Fantasy Fiction and the Supernatural as Narrative Strategy
Contemporary Young Adult (YA) literature is dominated by fantasy fiction, a popular genre where the realistic and the supernatural mesh and jostle through imaginary landscapes subject to magic and typically inhabited by extraordinary humans, or human-like figures, and fanciful, paranormal creatures. How the supernatural in literature is perceived depends on its historical moment. Arngrímur Vídalín argues that in contrast to the epistemological and religious discourses governing the representation of the supernatural in Medieval literature, in modern literature, Enlightenment reasoning prevails, to the effect that the supernatural is understood “as something which does not belong in the natural world and thus cannot exist in reality” (8). However, in contrast to this modern rationale that nature and the supernatural are immiscible, in contemporary YA fantasy literature, the [page 51] supernatural is often deeply and playfully immersed in the natural world, rendering the deep woods a repository of magic, mystery, and paranormal events.
As a genre, fantasy fiction “has roots in folk tales and fairy tales” (Murfin and Ray 165). In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute refers to them as fantasy’s “taproot texts” (921). Fantasy fiction’s spectrum spans from the realistic to the paranormal, and as such, “fantasy is a chameleon, taking in elements of history, romance, crime, and adventure fiction, often in the pages of the same book” (Burcher et al. 227). Although the genre’s roots in folklore may seem hard to detect in fantasy fiction set in an everyday twenty-first-century world, fantasy fiction contributes significantly to contemporary folklore by regurgitating and retelling elements of folklore and fairy tales, playing with conventional plot structures, and recasting and remixing archetypical characters. Like folk and fairy tales, fantasy fiction incorporates supernatural creatures and paranormal events, and sometimes even feats of superhuman abilities:1 “The repetition and inevitability of these elements, often with heroic and supernatural resonance, adds the unusual, the magical, and a sense of the otherworldly to an existence that is often mundane” (Banks and Wein). Such normalization of narrative elements that otherwise could be dismissed as strange and unrealistic has an important effect on the way that the supernatural functions as narrative strategy in YA fantasy fiction.
YA fantasy fiction includes comics and graphic novels, “a hybrid art form that evolved from literature and a number of other art forms and media” (Meskin 219). In addition to making meaningful connections between words and images, the comics medium also privileges “crossover” readings between the way that the text is written, its mise-en-page and panel layout, color and font choices, and artistic style (Jakaitis and Wurtz 19). Examination of how the comics medium is utilized to visually articulate the supernatural brings into perspective how traditional folklore and repurposed elements of folklore, the folkloresque, operate within fantasy fiction.
This paper will compare and contrast the way that folklore and the supernatural function as narrative strategies in two YA graphic [page 52] novel series, Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors. A key concern is the depiction of the supernatural as located in nature. In my discussion and analysis of each series, I will focus on the inclusion of folklore elements and the way in which the supernatural is positioned in relation to the human world. My comparison of specific examples of folklore from each series will take into consideration how these two fantasy series, which are quite different in style and mood, utilize the comics medium to show what the supernatural looks like and where it is located. The purpose in comparing two dissimilar YA series (one brooding and dark, the other cute and fun) is to discern, via their differences, the visual scope and narrative range of folkloric tropes and motifs within twenty-first-century YA fantasy fiction in graphic novels, this being a historical moment when feminist ideologies and postmodernism’s “incredulity toward grand totalizing narratives” permeate YA literature and cultural production in general (Hutcheon 17). As folklorists Frank de Caro and Rosan Augusta Jordan argue, literature and folklore are both “communicative media” with “quite different characteristics” "[y]et different media do overlap and interconnect” (3). Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors both dynamically reshuffle and resituate folkloric elements that contribute to “expressive culture” (Toelken 9) in general, and to the genre of YA fantasy fiction in particular.2
The two series also differ significantly in what kind of folklore traditions they incorporate. The Good Neighbors, although set somewhere in the United States, draws exclusively on European (mainly Irish and Scottish) folklore of changelings, fairies, wood sprites, and fauns. In comparison, Lumberjanes, which is also set somewhere in a generic United States, features supernatural creatures from all over the world, plus dinosaurs and Greek gods. In both series, nature, the woods in particular, plays an important role in framing the supernatural. It is in the two series’ strangely otherworldly wilderness that the protagonists grapple with weird creatures and hidden meanings, and where the supernatural becomes the discursive prism that reflects, refracts, and ultimately situates each series within broader cultural contexts. [page 53]
The Comics Medium, Lumberjanes, and The Good Neighbors
The comics medium is no stranger to fantasy fiction and tales of the supernatural. Historically, comics and movies have created enduring images, one might even say visual archetypes, of specific supernatural beings like Superman, Thor, and the Sandman. But while comics, graphic novels, and sequential art3 in general have often been considered less literary than regular print literature and been assigned a “peripheral role” in literary scholarship (O’Rourke 241), they have many diverse possibilities for narrative strategies in the arrangement of images, words, and sequence (McCloud 2-23). The narrative details conveyed by the pictures tell as much of the story as the printed text does. Indeed, as Jake Jakaitis and James F. Wurtz argue, “graphic narrative is uniquely positioned, as a visual literature, to deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, and ethnic prejudice” (19) because the visual representation of human figures produces textual clues that are not necessarily expressed in the speech bubbles (Kukkonen 15-16). Moreover, in terms of readership, the comics medium, mainly superhero comics, has traditionally targeted juvenile male consumers, but since the 1990s, “the marketing of graphic novels to girls has increased rapidly” (Clemens 84).4 This coincides with the rise of girl-power as a global phenomenon and the shifts from second-wave feminism to third-wave and postfeminism, and in particular with the publication of graphic narratives that challenge “the assumption that the United States is itself a unified and undifferentiated cultural space” (Tasker and Negra 14). The ideological shifts reverberating through these historical developments surface in popular culture and literature. Lumberjanes is a good example of the recent shifts towards girl-centric narratives with female friendship rather than heterosexual romance as the plot’s guiding principle (Fraser 126-156).
