BOOM! Editor Shannon Watters Talks Lumberjanes, Queer Representation and the Value of Scaring KidsComics Features Lumberjanes
Editor Shannon Watters has helped guide KaBOOM! — BOOM! Studios’ all-ages imprint — to commercial and critical success, mostly by hand-picking cartoonists with unique voices to put their own spin on an impressive line-up of all-star licenses including Adventure Time, Regular Show and Bravest Warriors. She also oversees BOOM! Box, an experimental imprint created “for the love of it,” which publishes Lumberjanes, the breakout series of 2014 that Watters co-created with writer Grace Ellis.
Paste spoke with Watters over the phone to discuss the overwhelmingly positive reception to Lumberjanes, creating a safe space for queer and questioning readers, curating an all-ages line-up and changing the perception of licensed comics.
Paste: Congratulations on the GLAAD nomination for Lumberjanes, and the book’s success in general. It was rare to see a 2014 year’s best list without it.
Shannon Watters: Yeah! We were really, really excited. It’s so funny because I’m an editor, so I’m used to extolling everyone else’s virtues. It’s easy for me to be like, “Hey, look at how well my guys are doing, look at how well my guys are kicking butt, aren’t they the best?” But I have a hard time when people are like, “Oh, you did this nice thing.”
Paste: This year’s GLAAD nominees didn’t include any stunt or PR books, just books that handled queer characters like fully rounded human beings.
Watters: Hey, they’re people just like us! [Laughs]
Paste: Looking through past year’s nominations, there are a lot of great books, but it seems like every year was full of comics that made headlines for having a character come out.
Watters: Whereas, like you said, this year there was just a lot of business as usual, “This is just the way it is” kind of queer representation, which is awesome.
Paste: It’s still really rare for an all-ages book to feature queer characters and not have it be a source of conflict. LGBTQ YA and middle grade usually focus on coming-out stories and bullying stories, which are super necessary, but it can feel like the only storyline out there for queer and questioning youth is often really dramatic and kind of sad.
Watters: Oh yeah, totally, or one where somebody gets thrown out, which is all incredibly necessary, because homeless queer youth is the biggest problem in the movement today, one that we should all be addressing 100% of the time. What we set out to do with something like Lumberjanes was to create a situation where [identifying as LGBTQ] is treated like it’s normal, because it is. These things are just a fact of life, and crushes are just a fact of being a young person, and queer and questioning youth are going to have crushes on people of the same gender, and that’s okay. That’s normal, crushes are normal. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a case where the coming-out narrative has to be the focus of the story.
Paste: Mal and Molly are so unconditionally accepted and that’s something a lot of readers picked up on from the first issue, but really none of the cast has much of a set label. Which makes sense, because they’re so young.
Watters: Oh exactly, and that was kind of our intent too. Noelle [Stevenson, co-writer of Lumberjanes] talked a little bit about this last year at San Diego. I moderated the Gays in Comics panel, which was a huge honor, and Noelle was on it, and she was talking about the role of presenting characters, because they’re twelve, in an asexual way. There doesn’t have to be a romance, there doesn’t have to be a focus on pairing off. Because if you read Sweet Valley High or other YA series, that is a huge part, and obviously it’s not explicitly sexual in nature, but you’ve got 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds in The Baby-sitters Club with boyfriends. Logan and Mary Anne were an item, a serious item, and they were 13-years-old, and I thought that was super normal. It’s really not necessarily normal unless society is telling you that it is. We kind of wanted to structure Lumberjanes so that it didn’t have to be a necessary component of the narrative.
Paste: That sort of queer safe space or very chill attitude towards sexuality extends to KaBOOM! and BOOM Box’s other books, too, the obvious example being Marceline and Princess Bubblegum continuing to have a very nuanced relationship, and writer Kate Leth including same-sex flirting in Bravest Warriors. Even Teen Dog has a really chill vibe of pan-queerness to it.
