Unless your body defies the laws of gravity, biology and mortality, it’s pretty tough being a woman in the comic book universe. Even as actresses like Gal Gadot take strides for the fairer sex as the drop-dead-gorgeous, villain-pummelling Wonder Woman, one questions how “fair” putting a heroine at the centre of the narrative is when she’s required to kick *ss and take names wearing next to nothing – written by men, for the sake of swelling the hormones of other men. Women like American comic book artist and toymaker, Brooke Allen, however, are changing this. As part of the all-female team behind Boom! Studios’ Lumberjanes, an award-winning series centred on five young girls at a summer camp who embark on enthralling adventures and encounters with strange beasts, the Goonies-meets-Adventure Time comic is, finally, a story about women written by women. Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention (STGCC), we catch up with Allen to talk about what life was like before Lumberjanes, the dynamics of working with an exclusively female creative team, and the problems that continue to arise with the portrayal of women in comics.
Hey Brooke! How did you get your start in illustration?
B: My first big break came when I was mostly doing comics and paintings on my own that I put up on Tumblr and Instagram; they gained the interest of some of the editors at Boom! Studios, who tapped me to do some covers and shorts for Bravest Warriors, Regular Show, and Adventure Time, properties that I was already a huge fan of. Before that, I was doing odd illustration jobs, commissions and working as a sign painter at a grocery store – just doing anything that kept me drawing or creating in some capacity.
What kinds of comics were you drawn to as a young reader? Has that changed over the years?
In many ways I haven’t changed much. The things that peaked my interest as a kid – like monsters, cartoons, and nature – are still interesting to me now, but I tend to have a more discerning eye after having several years of comics-making under my belt. The first comics I really loved as a kid were any of the ones featured in Disney adventures, Sonic, Crimson (coincidentally now reprinted by Boom!), Calvin and Hobbes, and Garfield Pet Force (which technically were illustrated chapter books, but being a spin off of Garfield, I think they count). The holy grail of my formative artist years was finding Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf illustrated by Bernie Wrightson at a used book store. It’s still one of my favorite things that both Stephen King and Bernie Wrightson have done, and I still look to it for inspiration to this day.
What made you want to get onboard with Lumberjanes?
When I first read Grace Ellis’s character descriptions, I was instantly a fan. I wanted so badly to already have the comic in my hands to read. If it’s something I want to read, then that’s reason enough for me to get on board to make it. A big reason why it captured my interest was that it focused on an all-female cast and their uncompromising friendship. I felt like good examples of female friendship were sorely lacking in mainstream comics, if not pop culture in general. In addition to that, there were multiple queer characters, which was unheard for an-all ages comic, and there was also the promise of adventure in a strange and mythical wood full of cryptids and magic, so that combo pretty much sealed the deal for me.
Lumberjanes is quite revolutionary for featuring an all-female set of characters, authored by an all-female team. What were your thoughts on embarking on an all-female project like this?
I was beyond excited! I knew how special it was. I also know how important it can be to see someone of your gender working in a field that you hope to work in someday. Growing up and looking for female-created comics myself, I found the search daunting and pretty limiting (though all the creators I found were pretty incredible and remain some of my favorites to this day).
We couldn’t help but see the resemblance between you and the character Mal. Was her design inspired by your own appearance or personality?[Laughs] Yeah I guess most of us on team Lumberjane have a very similar aesthetic (the flannel button up + denim + pins combo), and at the time a very similar haircut, too (the ever popular lesbian side-mullet), so I guess it’s no surprise that Mal turned out the way she did. As far as personality goes, I think she’s much cooler than me, but we definitely share a healthy amount of cautiousness when dealing with nature and the unknown, as well as wanting to have a solid plan to help us feel in control of the situation. Basically, I share Mal’s propensity towards overreaction and anxious ranting when faced with peril (which I think is reasonable), as well as her wardrobe and hair – but ultimately she’s way cooler than I ever was at her age (or now for that matter).
Which character resonates with you the most on a personal level?