Lumberjanes is a lighthearted, whimsical comics series about five girls at summer camp who go on adventures in the wilderness, solve mysteries, fight supernatural beings, and earn badges. The series was created by Brooke Allen, Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, and Shannon Watters. The first volume5 was published in 2015, but the series is ongoing and continues to be a collaborative effort by all-female teams (in the plural, since some of the creators change [page 54] from volume to volume) of four or five writers, letterers, colorists, and illustrators.6 Just like the writers’ stylistic voices differ, so is each illustrator, colorist, and letterer’s personal style discernible and infused with a variety of female voices in a gender-fluid and gender-conscious series of episodes.
Lumberjanes’ artistic style is cartoonish, with exaggerated facial features, dots for eyes, and bodies that can stretch and bend in unexpected ways. The panels are large, with minimal background texture, shading, and ornamental detail, and are either full-page panels or consist of between three to seven panels of different sizes and uneven frames per page. The glossy colors are highly saturated, fresh, and luscious, which adds a subtext of cuteness, optimism, and youthful liveliness to the narratives. The effect of this mise-en-page is a light mood. The characters’ comical expressions and expressive body language can be read alongside the speech and thought bubbles, where the various letter sizes and fonts have “onomatopoetic qualities, which means that their size and boldness correspond to the volume at which they are spoken and the emphasis which is laid onto them” (Kukkonen 9). Lumberjanes’s colorful, cartoonish style thus makes its supernatural events, even when they are violent, weird and funny rather than scary.
Lumberjanes takes place at “Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for
girls hardcore lady-types” (Lumberjanes Vol. I n.p.). The practice of crossing out parts of the printed text adds to profiling the Lumberjanes scouts as rebellious and critical of authority. For example, in each volume, the Lumberjanes’ scout pledge includes a promise to “question the world around [them]” and is printed before the title page, with a cross-out line annotated in pseudo-handwriting: “then there’s a line about god, or whatever.”7 They actively rewrite the grand narratives that they have been handed down, from their scouts’ pledge to their own gender description. The episodes involve the outdoor adventures of the five adolescent girls—April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley—who live in the Roanoke8 cabin along with Jen, their hard-tried cabin leader, who tries to maintain authority in the midst of their follies and (mis)adventures. The camp director is Rosie, a bespectacled redhead with multiple nautical tattoos and a penchant for sharpening fence posts at her office desk. Her office walls are decorated with composite taxidermy animals like jackalopes and [page 55] foxes with horns alongside framed portraits of suffragettes and women pioneers in male-dominated fields of science, technology, and politics. Rosie’s office is thus a visual archive of the series’ motifs of the supernatural and female agency.
Wielding a felling axe,9 Rosie, whose name evokes the popular culture icon Rosie the Riveter and historical women like Rosa Parks and Rosa Luxemburg, is the embodiment of the hardcore lady-type the camp strives to foster. However, this gender fixation on can-do females is playfully tongue-in-cheek. Identities and boundaries are fluid and fully accepted as such within the world of the story. Characters are diverse in body size, skin color, and ability. Hyperactive Ripley has an attention disorder, Jo is transgender and has two men as parents, Mal and Molly become a romantic couple, the Scouting Lad Barney manages to transcend the girls-only rule and becomes a Lumberjane, and the current and former female camp directors seem confidently hardcore about their homosocial and possibly homosexual bonds. The Lumberjanes series shows multiple ethnicities, abilities, and LGBTQ+ identities as normal aspects of human society. In contrast, the monstrous creatures that inhabit the woods surrounding the camp embody a stranger magic. The paranormal is weird, not the human characters’ diversity. The presence of creatures from legend and folklore in the woods thus frames camp (that is, human culture) as safe, normal, and sensible because nature is just the opposite: bizarre, unfathomable, and unpredictable.
