The Return of Fun: BOOM! Box Comics Make Progressive Politics Entertaining




PROGRESSIVE POLITICS are often perceived as the natural enemy of fun. Progressives and so-called SJWs are often stereotyped as humorless killjoys, so committed to ideological purity that they can’t take a joke. While this is a stereotype, it has a grain of truth, insofar as feminists and progressives sometimes make their opposition to fun explicit. In 1975, for instance, Laura Mulvey wrote, “It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.” More recently, Ian Bogost has argued against the central role of fun in game studies, and Sara Ahmed has described the critique of happiness as a key part of the feminist project:

To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it […] To threaten the loss of the seat can be to kill the joy of the seated […] Let’s take the figure of the feminist killjoy seriously. One feminist project could be to give the killjoy back her voice.

Many important current comics have adopted this project of, if not killing, then at least interrogating the concept of fun. The title of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is deliberately ironic, since the home depicted in the book, like the book itself, is not fun at all. And Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, while on one level recalling exploitation cinema, is on another level dedicated to unmasking the violence lurking behind the pleasant, “compliant” attitude that women are asked to project. As important as comics like these are, their ideological projects can reinforce the false impression that fun is inherently opposed to progressive politics, or that it can’t be used in progressive ways. The reaction against fun is not, of course, exclusive to comics that aren’t specifically feminist or progressive in nature. Starting in the 1980s, commercial comics increasingly strove for seriousness and respectability, at the expense of the exuberant, lighthearted entertainment that characterized the Code-approved comics of earlier ages. Superhero comics of the 1980s and 1990s inspired by Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Daredevil sought to sever the association between comics and children’s entertainment, and one way they did so was by making themselves less unselfconsciously fun.

An important corrective to these false impressions — that progressive politics shouldn’t be fun, and that commercial comics aren’t fun anymore — is BOOM! Studios’s BOOM! Box line of comics, edited by Shannon Watters. These are the most fun comic books currently on the market, and among the most progressive. Indeed, they use fun as a means of advocating a progressive agenda. They combine exuberant joy with aggressively feminist, antiracist, queer-positive, and social-justice-oriented political stances. They show that progressivism is not just about killing oppressive forms of pleasure, but also about developing alternative forms of joy. And they do this so subtly that the reader might not even notice.

The key example of BOOM! Box’s creative and political project is their flagship title Lumberjanes, which in my opinion is the best current monthly comic book that isn’t Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s science fiction series Saga. Lumberjanes is a summer camp story, set at “Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types.” Its protagonists are the five members of Roanoke cabin: scientific genius Jo; Pippi Longstocking–esque April; shy, athletic Molly; Molly’s quiet girlfriend Mal; and Ripley, a tiny female version of Wolverine. In the 40-plus issues that have appeared as of this writing, the girls and their long-suffering counselor Jen practice the camp’s creed of “friendship to the max” while engaging in a series of bizarre adventures.

The first conceit of Lumberjanes is that the camp is a magnet for bizarre magical occurrences. Over the course of a single summer, the girls have adventures involving Greek gods, sasquatches and yetis (not the same thing), a gorgon, a bear woman, cockatrices, velociraptors, mermaids, and superpowered kittens. The Lumberjanes even sometimes seem to be magical themselves: for example, April has superhuman strength. None of these magical phenomena are ever given a scientific explanation, and the characters take it for granted that, for example, sasquatches exist and can talk. Part of the fun of Lumberjanes is finding out what strange and implausible things are going to happen next.

But Lumberjanes’s second and more important conceit is that it’s a summer camp story with a primarily female cast. Summer camp narratives are not exclusively male-oriented — The Parent Trap, for instance, is a classic summer camp story with female protagonists. But summer camps themselves are a powerful tool for promoting classic gender stereotypes. In a 2011 study, Kathleen Denny found that “girls’ messages promote an ‘up-to-date traditional woman’ consistent with the Girl Scouts’ organizational roots,” while “boys’ messages promote an assertive heteronormative masculinity that is offset by facilitating boys’ intellectual passivity.” Based on my limited knowledge of the genre, it’s my perception that most summer camp stories tend to perpetuate similar heteronormative stereotypes.