Watters: I was so hoping you’d bring up Teen Dog, because nobody ever really references the queerness of Teen Dog, and it is a pretty queer little series. Help Us! Great Warrior just came out from Madeleine Flores and it’s about a little warrior who is explicitly femme, but also like Conan the Barbarian-levels of badass, and her best friend, Leo, is a Trans warrior. She’s a transwoman, and the way that it’s brought up is that the leader of the heroes is like, “Oh, I don’t see you on my chart,” and Leo goes, “Oh, I used to be Samson the Magnificent,” and the leader of the heroes is like, “Oh, I’ll do that change for you right now so you can both fight the demons.”
And that’s essentially the end of the discussion. We find out more about Leo’s past and journey later in the series but that’s just a fact of Leo’s life. And so Help Us! Great Warrior is not making an explicit deal out of this character’s gender identity, but it’s a fact of Leo, and so it is presented as such. It’s important to me, I guess, and I obviously work with a lot of creators who it is also very important to.
If you are a guy, and straight, cisgender and white, you can watch anything in the world, and you see the scary man and the big man and bad man and the good man and the timid man and the funny man, and then there’s “The Girl,” or there’s “The Queer Kid.” Being gay or being a girl or being black, that’s not a personality trait. It’s just not.
Paste: Most publishers really section off their all-ages books. BOOM! does have separate imprints, but the division feels pretty permeable. The BOOM! Box 2014 Mix Tape anthology had a really sweet Lumberjanes raptor story next to a satanic murderous portable toilet story, and the Lumberjanes horror issue was genuinely, exceedingly scary. It’s like, Wait a minute, I thought this book was for kids, what’s going on?
Watters: Oh, but it is! Kids love to be scared. Kids love it. Goosebumps ain’t the phenomenon that it is for nothing. Paranorman did this very well, from LAIKA Films, the stop-motion animation company that does beautiful, artistic, gorgeous films. Paranorman was a very scary little movie, but such a good kid’s movie. The entire message was essentially that the scariest thing is intolerance, that being misunderstood and being persecuted for being different is what causes people to lash out, and Jesus, what a positive message. It’s a kid’s film, but that kind of stuff is scary. There are scary things out in the world, much scarier than a ghost. And it’s okay to be scared when it’s safe, when you’re watching a movie. It’s okay to be scared when you’re reading a book. Nothing’s going to hurt you when you’re reading about ghosts and looking at scary illustrations, and there are a lot of things out there that are truly, truly scary. I think it’s good for kids to be a little scared, in the safe space of children’s literature.
Paste: What really goes into curating a line that’s all-ages in the way your line is all-ages?
Watters: You know, I’m very much a tenant of comics for everyone, which is kind of my guiding principle for the books that I publish. I think the number one thing when you’re making entertainment for kids is that you have to put your cynicism in a bucket and throw it out, because otherwise you’re going to make something that doesn’t have any real core or heart to it. Look at how awesome the new My Little Pony is. [The original show] was something that was obviously engineered for girls. Like, “Girls like horses and girls like pink horses so that is what we’re going to give them.” And [creative director and executive producer] Lauren Faust took that and, in a very non-cynical way, looked at what is interesting about friendship and what is interesting about groups of friends and what is interesting about having a group of women who are all genuinely themselves, and that’s kind of where that came from. It became more than what it was meant to do.
I think curating a line or curating kids comics in any fashion requires that type of mindset. You’re not sitting there and thinking, “Eh, kids love ladybugs, we’re gonna churn out a ladybug series next year.” You can’t sit there and do that. You have to look at people who have very honest approaches to storytelling and honest approaches to character and give them the room to make the comic that is the best that they can do.
Paste: In the time that you’ve been working at BOOM!, you’ve put a lot of web cartoonists in print in a major way for the first time, like the team (Becky Dreistadt and Frank Gibson) behind the really adorable Capture Creatures. What goes into pairing them with licensed books or deciding to publish an original book like Help Us! Great Warrior! or Giant Days?