The Lumberjanes’ camp is set in a utopian geography of pristine mountains, rivers, and forests that also includes underground caverns with Greek gods, an outhouse portal to a parallel forested world where dinosaurs live among Greek temple ruins, a lake inhabited by punk-rock merfolk, and a giant bird big enough to grab a minivan in its claws. There are also monstrous river snakes, selkies,10 and werewolves, and close to camp, a tame raccoon and dozens of magical kittens. In the woods, there are three-eyed foxes and squirrels, cookie-eating yetis, and wolves with antlers. A Grootslang11 guards a mountain cave full of treasure. The only other humans whom the Lumberjanes encounter are the Scouting Lads at a neighboring camp and older women with historical ties to the camp. One of them is Bear Woman, a former [page 56] camp leader, who can shapeshift into bear form.
Bear Woman is the only human character who lives in the wilderness, and the only one who is portrayed as significantly different from the other human characters. She is drawn as a robust, short, brown-skinned old woman with a wrinkled face and graying black hair. She is grouchy, intelligent, and in possession of magical powers. Bad-tempered and cantankerous, she nevertheless comes to the Lumberjanes’ aid time and again. Although there are no overt references to American Indians in the Lumberjanes’ cast or utopian geography, Bear Woman’s magical powers and shapeshifting gesture towards shamanism, totemism, and American Indian animal legends. As with all of the supernatural creatures and folklore elements at work in Lumberjanes, including Bear Woman, they are symbolic of cultural meaning and cross the line into popular culture and appear “at once irrelevant to modern life and at the same time spiritually potent” (Foster, “Introduction” 17). Thus, while American Indian legend is not a thematic element in Lumberjanes, the series incorporates legends and folktales from various cultures to narrativize the modern experience of, and anxiety about, humans’ relationship to both nature and the supernatural, in particular to the American experience of place. I will discuss examples of this in the next section.
In contrast to the utopian fun in Lumberjanes, The Good Neighbors (2008-2010) is a dark narrative. This three-volume graphic novel series is written by Holly Black and illustrated by Ted Naifeh. The brooding, contrastive black and white illustrations set the series’ neo-gothic mood, with close-up portraits of morose faces lined with anger, fear or frustration, and the strangely twisted, sentient wilderness surrounding West City, a fictitious American city. Naifeh portrays characters and urban surroundings realistically, but under a somber presence of something dark lurking in the shadows and the nearby woods. The multiethnic cast of human characters are drawn realistically, with detailed faces and bodies outlined by contours, tones, and shades. The characters’ attire, hair, and grooming are particularly noteworthy, as they provide specific clues about personal values and style, age, and group affiliation and thus give the reader visual information about the characters’ social alliances and identity.
The text has uniform lettering, with no bold type or change of [page 57] font, even when characters appear to be yelling. Much of the narration is the main character Rue’s inner monologue, printed in square text boxes. Like in Lumberjanes, the dialogue between characters is sparse, and readers glean important story content from reading the pictures, in particular the characters’ facial expressions and body language, but also the ominous presence of creeping foliage and obscure faces glaring from the folds of tree bark. Naifeh uses a sophisticated variation of panels, and sometimes absence of panels, to position characters on the page so that their body language and facial expressions convey story content. For example, when Rue’s mother confronts her husband about his marital infidelity, her figure breaks out of the panel’s frame, so that her long hair and gesticulating arms seem to fly into the next panels, where her husband is shown as a remorseful, diminished, weak figure (Black and Naifeh, Kin 13). Dramatic cross-hatching behind the mother’s figure accentuates her frustration and the volume of her voice. This technique highlights, without words, the power “imbalance between the characters” (Kukkonen 9) and heightens the drama, both narratively and visually, by interrupting the regular panel layout with a yell.
The Good Neighbors’ main character, Rue, is a sad, somewhat neglected high-school student in an affluent suburb of West City. One day, her mother, Nia, disappears from home without an explanation, and soon afterwards her father, Thaddeus, a professor of folklore, is accused of having murdered one of his students. With both parents absent, Rue is taken under the wing of Amanda, Thaddeus’ colleague and, Rue learns, his lover. Confused about her mother’s absence and her father’s infidelity and arraignment for murder, Rue becomes aware that she has second sight. She has the ability to see what others cannot see: fairies, little people, and faun-like hybrid creatures with animal heads fused onto human bodies. Naifeh’s drawings richly show how Rue, not her companions, sees them everywhere in her school and in town, and thus how she becomes aware that these creatures have invaded the human world. Naifeh’s illustrations lavishly profile the creatures’ otherworldly looks, with their grotesque features spouting sharp teeth, pointy horns, and sinister eyes. Most disturbingly, Rue sees human bodies encased in tree trunks, silently screaming for help. [page 58]
Fearing the worst, Rue starts searching for her missing mother with the help of her boyfriend, Dale, and another teen couple. She stumbles into a parallel otherworld where she comes across the sinister king of the fairies, Aubrey, and learns that Nia is a fairy and Aubrey’s daughter. He harbors evil plans of taking over West City and making it “the new Avalon” by killing all humans and covering all signs of human activity like buildings and roads in foliage (Black and Naifeh, Kith 93). He wants Rue, his granddaughter, to assist him in this endeavor. Rue refuses. Upon returning to the human world, Rue is surprised to find her mother back. But something seems strange about Nia. She is sickly and weak. Soon she dies. Rue suspects that something is amiss, so with the help of her friends, she digs up the grave only to find that the corpse is made of wicker. The returned Nia was a fey changeling put in the home to trick Rue; the real Nia is well and alive in the otherworld. Rue confronts her grandfather Aubrey. He tricks her into stabbing him so that he dies, fulfilling an ancient prophesy whereby he can release massive amounts of magical powers, as his body transforms into wood. The energy from these powers mobilizes evil fairy armies that under Nia’s leadership attack humans. Amanda, meanwhile, recruits and arms her students to fight the otherworldly invaders.