Lumberjanes, by contrast, flips gender stereotypes on their head. The Lumberjanes play sports, have adventures, get dirty, and even fight. They are hardcore lady types, not proper young ladies. They sometimes behave according to more traditional gender norms — for example, they spend lots of time doing art, and April dresses in a very girly style — but they are in no way shackled to these norms. They swear by the names of famous feminists and women warriors (e.g., “Holy bell hooks!”), and the camp director, Rosie, is explicitly based on Rosie the Riveter. The first few issues of Lumberjanes have no male characters at all, but when boys finally appear in the series, they prove to be equally anti-stereotypical. The Scouting Lads, the male counterparts to the Lumberjanes, are polite, clean, and well mannered, and enjoy cooking, cleaning, and having tea parties.

Crucially, Lumberjanes never depicts its characters’ non-gender-conforming behavior as problematic. The series takes it for granted that girls can perform feats of strength and boys can knit. The only character in the series who tries to reinforce more traditional gender norms is the Scouting Lads’ hypermasculine camp director, who is shown to be suffering from mind control.

The overarching message Lumberjanes sends to younger (and older) readers is that being a Lumberjane or a Scouting Lad are both equally valid choices. Like My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, an ideologically similar franchise, Lumberjanes shows that there are lots of ways to be a girl (or a boy). It even shows that gender is not fixed or immutable. At the end of the second major story line, Jo is subtly but unambiguously revealed to be a transgender girl. Barney, one of the Scouting Lads, later transitions himself, moving from the Scouting Lads camp to the Lumberjanes camp and adopting the pronouns “they” and “them.” The series also promotes other kinds of inclusion. We eventually learn that Jo has two dads, and that Ripley comes from a large biracial family and is bilingual in Spanish. Finally, summer camps and the narratives about them frequently draw upon stereotypical and culturally appropriative depictions of Native Americans. Such imagery has been thankfully absent from Lumberjanes, and the one time it did appear — on the cover of issue 14, which depicts the girls forming a totem pole — the creators publicly apologized and withdrew the cover from circulation.

But Lumberjanes doesn’t bash the reader over the head with its liberatory politics. It delivers its message in a more subtle way, by presenting a world where discrimination does not exist and seemingly never did, thereby allowing the reader to imagine a world without sexism and other forms of oppression. The one time that Lumberjanes acknowledges the existence of intolerance, it does so powerfully. Over the course of a story line involving the Greek god Zeus and his children Apollo and Artemis, we gradually learn that Molly’s mother disapproves of Molly’s lifestyle. When Molly finally encounters Zeus, she declares that it’s not appropriate for parents to tell their children how to live — and here she is clearly speaking to her own mother and to other similarly intolerant parents.

Lumberjanes’s politics are thus progressive and in some cases — as with its treatment of transgender characters — revolutionary. But the series is also incredibly fun. I hope this is clear from the foregoing summary, but one more example: my favorite moment in the entire series is when we discover that Molly’s raccoon hat is in fact a live raccoon named Bubbles.

Lumberjanes has been able to maintain both its progressive politics and its level of fun thanks to a high degree of consistency across contributions from many creators. Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Brooke Allen are credited with creating the franchise, but only Watters is involved with it at the moment. The current co-writer, Kat Leyh, and more recent artists, like Carolyn Nowak and Ayme Sotuyo, have maintained the same level of quality (with one notable hiccup — Leyh’s first story arc, about mermaids and werewolves, was lacking in energy and failed to advance the plot significantly). Lumberjanes is a rare example of an independent comic that transcends any single creator — except maybe Watters herself, whom we might think of in terms borrowed from television as something like a showrunner. Other notable creators like Faith Erin Hicks, Kelly Thompson, and Holly Black have worked on spinoff versions of the series, though not always successfully — a Lumberjanes/Gotham Academy crossover produced in conjunction with industry giant DC failed to live up to its potential.

