiet, laid-back process, and it’s when Allen really fleshes out the way a scene might look on the page. “When I’m thumbnailing, that’s like writing,” says Allen. “I have to have silence.” Once Allen has the thumbnail drawn, she starts anew and redraws everything in sketchy strokes, going over the page again and again to add in details like facial features and clothing. After several revisions, the image starts to resemble what you might see on the page, without speech bubble text or color.
Watters says Lumberjanes just wouldn’t exist in its current form without Allen’s artistic input. “Brooke is essential to everything,” Watters says. “Brooke has this way of drawing people. The way that Brooke draws all of them, they are so essentially themselves, even when they’re not the focal point of the scene, or the panel.” Watters remembers one time when the script called for the protagonists to run from a scythe-wielding monster statue (below). In Allen’s illustration, “all of them are running differently depending on their personality,” Watters says.
Allen puts special emphasis on the supporting characters, too. “When you’ve got an ensemble like that, there is a tendency for background characters to be standing there and waiting to be moved, and Brooke never does that,” Watters says. “Background characters are always engaged and are their own people, which is essential in an ensemble comic.”
Those results don’t come without a price. Allen says she sleeps just three or four hours a night and works most days of the year. When she’s not working on Lumberjanes, Allen makes signs at the Foggy Bottom Trader Joe’s and takes on smaller freelance illustration projects like drawing covers for other Boom! comics or images for card games. It’s a hectic, stressful lifestyle with monthly deadlines that rule her schedule. “When it’s crunch time, I’ll do my best work because I’m not allowed to think about it,” Allen says. “It’s not going to be perfect. You just have to let it go.”
Watters says Lumberjanes, which sold more than 13,000 copies of its first issue when it launched in April, is one of Boom! Studios’ best-selling stories. The series, which just finished its initial eight-issue run, has been picked up as an ongoing series. There are talks of a forthcoming television show, too. At Dupont’s Fantom Comics, manager Esther Kim has trouble keeping up with Lumberjanes demand. “We sell out of it pretty consistently,” she says. And the store manager of Vienna’s Big Planet Comics, Kevin Panetta (who, as it happens, is Allen’s roommate) says Lumberjanes’ first issue was his store’s biggest seller for the month of May.
The first issue of Lumberjanes ends with all five scouts staring with wonder into a sunrise, literally a new horizon. Allen relates to that feeling of being on the verge of a great big adventure. There are more issues of Lumberjanes on deck, which means new stories, new characters, and new action to draw. It also means more tight deadlines and late nights ahead. Allen’s learning as she goes. “Everything I’ve done until now has been like, you’ll have a deadline, but it’s not been like an ongoing thing. Like a marathon versus a sprint,” Allen says. “This is an ongoing series, so it’s a constant sprint. Keep the momentum going, do good work, do it fast.”
Top photo by Darrow Montgomery. Lumberjanes images courtesy of Boom! Studios