While the hostilities between these warring factions escalate, the effects of the unhappy love triangle that has entrapped Thaddeus between two women at war, Amanda and Nia, trickle down to the younger generation. Rue gets caught up in a relationship with Tam, a young human entrapped in the fairy world, while Dale is seduced by voluptuous water nymphs who drink his blood. Thaddeus is cleared of killing his student and returns home a broken man, while the female warlords, Amanda and Nia, his lover and his wife respectively, face off. Rue quizzes her father about the origin of Aubrey’s magical powers and the supernatural spread of foliage over the city. She understands what she must do to put an end to the hostilities. The series ends with Rue using her grandfather’s magic powers to separate the human world from the fairy-occupied section of West City, where she will live forever more with her mother and otherworldly creatures alongside Tam.
In contrast to the chirpy, lively joie-de-vivre percolating through [page 59] the colorful pages of Lumberjanes, The Good Neighbors’ neo-gothic mood speaks to a noir inner language of teen angst12 about death, sex, and growing up. The weight of genealogy and the great fear of crossing boundaries between ontological realms from the real world to the fairy otherworld dominate the narrative, both visually and textually. While the images show passionate kissing and groping but no overt sex, it is strongly suggested in shadowy panels that Rue and her high-school friends engage in heterosexual activity and use drugs and alcohol, and that Rue’s growing knowledge about the supernatural world frightens her. She muses, “once you know things, you can’t unknow them. No matter how much you wish you could” (Black and Naifeh, Kith 1). There is no such loss of innocence or fear of self-knowledge in Lumberjanes, even though Mal and Molly are shown holding hands and kissing on the cheek, and Jo comes out as transgender. The artwork underscores these messages. The Lumberjanes have cartoonish bodies void of overt sexual connotations, while the characters in The Good Neighbors are hyper-sexualized, the females in particular. Rue wears makeup and sexually suggestive clothing like fishnet stockings, tight bodices with cleavage, and midriff-baring tops. Her somber-faced high-school friends are similarly dressed, the girls revealing bulging breasts and the boys, often shirtless, showing off lean, muscular torsos. Rue’s expression is always sullen and worried, except for one panel where she smiles after having danced her shoes to pieces at a fairy ball, and even this smile is eerie because she enjoys the pain: “I dance until my slippers wear through. Until there are smears of blood with each step. It’s glorious” (Balck and Naifeh, Kith 62-63).13 For Rue, the supernatural events and the power struggles between her fairy mother, Nia, and her human substitute mother, Amanda, force her to acknowledge her own sexual desires and to make a choice between Tam and Dale, fairies and humans, the unknown and the known.
Knowledge about the supernatural in these two graphic narratives is treated very differently. The source of Rue’s Weltschmerz is that she suddenly knows too much about her mother as Other (Nia’s foreignness as fairy among humans), the history of her parents’ courtship, how her father won her mother in a guessing game, and how her grandfather Aubrey put a curse on [page 60] Thaddeus so that Nia would return to the world of fairies if he were untrue to her. In the world of The Good Neighbors, there are strict essentialist categories, and Rue understands that even though she has a mixed origin and could belong in both worlds, she must make an ultimate decision of where she belongs, either in her mother’s fairy world or her father’s human world. The choice-centered plot thus entangles Rue in a fight between two sides of herself, fairy and human, which is externalized as the fight between Amanda’s and Nia’s armies. Rue realizes, “you can’t always have everything. Sometimes you have to choose. And sometimes, either way, you wind up betraying yourself” (Black and Naifeh, Kind 89). Understanding and controlling the supernatural becomes Rue’s way of understanding and controlling herself because by choosing in the end to join her mother, now the queen of the otherworld, she enters an alternate social structure in which she, now a princess, will one day be queen herself. In comparison, Lumberjanes’ April, Jo, Mal, Molly, and Ripley don’t seek any particular meaning about, or control of, the supernatural. Like everything else around them, weird things just happen and make the wilderness that surrounds their camp carnivalesque. Although there are times when they worry about returning safely to camp after being chased by wild creatures, Bear Woman and occasionally Rosie are there to save the day. What the two graphic narratives do have in common, though, are three interconnected themes: the supernatural as associated with nature, the encounter between protagonists and the supernatural as a test of the former’s valor, and the regurgitation of supernatural figures and narratives from folklore and oral traditions.
