Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Lumberjanes and Defining Character Through Clothes

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Clash? What clash? He totally blends in with the tropical flowers. Genius.

When I was 10 years old I was obsessed with a series of tween mystery books called The Accidental Detectives. They came from a Christian bookstore I used to visit with my parents. About every month or so I picked up a new book in the series and would have devoured half of it before we’d even left the store.

I remember loving the characters. The series is narrated by a 12-year-old boy named Ricky who solves mysteries with his best friends Lisa and Mike. Mike was my favourite, an adorably dorky but smart redhead (apparently my ‘type’, if I have one) with a horrendous dress sense. In each book Ricky always described Mike as wearing a Hawaiian shirt, beach shorts and a baseball cap that ‘clashed horribly with his red hair’. I could say I identified with Mike for his love of movies and penchant for video cameras, but there was more to it than that. For reasons I will never know, Mike Andrews of The Accidental Detectives became my style icon of 2003.

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I don’t know how conscious I was of this occurrence at the time, but photographic archives of 2003 mostly depict me wearing baseball caps, beach shorts and oversized Hawaiian shirts I chose for myself from the boys’ section at Target. I thought they were cool as shit then but now I can barely look at pictures of myself at that age because ‘clashed horribly’ really is the best way to describe it. Bless my parents for letting their 10-year-old daughter dress like Mike Andrews, fashion criminal.

I blame Mike Andrews for the Hawaiian shirts, but the baseball cap was really my own doing. Eventually I outgrew the shirts but the cap stayed a little longer. It was multicoloured and decorated with a shiny green lizard pin that my grandma bought for me. For several years I barely left the house without that cap, and it quickly became iconic. People would comment on its absence if I ever went without it, much the same way they’d comment if they ever caught me wearing a skirt or dress at someone’s wedding. I had a style and it stuck, the way that characters like Mike are made memorable by a handful of repeated identifiers.

Vol #1 cover by Noelle Stevenson

If Lumberjanes had existed when I was 10 years old, my sense of style would have certainly also been influenced by the hardcore lady-types of this glorious comic book series.

Lumberjanes is the collaborative creation of author and illustrator Noelle Stevenson (of Nimona and gingerhaze fame), writers Grace Ellis and Shannon Watters, and artist Brooke Allen. The series follows five friends — Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley — through their adventures at scout summer camp. I don’t think I can even begin to express how wonderful these comics are. They have been my go-to place of warmth and solace in these sad times of poor representation, a light in the dark, a beacon of hope. Led by an entirely-female cast of characters — the majority of which are POC — Lumberjanes has fantasy, adventure, girls encouraging other girls, storylines about trust, teamwork, love and care; and probably best of all a queer biracial romance. And it’s 100%, unambiguously canon. Not to mention that in Issue #17, one of the lead characters comes out as trans (you can read Autostraddle’s praiseworthy review on that here).

Volumes 1 and 2 are illustrated by Brooke Allen and Volume 3 is illustrated by Carolyn Nowak, with cover art by Noelle Stevenson and various bonus covers by a multitude of other artists. (There are several more issues published, but those are yet to be compiled into volumes. Lumberjanes Vol 4 is due out in July.) The characters therefore take on a variety of looks and styles throughout the series, but are never not recognisable thanks to their iconic looks.

Jo has mastered the layered hipster-grunge: elbow-patched blazer over red hoodie and stripes, with fingerless gloves and rolled jeans as the finishing touches. April, the most femme member of the five, has all the details and accessories of a girl well-versed in combining comfort with a strong sense of style, from the bow in her hair all the way to her belted high-waisted shorts over leggings and hiking flats. Meanwhile Molly is all comfort and simplicity: Converse sneakers, cargo shorts and a green baseball tee. Her hair is tied back in a convenient braid and topped with a coonskin cap (which we later learn is in fact a real-live raccoon named Bubbles, but that’s another story). Mal, with whom Molly has a budding romance, is a grunge-punk gal with a shaved head, piercings and a classic red flannel. But of all the characters, I think Ripley’s dress sense would have spoken to my 10-year-old-self the most.

The tiniest and likely youngest member of Roanoke Cabin, Ripley defies any societal rules of gender-conformity with maximum power. A two-button orange tee over long sleeves, football shorts and knee-high socks, and a red bandana tied around a tuft of blue-tinted short hair. She’s absolutely full of wild energy and has little regard for danger; an extreme tomboy if there ever was one.

From the left: Jo, April, Molly, Ripley, and Mal — illustrated by Brooke Allen

I remember the first time I met a girl who dressed like me, in baseball caps and flannel shirts and football socks, and I’d never wanted to be friends with someone so bad. I remember telling the friend who had introduced the two of us that we had a lot in common, even though all I knew of this girl was that she liked wearing baseball caps too. There’s something incredible about coming face to face with yourself represented in someone or something other than your own body. It’s like standing on front of the Mirror of Erised. Suddenly the deepest desires of your heart are reflected right back through someone else, and you aren’t so alone anymore.

If I had been able to read Lumberjanes in my pre-teen and early teen years, it would have rocked my world. I knew from the moment I saw their unique styles that these five girls were fiercely confident in their identities; identities that my 10-year-old self could relate to. And in fact, I still do. So many of the things I doubted and questioned about myself and the things I like appear in these comics in the most uplifting and unassuming way. Lumberjanes therefore proves it can handle character-defining personalities just as well as quintessential outfits. From April and Jo’s strong desire for a deep and trusting friendship to Ripley’s intense curiosity and challenge-seeking attitude, to Mal and Molly’s careful concern for each other in a crush-turned-romance, these comics are ultimately about how freakin’ great it is to a be a girl.

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