While Lumberjanes is the key BOOM! Box title, other series in the line have achieved nearly comparable levels of both progressivism and fun. Goldie Vance, created by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, is about a queer teenage black girl detective and car enthusiast. Like Lumberjanes, Goldie Vance derives its primary appeal from its sense of joyfulness: the title character is an adorable, spunky protagonist, and her adventures are fast-paced and funny. Somewhat surprisingly, her story is set in the 1960s in Florida, yet never references racism or segregation or homophobia in any way. The 1960s setting is effectively a cosmetic device. Larson’s defense of this device is rather tone-deaf: “It’s a kinder gentler 1960s where we take the stuff we like and throw the rest out. This is just supposed to be a fun lighthearted book and we don’t want to get into sexism and racism particularly.” But artist Brittney Williams (who is herself black) offers a more nuanced explanation:

Growing up, one of my things every time I read a book about an African-American character, in anything before the 70s, was I just wanted maybe an African-American Tom Sawyer. Someone who just goes on adventures and they don’t have to worry about the world being a terrible place. Of course learning about those things [e.g. segregation and civil rights] are really important, but it’s great to have a lighthearted book that doesn’t necessarily focus on how terribly racist, segregated, sexist, and everything else that time period was.

From this perspective, Goldie Vance imagines an alternate and happier version of the 1960s, a world where racism didn’t have to be defeated because it never existed. In this sense, Goldie Vance’s lack of explicit politics is itself a political act. It asserts that there’s no reason why a black queer girl can’t be a protagonist.

A third important BOOM! Box title, Pamela Ribon and Veronica Fish’s SLAM!, is aimed at a slightly older audience but conveys a similar sense of fun. Its two protagonists, Jennifer (a.k.a. Knockout) and Maisie (a.k.a. Ithinka Can), become friends at roller derby practice, only to find their friendship endangered as they become competitors for rival teams. Like other recent comics — e.g., Victoria Jamieson’s Roller GirlSLAM! uses the physically grueling and exclusively feminine sport of roller derby as a vehicle for circumventing standard stereotypes of women as soft and weak. The series emphasizes the speed and violence of roller derby — in a recent issue, Maisie is seriously injured in a match — while connecting the sport to progressive politics. For example, in issue three, roller derby gives Jen the confidence to complain about workplace discrimination. But Jen and Maisie’s troubled friendship is the emotional centerpiece of the series. Half the fun of the comic is watching the characters become friends, then split up, and eventually (I assume) get back together. Like Lumberjanes, SLAM! is also full of funny moments. In issue one, when Jen and Maisie become friends, they introduce their cats to each other, but the end of the issue shows the cats fighting in the corner of a page — which is foreshadowing, but also shows that the creators know what cats are like.

BOOM! Box’s other major series, Giant Days (by John Allison and various artists), is somewhat different in tone and content from the other three, perhaps because it originated as an independent webcomic. Giant Days focuses on Daisy, Esther, and Susan, three students at Sheffield University in England. Again perhaps due to its webcomic origins, Giant Days is essentially a gag strip, with each issue structured around the latest crisis in the three protagonists’ lives. Unlike the other BOOM! Box titles, Giant Days is a sitcom rather than an adventure story. However, much of the humor of the series comes from the implausible and fantastic situations the protagonists get into. For example, in issue 11, Susan becomes so sleep-deprived that she enters a sort of nocturnal Twilight Zone where everyone tells her, “Night be with you.” I love Giant Days, but compared to the three previous titles, it’s harder for me to pinpoint the reasons for its success. I think part of the series’s appeal is its deadpan, absurdist humor. Giant Days lacks the explicitly political angle of other BOOM! Box titles, but it shares their sense of humor and attention to powerfully characterized female protagonists.