Folklore, the Folkloresque, and the Weird Wild Woods in Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors
As Dan Ben-Amos points out, the Western perception of folklore is rooted in the idea of rurality and the existence of an untilled, untouched wilderness where wild animals, monsters, and danger lurk. As such, Ben-Amos argues, folklore can be seen “as an outgrowth of the human experience with nature” (Ben-Amos 11). In general, the perception of nature in Euro-American culture has a deep history of seeing nature as both uncanny and sublime, on the [page 61] one hand as a great mystery that is serene in beauty, closer to the divine, and awesome to explore, and on the other hand as indifferent to human civilization, harboring uncontrollable forces, and obeying only laws of its own. The Romantic poets and the Brothers Grimm were instrumental in articulating this perception of nature as a place of contesting forces (Warner 8-11; 21-24).
The cultural practice of ascribing human emotion to land- and seascapes is a strong feature in fantasy fiction—the awe-inspiring landscapes of the film versions of Lord of the Rings come to mind as examples of how landscapes reflect story motifs and the fight between good and evil—to the effect that landscapes in the natural world are symbolic of meaning relating to the human world. In Simon Schama’s words, “landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination that are projected into wood and water and rock … once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a particular way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery” (61). In American folklore, tall tales, ghost stories, and urban legends tend to channel cultural fears and desires into certain geographies, such as “empty” land beyond the frontier and into the deep forests. Nature is a cultural space, subject to human discourse, or, as Michel de Certeau phrases it, “the system that saturates places with signification and indeed so reduces them to this signification” (106). This discourse, or system, is discernible in folklore and traditions of the supernatural. As we have seen, both Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors engage with a perception of nature as not only the antithesis of culture and human society in general, but also as the location of the supernatural. In this way, nature as “a place of relative exteriority” in the cultural imaginary has an archival function by storing supernatural powers and creatures (Derrida 45). Nature’s exteriority is a function of human culture’s anthropocentrism and latent ambiguity about what divides the human from the natural world, the natural from the supernatural, and order from chaos.
In both graphic narratives, nature is depicted as a repository of creatures and growths that threaten or challenge the order of human civilization. The protagonists’ adventures into the wild [page 62] woods are not only tests of their individual valor, but also representative of humanity’s endeavor to reign as superior to the natural world. The prominence of the supernatural as situated in nature in these two narratives conveys cultural values and ideological knowledge about humans’ relationship to nature, an important consideration in today’s age of the Anthropocene, when human activities have been documented as impacting, even changing, biological and climate-related processes in the natural world, and when deforestation is one of the largest contributors to climate change. The fear that nature as our ancestors experienced it no longer exists is one of the greatest tenets of both critical-environmentalist movements and postmodernism, for as Fredric Jameson declares, “nature is gone for good. It is a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which ‘culture’ has become veritable ‘second nature’” (ix). So it is with the solastalgic representation of nature as pristine and magical in Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors, though, at the same time, their depiction of nature is infused with supernatural creatures stemming from cultural texts. Lumberjanes’ yetis and The Good Neighbors’ fairies originate in cultural traditions far from the great American woods, but via settler culture, popular media, and mass culture, they are familiar figures to American readers and malleable parts of the cultural imaginary. While it is true that there can “be no folk voice in mass culture” (Tiffin 205), it is also observable that “popular culture has transformed or migrated into folklore” (Peretti 114). The blurred boundaries between popular culture and traditional folklore and their fertile exchange of narrative elements infuse fantasy fiction with “a pastiche of elements, a set of juxtapositions” that, with the authors’ and illustrators’ artistic skills, are “cobbled together in an all but seamless fashion to become an integrated whole” (Foster, “The Folkloresque Circle” 53; emphasis in original). Such integration of various kinds of elements from folk traditions is called the folkloresque. Michael Dylan Foster explains that “a folkloresque text draws on folklore in an often (but not always) conscious manner, using an association with folklore to sell itself, both literally and figuratively, within a commercial venue” (“The Folkloresque Circle” 42). He proposes that the folkloresque describes this complex “contact zone between the traditional and the commercial and between the culturally specific and the [page 63] transnational metaculture of the global popular arena” (Foster, “Introduction” 16). Like traditional folklore, the folkloresque is therefore a dynamic ingredient in the production and consumption of cultural knowledge in literature. Yetis and fairies are discursive cultural referents. They are symbolic of Otherness, cultural difference, and nature-dwelling creatures whose resemblance to the human form both questions and challenges notions of humanity, the human body, and its boundaries.