Watters: Web cartoonists, which are just cartoonists that are really good at deploying that tool, are incredibly fabulous because to be a successful web cartoonist, you have to be incredibly self-disciplined with your storytelling and with your schedule. I had worked with John Allison on some stuff, and he had done covers for the Marceline and the Scream Queens series and I just love Bad Machinery, and I loved Scary Go Round, and I’d been reading John’s stuff for years. John’s sense of humor is incredible. He brought a pitch for a full series for Giant Days to me and I couldn’t sign it up fast enough.
For something like Maddy for Help Us! Great Warrior, I had been a fan of Maddy’s, and Teen Dog was like this too. The little mini-comics that they had done with these characters, they felt like really great, authentic characters, and I wanted to see more and I’m lucky because I’m in the position where I can help make that happen. We have an incredible group of people at BOOM! who are really, really great at allowing and helping and guiding incredibly creative people to do their best work, and taking chances on so many interesting little projects across all of our lines. I’m lucky that I can go into our editor-in-chief’s office and say, “I’ve got this thing and it’s about a little warrior who is like Cher from Clueless meets Conan the Barbarian,” and Matt [Gagnon] says ,“Yes, show me the pitch, and I’ll show it to everybody else.” BOOM! Is an incredible place to work as an editor, because we all have that freedom all the time to bring pitches to the table and bring interesting people to the table, and we’re told repeatedly that finding new voices and interesting talent is the most important part of our job. Not everybody has that opportunity and I feel very fortunate.
Paste: Jake Lawrence’s Teen Dog is wrapping up soon. What has the reception been like for that book? It’s such a calming, almost zen book, and a really perfect one to share with new readers. If you’ve ever read a newspaper comic or a short cartoon online, then you’re ready to go with Teen Dog — there’s no learning curve.
Watters: I totally appreciate that because I think legitimately, if I were not editing Teen Dog, it would be my favorite comic on the stands right now. I hardly have to do anything with Jake. He turns in his scripts, and I’m like, “Well, that’s really funny and calm and lovely and beautiful and zen and amazing and please just go,” and he turns in his art and it’s gorgeous and perfect, and I think, Welp, I put in a hard day of editing today. It’s so funny because I think the Poochie comparison that people made at the very beginning really colored perceptions of the book. Teen Dog is so genuine and kind and joyful, and the opposite of any sort of condescending, cynical book. It’s the most un-cynical comic I think I’ve ever read. I love Teen Dog as a character, too. I was Teen Dog for Halloween two years ago, when it was just a short comic. It is the most intensely kind and un-cynical book, and just so funny.
I don’t know that people know that Teen Dog is this beautiful little diamond, but I think more and more people are finding out because our numbers have stayed incredibly steady on Teen Dog. There is a group of people out there who pick up Teen Dog every month. That doesn’t really happen with comics. You put your #1 out and nine times out of ten, your first issue sells gangbusters and you do a gradual bunny hill downward slope after that. It’s just a sweet, nice little book, and I think it’s going find life as a cult series because it is a really good series to give people who don’t necessarily read comics or have not really read comics in the past, because it’s accessible and lovely and calming and I just love Teen Dog so much.
A newspaper strip is a really good comparison. When I go home to Arizona, I have all of my Foxtrot books that I keep at my parents house, in my old bedroom, and that’s all I read when I’m home, I just reread Foxtrot before bed and when I’m getting ready in the morning, and reading Teen Dog kind of feels like reading a Foxtrot collection or Calvin and Hobbes collection where everything fits together in a way. You don’t have to deal with mountains of continuity. You are kind of getting a very gentle fresh start every time with these characters. And if you’ve been reading for a long time, you’re rewarded because you know these characters.
Paste: Speaking of newspaper cartoons, licensing is a big part of KaBOOM!. You have Garfield, Peanuts, just about every popular show on Cartoon Network, and now Munchkin. What’s it like working on those books compared to the BOOM! Box stuff? It seems like you experiment a lot in both imprints.