Not all BOOM! Box titles have been equally successful in creative terms. The Backstagers was intended as a gender-swapped version of Lumberjanes, starring a group of mostly queer teen boys who are members of a high school theater crew — behind whose stage, in typical BOOM! Box fashion, exists a portal to an alternate dimension filled with strange creatures and the ghosts of former crewmembers. The series had some amazing moments, including the very subtle revelation that one of the protagonists is transgender, but it never managed to create the same sense of fun and exuberance as Lumberjanes does, and was not extended beyond the original eight-issue run. Another BOOM! Box title that failed to find an audience was Jonesy, about a junior high school girl who has the power to make people fall in love with things. After a slow start, Jonesy turned into a very sweet and emotionally charged comic, but by that point the damage was done, and it was canceled after 12 issues. Other recent BOOM! Box series are Liz Prince and Amanda Kirk’s Coady and the Creepies, about an all-girl rock band — described as the Lumberjanes’ favorite — whose members include a ghost, and Kiwi Smith and Naomi Franquiz’s Misfit City, which is a pastiche of The Goonies. BOOM! Studios has also published several titles under other imprints not edited by Watters.

Overall, BOOM! Box is a strikingly original line of comics that achieves the seemingly impossible feat of combining aggressively left-leaning politics with uninhibited fun. The major question raised by the imprint is whether its comics are reaching their target audience. Lumberjanes is BOOM! Box’s big hit, and has lasted 40 issues despite being initially solicited as an eight-issue miniseries. As I noted, Backstagers was not renewed after its initial eight-issue run, and as I was finishing this essay, I learned that Goldie Vance would cease monthly publication with issue 12 and would be converted to a series of original graphic novels. In a way, Goldie Vance is more suited to graphic novels than to periodical comic books. The middle-school girls who are this comic’s natural target audience are exactly the demographic that is least likely to visit comic book stores, and the straight white adult men who constitute the core demographic of comic book stores are not likely to be interested in a comic like Goldie Vance. To put it more bluntly, comics like Goldie Vance are too good for the direct market.

I assume titles like Lumberjanes and Goldie Vance sell better in bookstores and in digital form than in comic book stores. According to Brian Hibbs, the first volume of Lumberjanes is BOOM!’s best seller. It sold 19,000 copies in 2016, and reached the New York Times Paperback Graphic Books best seller list the previous year. Digital sales figures are not available for BOOM! Box comics — or, for that matter, for any other comic, a fact which significantly impairs our ability to understand the current comics market. However, despite the lack of precise evidence, it seems clear that a comic like Goldie Vance should do better in bookstores and at school book fairs than in comic book stores. BOOM! is trying to target the bookstore market, as indicated by their recent announcement of a series of Lumberjanes novels to be written by the brilliant Mariko Tamaki. But BOOM! also seems committed to the traditional comic book format and the direct market, and I wonder if this strategy is workable in the long term. As a retailer friend of mine suggests, the direct-to-trade-paperback strategy is also problematic because comic book serialization helps to fund the eventual publication of trade paperbacks.

More generally, I wonder whether the current comics industry has room for a line of comic books that are fun, politically progressive, and aimed at readers outside the traditional core demographic of straight, white, adult males. Recent events have suggested that the comic book store audience may be hostile to such content. For example, Marvel’s recent sales slump was widely blamed on their line of “diverse” titles featuring non-white male protagonists. This claim was heavily overblown, in my opinion, yet lots of people were willing to use the company’s attempt to diversify its protagonists as a convenient scapegoat.

What is undeniable is that there are thousands of readers out there who are desperate for comics like Lumberjanes and Goldie Vance and Giant Days — comics that serve the needs of diverse and politically progressive readers, while also being fun. Such comics might not be ideally suited to the direct market as it currently exists. It would be nice to believe that they are helping to imagine or even create the comics industry of the future — one in which comics like Lumberjanes would be not marginal but central.

¤

Aaron Kashtan lives with almost 20,000 comic books and one cat. He wishes his hat were a live raccoon.


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