Folkloric Contexts and Archives
Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors signal engagement with folklore and the folkloresque in their titles. The term lumberjane is, of course, coined from lumberjack, which designates both an actual occupation and a hyper-masculine folk character specifically associated with the deep woods, though the term also plays on the polarized Jack-and-Jane, or Jack-and-Jill, gender stereotypes familiar from many kinds of children’s literature. In addition to the historical reference to the North American lumberjacks of the late 1800s and early 1900s, there is also a real-world precedent for the hardcore lady-types at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp, namely the Women’s Timber Corps, nicknamed Lumberjills, in the United Kingdom during World War II: “With the men away fighting for their country, thousands of women … volunteered to do backbreaking work in the UK’s forests” (“Working”). Since energy supplies had been cut off because of the war, the Lumberjills underwent forestry training and felled trees to provide fuel for domestic heating and cooking. While oral histories recording the British Lumberjills’ experiences make no mention of these volunteers having a feminist agenda, some contemporary feminists see them as such. For example, Bust.com refers to them as “riveting Rosies,” “awesome outdoorsladies,” and “badass lady loggers,” which are terms that align with the spirited language used in Lumberjanes to celebrate female agency and outdoors(wo)manship (Walsh). Further visual suggestion of this connection is that the Lumberjanes’ berets and some of the adult characters’ attire resemble the British Lumberjills’ uniforms. However, regardless of how much the creators of Lumberjanes draw [page 64] on the British Lumberjills and the feminism ascribed to them, the series’ connection to American lumberjack lore frames the entire series in a world where the supernatural is embedded in the great outdoors and the folkloric archive of American tall tales.
The folklore surrounding lumberjacks harks back to the early days of the American frontier and has developed into many local varieties.14 American lumberjack lore is full of tall tales about giant strongmen like Paul Bunyan and Big Joe Mufferaw because physical strength, independence, confrontation with danger, primitive living conditions, and wilderness survival characterized this all-male occupation. The Lumberjane scouts embrace these traditional lumberjack qualities, while their male counterparts, the Scouting Lads, act more like Girl Scouts: they are well groomed, disciplined, and obedient and wear neat, freshly pressed uniforms; they knit, make scrapbooks, clean house, bake cookies, and make tea. Whereas neither the Lumberjanes nor their camp director Rosie can be accused of girlie behavior, the Scouting Lads’ effeminate manners are contrasted to their brawny camp director, who crashes their tea party and yells, “cookies are for the weak. Real men should be splitting wood and smoking pipes” before stomping away “to catch a fish by wrestling it away from a bear” (Vol. I, chapter 4, n. p.). The sharp twist on stereotypical male and female characteristics is further emphasized by the fact that the Lumberjanes are mainly depicted in outdoor settings, while the Scouting Lads mostly are indoors. When the Scouting Lads are outdoors, they are hexed to turn into roaring zombies, which suggests that they suffer a collective loss of individuality and free will when they are under the command of their authoritative camp director. The arrival of magical kittens cures their zombieism and restores the Lads’ docile, domestic temperament. Again, the comical reversal of conventional gender roles is accentuated by the unlikely joining of folkloresque figures from both popular culture and folklore—cute kittens and rabid zombies—and making the camp a place of safety and order in contrast to the weird events taking place in the wilderness.
Lumberjack lore is famous for its archive of so-called fearsome critters (creatures), which are fantastical animals almost exclusively associated with folktales from the American frontier, but which later have entered popular culture. To contemporary readers, the [page 65] fearsome critters that appear in lumberjack lore are probably more otherworldly bizarre than real-world fear-inducing. Folklorist Richard M. Dorson jokingly nominates them for “American zoomythological stardom” (12). To mention just a few examples, they include the melancholy squonk which can dissolve in its own tears; a hairless bear-like animal called a gumberoo; the hodag (a hybrid creature with multiple horns and claws protruding from its back and paws); a smelly hominid cryptid known as skunk man or the myakka ape; fish that nest in trees; the mammalian biped dwayyo, which is the enemy of the half-bird, half-reptile snallygaster; and the hidebehind, which was blamed for devouring solitary lumberjacks. William T. Cox’s illustrated Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods (1920) and Henry Harrington Tryon’s collection Fearsome Critters (1939) have inspired many subsequent collections of local lore and tall tales as well as a parade of town mascots and souvenir products. Cox speculates that such tales were intended to “regale newcomers and frighten people unfamiliar with the woods” (Cox n.p.). Fearsome-critter tales have a significant material component, which includes carved figures, taxidermy creations, and trick photography. These have historically served as pranks and hoaxes, but can also be seen as expressions of a cultural imaginary in which monsters are created when species mix, and in communities where there is social anxiety about interracial relations.