I see myself the most in Molly. She’s a little less sure of herself then the rest of the group and is a little more introspective. She has a less-than-ideal home life with disapproving parents, which probably makes her a little shyer and more self-deprecating than anyone else in the Lumberjane crew. She’s also the only one with a pet raccoon, and being someone who has always had a little furry companion, I can relate to that as well.
“There’s nothing wrong with having sex appeal, but it’s a problem when it’s literally the only reason a female is being drawn into a comic: to be a sex object for the male protagonist to win in the third act.”
Were there any initial concerns that it may have been received as an overtly feminist comic and could potentially disinterest certain audiences?
I don’t think we were too concerned; if anything, we were very excited to be making a feminist comic. We certainly expected more of a backlash from a certain type of male comic book reader, but we were pleasantly surprised that, on the whole, people who picked up the comic, regardless of age or gender, had a pretty good read – or, at least, a good enough read that they didn’t feel the need to come scream at us on Twitter or Tumblr. I think being a self-proclaimed feminist comic is enough to keep that small (albeit sometimes very vocal) group of woman-hating comic readers away from picking it up. They have so much other media tailored to them; they can stand to share some with the rest of us.
Do you think there’s an issue in the way that women are popularly portrayed in comics and other forms of pop culture?
Absolutely I think there’s a problem. Women’s roles in many stories are often minimised, sexualised, and they are almost never allowed to be the heroes of the story, let alone their own. They’re seldom portrayed as multifaceted characters ranging in body type, sexuality, race or age. Rarely do we have female protagonists that are kids, tweens, elderly, overweight or trans because they can’t be easily sexualised and are, therefore, seen as invisible to the hetero male audience that companies are so keen to pander to. There’s nothing wrong with having sex appeal, but it’s a problem when it’s literally the only reason a female is being drawn into a comic: to be a sex object for the male protagonist to win in the third act. It’s a very dangerous message to perpetuate that has real-world consequences when both women and men are told variations of the same story since childhood: that the only women worth seeing are the ones tailored to fit into the mainstream male power fantasy.
At last year’s STGCC, comic book artist Adam Hughes mentioned that he’d been getting fewer requests to draw the female characters he’s known for, and he suspected that it could’ve been a reaction to sensitive gender debates taking place in the public sphere. Has your work ever put you in a difficult position with writers, publishers, or your peers?
Thankfully, no. I may be on the other side of that coin in that audiences are enjoying more diversity and celebrating dimension in their characters and stories, versus the same superhero house style and cheesecake pin-ups so popular in mainstream comics. There’s also a more diverse crowd attending conventions (speaking of American conventions, in particular) than ever before: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and families. I’ve also noticed that, for the most part, I’ve been welcomed into the mainstream comics scene by some of the big name artists and writers who are receptive to breaking up the old boy’s club (I’m looking at you Sean Murphy and Dustin Nguyen!), and any opposition to Lumberjanes or myself as an artist hasn’t made its way back to me yet [laughs]. Since my first big gig was working for Boom! Studios on Lumberjanes (a dream to be drawing a queer, feminist comic right out of the gate), and that during most of my time spent doing Lumberjanes I was also working at a grocery store as a sign painter, I didn’t have much time to seek work elsewhere. Since then, the jobs I’ve been getting have largely been from seeing my work in Lumberjanes, and they’re looking for more of the same things that make it a unique, all-ages comic. I’ve yet to be asked to draw a new Killing Joke for DC but, rest assured, if I was it would be a very different comic.
What has you the most excited about attending this year’s STGCC?
Oh my goodness, where to begin? I’ve never been to Singapore – in fact, this is the farthest from the US I’ll have been, so I’m super excited (and a little nervous for the epic plane ride) to have the opportunity to experience a place so far from home. I love toys and I’m very excited that they’re a major part of the convention (much to my partner’s dismay, I’m sure I’ll be bringing a separate suitcase just for toys). I also saw that Emma Rios is a special guest and I’m a huge fan of her work, so hopefully I can sneak a place in line to get her to autograph my copy of Pretty Deadly!
Brooke Allen will be making her first appearance at the Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention (STGCC) from September 10 to 11 at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Level B2, Halls E and F. For more info, visit singaporetgcc.com.