Watters: You know, it isn’t that much different. I guess it’s different insofar as there are a lot fewer approvals when you’re doing unlicensed books. [Laughs] We’re really lucky. Cartoon Network is an extraordinary licensor and has given us an unprecedented amount of freedom when it comes to books like Adventure Time, Steven Universe and Regular Show. A lot of people who work on these shows are cartoonists, who make comics and are big fans of comics. Rebecca Sugar [creator of Steven Universe], when she was a teenager, sold her comics at the Small Press Expo. A lot of people who work on Adventure Time are people from the indie comics community that Penn [Ward, creator of Adventure Time] has tapped to work on the show and do an incredible job. We really are able to put a little bit of a spin on everything that we do with these licenses, even something as stalwart as Peanuts or Garfield.
With Garfield, we just did another His 9 Lives special, which is currently coming out. I don’t know if you know about Garfield: His 9 Lives. It was this book that came out years ago with all of these crazy cartoonists doing these crazy interpretations of Garfield’s nine lives, and it was creepy and weird and goofy, but also deeply unsettling because it was Garfield. Anyway, it was totally fantastic, so we’re doing another His 9 Lives arc, and that’s pretty fun.
And Munchkin, golly, you can do anything you want with Munchkin. It’s like the most Looney Toons-like blank slate. As long as you’re making a bad pun, you really can go wild with Munchkin. [Laughs] When I look at all of my licensed books, none of them are a chore. It’s a joy and an honor to be a part of these. We went up to Santa Rosa a few years ago and got shown around Sparky’s [Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts] studio where he worked and we got to see his actual office and his chair, and there were scratch marks on the wall behind his chair. How incredible to be a part of Peanuts, to be a small part of that legacy and to be a small part of the legacy of something like Adventure Time. That’s a huge honor for anybody creative, and I’m lucky because I get to do both. I get to be a part of these really amazing licenses and try to do them the best way I know how, and I also get to work with these amazing creative people on their own original stuff.
Paste: Earlier you mentioned My Little Pony from IDW, and that and Adventure Time with Ryan North, Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb were really two of the books that changed the perception of what licensed books could be, especially comics aimed at younger audiences. North, Paroline and Lamb are ending their Eisner-winning run and Chris Hastings and Zachary Sterling are taking over. What has you excited about the new team?
Watters: Shelli and Braden and Ryan and I are kind of like family. You work with a group like that for three years almost every day and it is hard to see them go, but I’m so excited. If you read Doctor McNinja, Chris is hilarious. Chris is another person who has just been in webcomics forever, entertaining people and kicking butt. His scripts have been great and we’re just so jazzed. I’ve had Chris literally in the back of my brain for something for years, and I was like, The right thing’s gonna come along, don’t waste Chris on this, it’s not the right thing. The right thing will come along! And the right thing came along.
Zachary Sterling, he was somebody who submitted a sample for an anthology that I was going to submit to a few years ago, and the anthology never really came to anything, but Zach impressed me instantly, and I just started giving him whatever work I could find for him. Whatever I could dig up, I would give to Zack. There are certain people that you find and they’re young and they’re so talented, and they’re hard workers and they’re hungry, and you’re almost repulsed because how can anybody be so fabulous? Zach was one of those people and I was enchanted immediately and I just desperately wanted Zach to be a big deal. Whatever I could do to help make that happen is what I wanted to do. He did the Adventure Time OGNs for us for a while and he did a lot of covers for me and ended up doing backgrounds for the Bee and Puppycat series. He has just been a joy to work with and see grow, so I can’t wait to see how he grows on the monthly Adventure Time series.
Paste: You’re stepping in to co-write Lumberjanes with Noelle Stevenson for a while. Are we going to see more of Shannon the writer in 2015?