Lumberjanes visually reinforces the existence of such fantastical, hybrid beasts by showing Rosie’s and the former camp director Abigail’s extensive collections, or archives, of stuffed oddities from the natural world, like two-headed animals, extinct reptiles, and grotesque cryptids (Vol. 4, chapter 13). From this perspective, Lumberjanes can be seen as an example of how fantasy fiction converges with folklore and the folkloresque as archives and repositories about humans’ perception of, and relationship to, nature. These strange creatures also help to “recapture the frontier so sanctified in American mythic consciousness” and the excitement of pioneering (Dendle 199). While Lumberjanes thus evokes a nostalgia for the American frontier era’s idea of vast, untouched forests and hardy lumberjacks, in The Good Neighbors’ case, the use of fairy lore may be seen as a nostalgic desire for [page 66] another cultural archive, namely the Ireland of myth and legend.
In Irish and Scottish folklore, the expression “the good neighbors” is one of several euphemisms15 used to describe a parallel social world consisting of the people of the hills and fairy mounds, the aos sí or daoine sídhe (Scottish: daoine sìth). These communities of supernatural beings are generally called fairies16 in English and are known primarily for their magic, association with nature, and capricious behavior. They are sometimes referred to as deified ancestors or spirits of nature and believed to be able to shapeshift, speak with animals, and have power over crops and human health.
In contemporary popular culture, New Age spiritualism is discernible in the way that earlier beliefs in fairies and elves have inspired a subculture known as Otherkin.17 Otherkin is an umbrella term for “individuals that are something ‘other’ than entirely human” (Johnston 236), meaning people who view themselves as only part human and part animal or supernatural being. In The Good Neighbors, we have observed how Rue’s existential crisis centers on a search for identity and how her Otherkin status as half fairy, half human threatens to undermine her sense of self. In discussing the perception of Otherness among people identifying as Otherkin, Jay Johnston explains, “the ‘other’ is within them, implicit in their being: it is not only an ancestral relation but is also a lived aspect of their daily lives. At the deepest level of self-authenticity and identity, it directs how Otherkin understand themselves and the world around them” (245). The comics medium is well suited to show, rather than tell in words, the supernatural creatures that Rue can see due to her double sight, and how her insight into her own identity and decision-making develops. “Who do you become?” Rue asks, when she finds herself trapped in a liminal zone between humans and fairies (Black and Naifeh, Kind 3). In contrast to Bear Woman’s equanimous shapeshifting, Rue is clearly not at peace with her hybridity as half human, half supernatural being, and the choices she is struggling to make between two contrasting worlds reflect the folklore traditions on which Black’s narrative draws.
Irish and Scottish legends about the people of the hills revolve around the crossing and maintaining of ontological boundaries between the human world and the realm of spirits, magic, supernatural creatures, and deities. The power of the spoken word [page 67] is often a central motif in driving forward the plot, such as when promises are broken, names are taken, and curses declared. The Good Neighbors retells two well-known Irish stories about fairies that contain these motifs. One is the story of a child who plays by the warm cinders of the home hearth. Suddenly a fairy child appears from the chimney, and they start playing together. The fairy asks the child’s name, but the child, wary of getting abducted, merely says, “I’m me myself” (Black and Naifeh, Kind 57). They play for a while. Then the fairy child burns its foot on a hot cinder and starts howling. When its mother comes out from the chimney and asks, “who burned you?” it answers, “me myself caused me to be burned” (Black and Naifeh, Kind 58). Rue takes this story to mean that she has only herself to blame for the hostilities between fairies and humans. From a broader point of view, the linguistic wordplay on me-myself identifies the two children as one, that is, as Rue, who is both fairy and human, but who feels compelled to choose being either one or the other.
The second retelling of a folktale in The Good Neighbors is Tam’s story. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift: he could make predictions about the future, though not on purpose, but as if by magic: “Sometimes I would open my mouth and words would tumble out” (Black and Naifeh, Kith 54). Aubrey, the fairy king, hears talk about this and abducts Tam to take advantage of his gift. Tam’s wife thinks that he is dead and remarries. Meanwhile, Tam pronounces a magical formula: “I will be freed if my wife gives me a drink of undiluted milk. A single drop of water and I will belong to the fairies forever” (Black and Naifeh, Kith 56). He returns to his wife and asks her to save him from the fairies. She promises, but puts a drop of water into the milk before giving it to him. Tam is thus trapped forever in the fairy world. For Rue, broken promises and outright lies are part of her lived reality. Not only have her parents lied to her about her heritage, but her mother lied about being dead, and her father lied about his extramarital relationship to Amanda. Because Rue cannot trust the people closest to her, she learns to trust her own judgment and becomes self-reliant.
