Wednesday 15 July 2015

Lumberjanes / East of West

Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters, Brooke Allen, 2015
Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, 2015
(June 2015)

Slightly random paring this, created largely through the coincidence of release and delivery schedules. Can I force them together into some kind of awkward thematic union? You betcha. Let’s talk Americana.

I’ve been to America once, on a slightly ill-fated trip with an ex-girlfriend and her family. She wasn’t ex at the time, obviously, only now. And that’s ex as in former, not dead. She’s still alive. As far as I know; we’ve lost touch. Since Facebook stalking lost its novelty, at least (THAT’S A JOKE). Look, just quit banging on about my ex, will you? This is getting tiresome.

My point (there is one, I promise) is that pretty much everything I know about the country has come second-hand, mediated by various, er… media. And it’s a measure of the country’s seemingly unassailable cultural hegemony—at least within the Anglosphere—that I feel sufficiently emboldened to hold forth on this kind of stuff (though not without some fairly convoluted disclaimers first, of course), because both Lumberjanes and East of West offer, in their own very different ways, interpretations of a uniquely American understanding of wilderness and the frontier: man in nature; man against nature; and ultimately nature as a metaphor for aspects of humanity and so man against himself. You know the drill.

I say ‘man’. This is clearly ridiculous way of describing the totality of humanity, and is particularly inappropriate here given that not only does Lumberjanes contain an almost entirely female cast, but also some sharply hilarious critiques of the kind of hypermasculine frontiersman so coolly evoked in East of West’s Death. If you can read the following panels without genuinely laughing out loud then you’re probably reading the wrong blog:

And let us then compare:

Obviously this is grotesquely unfair; Lumberjanes is undoubtedly a response to a very clear gap in the market but is also very assured in doing its own thing, so positioning it in a direct dialogue with any single work specifically is to do it a disservice. Additionally, Death’s taciturn Man With No Name shtick isn’t presented uncritically; those criticisms often coming from his wife Xiaolin, who is now by far my favourite character.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Lumberjanes has been generating a fair bit of buzz in the SFFy circles I frequent on line, and everything you’ve read about it is true. It follows a group of five friends through various (mis)adventures on summer camp (Americana, see?): and pointedly features friendship, fully realized female characters, and non-cis, non-het, non-white representation; none of which would matter if it wasn't any good. Fortunately it is. What I hadn't realized is quite how YA, Harry Potter-ish it was, with an episodic, monster of the week plot wherein each problem the group encounters is conveniently solvable by one of the member's unique skills. Not a problem, necessarily, but after all the 'breath of fresh air' hype I wasn't expecting quite such a traditional/stale structure.

Does this matter? Not really, no. Complaining about the episodic nature of a TP comic is rather like complaining about the unexpected dampness of the ocean, and Lumberjanes aces pretty much everything else. I'm slightly OCD about lending out my books (people always wreck them) so I won't be giving this to my English Club students. I'll be buying a second copy and lending that out instead. Can't think of higher praise than that.

East of West is less suitable as “educational” material. The plot moves forward, characters develop, and the world becomes more and more immersive. If I’m not quite as much a fan of Babylon (the putative Beast of the Apocalypse) as the writer seems to be then this is amply compensated for by the creators’ outstanding sense of timing. I say timing instead of pacing because, allied with the visuals, certain sections are incredibly cinematic and it’s the beats, the changes of pace—the quiet pause in the midst of world altering negotiations or the frustrated gag slotted into a hail of precision violence—that work in real time to propel you through the story. Quiet contemplation of a sunrise should come across as corny as all hell, but in the context built for it here is simply stunning. Still no answer as to the Pestilence/Conquest question, though.

So where does that leave us regarding the whole American Frontier thing? Both comics, at least, have moved beyond the uncritical ‘noble savage’ representations. While East of West definitely flirts with this trope as regards The Endless Nation, they’re also the most technologically advanced faction and have motivations as complex and venal as any of the others. I’m not yet sure whether this represents a reinforcement or a subversion, but it’s definitely a dialogue of some sort. Lumberjanes is less engaged: the wilderness exists here primarily as the stage on which the play is set, rather than a player in its own right, and the comic's quite clearly chosen to engage primarily with the ‘boys’ aspect of the ‘Boy’s Own’ tales it’s riffing on, so leaves the background stuff entirely in the background.

(I'm fucking nailing the stylistic variation today, aren't I?)

There is, I suppose, more that I could say on how while both books present us with a vision of nature that is both sustenance and threat, the stress is very much on the latter: East of West goes as far as to blatantly manufacture the hellish dystopian landscape Babylon sees through his visor, and Lumberjanes, for all that it beautifully mocks the stereotypically male view of nature as a thing to be dominated, still presents it as a series of obstacles to be overcome. Wolves, eagles, river monsters, and poison ivy all threaten out heroines, who overcome them through teamwork and friendship, those most civilizing of forces. So for all nature's threat, this is the triumph of civilization over nature—even the sasquatches have ipods—as East of West parallels and indeed expands upon this to give us the triumph of love over death. Gotta love the yanks and their optimism.

And having thus emphatically booked a seat for myself in pseud's corner, I'll wrap things up. East of West and Lumberjanes offer two enjoyable visions of the American fontier that are very different yet ultimately spring from similar sources. You could do worse this summer than spending time with either of them.

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