Watters: Yeah, a little bit! You know, we’re just trying to work out everybody’s schedule so everybody kind of works when they have the most time to work. But yeah! I am going to be helping out a lot more on Lumberjanes as Noelle’s schedule gets a little crazy and Brooke [Allen, primary artist] is going to help out with writing as well and the four of us are going to juggle. Lumberjanes #9 was me just getting to play in the sandbox for the first time, which is pretty exciting, but again, sort of unsettling because I’m very used to being the editor and I’m less good at promoting myself. I’m much better at promoting everyone else’s good work, and everyone else being a talented son of a gun than I am at saying, “Hey everybody, look at me!” So thank god Lumberjanes is an ensemble book. It’s much easier to promote it that way. “Look at all these people, they’re working on this! And also I had a hand. But mostly look at these amazing people!”
Paste: You’ve mentioned before that Lumberjanes was one of a bunch of ideas you and Grace Ellis cooked up under pressure one night. Are you pulling anything else out of that notebook?
Watters: Gosh, I don’t know that there’s much worth pulling from that particular notebook. Grace is a font of ideas. She’s got a million great pitches, she writes plays and stuff, she’s incredible. That notebook was like three pages of one-liners, and they were mostly awful. It was like, “Gay Dinosaur Dad,” and “Lightning Bolts on a Skirt!” Just terrible. They were just words. Words like “Sad Puppy.” Just terrible.
Paste: What have conventions been like for you over the past year, especially since Lumberjanes has been out? What kinds of fans are you meeting?
Watters: Oh my god, I love our fans. Going to a convention is my favorite, because monthly publishing is not exactly an exciting picnic. Monthly publishing is intense. There is a lot of waking up at 4:00 a.m. thinking, Oh my god, I didn’t reply to that person about that voucher. They probably hate me forever now and are never going to want to work with me again. Going to conventions and seeing Lumberjanes fans, there are nine-year-old girls who have made their own Lumberjanes uniform, and cosplayers and four-year-old boys whose moms read them Lumberjanes and whose grandma bought it for them. It is just the best. We joke that comics are for everybody, that’s the slogan on that kick-butt t-shirt, and comics really are for everyone, and everybody can love Lumberjanes. We’ve got guys and gals and kids and grandmas.
My grandma reads Lumberjanes the day it comes out every single month and then she calls me and tells me how weird it is. She’s like, “You’ve got some weird stuff going on in that book!” But you know, Roger Langridge, of Snarked! fame, he’s got a new series out from us called Abigail and the Snowman. My grandma is Roger Langridge’s biggest fan. She’s got Roger Langridge original art hanging in her house. So really, going to conventions is the best part…it’s the best, best, best part. I have the best time talking to Lumberjanes fans. A lot of them are new to comics, or new to monthly comics, or they read a lot of manga and this is the first time that they’ve actually picked up floppies and I’m just like, I love you all. I love you all.
Paste: One final question, based on a frequent topic from your Twitter feed: do you think Taylor Swift would make a good Lumberjane?
Watters: Oh, Taylor Swift would make a great Lumberjane. I can’t believe you’re asking me this question, I’m so excited. Thank goodness. I think people don’t give Taylor Swift enough credit because she’s blonde and tall and beautiful. She’s really freaking smart. She writes a lot of her own music, and she’s obviously one of the most powerful women in the music business, and I think people write her off. Oh god, can you imagine the stuff that you wrote at sixteen getting played on the radio every time you have a new album coming out? That’s what “Love Story” is, man. And that’s the stuff that makes people write Taylor Swift off. Taylor Swift is smart and I think she’s a scrapper. She would make a really good Lumberjane scout.
Actually, Grace and I wrote Taylor Swift fan-fiction a little bit, over text. Taylor Swift would be super social and everyone would think she’s trying to play them, but I think she genuinely wants to hear about everyone’s business, and she would be number one in capture the flag, and she would earn every badge, and everybody would be like, She makes it look so effortless. But in actuality, Taylor Swift works very hard at camp. She’s a very hardworking Lumberjane in my personal opinion. Taylor, if you read this, I hope you check out Lumberjanes. We’re all big fans.