The folklore and tales retold in Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors form part of a larger trend in postmodern literature to question Otherness. Their supernatural creatures are Other in [page 68] relation to humans, and their difference symbolizes the differences that humans construct amongst themselves. This is perhaps most apparent in The Good Neighbors, where the fairies look human in form, but are constitutionally foreign. Amanda warns Rue, “fairies aren’t like humans. They have a different moral code” (Black and Naifeh, Kith 86), thus repeating an argument often used in race-based and xenophobic rhetoric to label “them” as different from “us” and also in gender-biased language to declare that men are not like women, or that men and women have different moral codes. Such essentialism is remarkably absent from Lumberjanes, which incorporates a host of supernatural characters to highlight the inclusiveness and safety of a diverse human society in the midst of a magical landscape.
In both graphic narratives, we see evidence that “folklore is of ideological importance and has often provided a reservoir of symbols for identity politics” (Ó Giolláin 1). The importance of folklore as a reservoir, or archive, of meaningful cultural referents is shown both visually and textually in Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors. These two series’ folkoresque incorporation of traditional folklore elements helps to situate the supernatural as a discursive strategy in fantasy fiction. As J’annine Jobling argues, “fantasy negotiates a boundary between the actual and the incredible, the real and the illusory. Fantasy, in fact, is inevitably a commentary on or a counterpart to reality. As intimated, fantasy is related to myth, legend, folk tales, religion and the occult—all of which can be seen as expressions of deep human drives” (5). Lumberjanes and The Good Neighbors participate in this dynamic intertextual exchange because of the hybrid, folkloresque fantasy elements they engage, like dinosaurs amid Greek ruins, and Irish fairies set in a strangely familiar but weird natural world inhabited by supernatural creatures and powers.
1. Folklorist Mikel Koven coins the term “motif-spotting” to describe the method of identifying folkloric motifs in popular fiction and film (181).
2. As Cristina Bacchilega assesses, “folklore and literature studies have increasingly moved away from universalizing frameworks and become more concerned with context-specific dynamics of genre [page 69] and performance that connect questions of poetics with those of representation, commercialization, technology, and the politics of culture” (452).
3. While I use the terms comics, graphic novels, graphic narratives, and sequential art interchangeably, there are specific traditions within Comics Studies for preferring one term over the other. See, for example, Duncan and Smith (1-20) and Møllegaard (124-126).
4. In the predominantly Japanese field of girl (shōjo) studies, scholars like Masuko Honda and Tomoko Aoyama examine the centrality of girls’ manga-reading communities, girls’ consumer habits, and girls’ subjectivity as influenced by fairy-tale figures (see Fraser).
5. Each Lumberjanes volume contains four chapters that were first published as separate magazines and have a continuous story. There is no strict chronology in the volumes’ events. For example, Volume 5 starts with the girls first arriving at camp, getting dropped off by their families, and getting to know one another.
6. Volumes 1-7 (2015-2017), which I examine, also include the artistic efforts of Aubrey Aiese, Maarta Laiho, Kat Leyh, Carolyn Nowak, Carey Pitsch, and Ayme Sotuyo.
7. The Lumberjanes’ motto is “friendship to the max.” Their pledge is “I solemnly swear to do my best / Every day, and in all that I do / To be brave and strong / To be truthful and compassionate / To be interesting and interested / To pay attention and question / The world around me / To think of others first / To always help and protect my friends / [crossed-out line] / And to make the world a better place / For Lumberjane scouts / And for everyone else.”
8. The so-called Lost Colony at Roanoke Island, South Carolina, was first settled by the English in 1585. A few years later its inhabitants had vanished without leaving any conclusive traces. Roanoke has since inspired multiple narratives in film, TV, literature, and historical forgery (Le Vere 251).
9. The Lumberjanes’ camp flag features two crossed felling axes on a green background.
10. Found in almost all narrative traditions of the North Atlantic, selkies are seals who upon shedding their skin become human in form. [page 70]
11. The Grootslang (or Grote Slang) is part elephant and part reptile and appears in folktales from Benin to South Africa. It is believed to guard troves of gemstones.
12. Numerous studies document the real-world prevalence of emotional disturbances among teenagers. A study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence documents that “approximately one in five American adolescents experience problems with anxiety or depression” (Brackett and Rivers 3).
13. The dangers of excessive dancing, and shoes broken by dancing, are familiar fairy-tale motifs in fairy tale type ATU 306, such as “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces.” For additional examples, see http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/twelvedancing/other.html.
14. Some fantastic creatures have become well established as identity markers or symbols for specific towns, sports teams, businesses, etc. For example, the hodag, which has “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end,” is the official symbol of Rhinelander, Wisconsin (“Hodag”). Another example is a crafts beer festival in Washington D. C., which is named after the dragon-like snallygaster, which has been sighted in the environs of D. C. and Maryland since the 1700s (Boyton).
15. Other popular names include the fair folk, the wee folk, or just, the folk.
16. The perception of fairies as diminutive, butterfly-winged, human-like creatures garlanded with flowers stems from the Victorian era, which saw an increased interest in fairy and folktales, but also enforced a censoring felt to be needed to make fairies suitable for children. In medieval and older oral traditions, fairies were associated with trickery, magical powers, enchantment, riddles, and the power of the spoken word (curses, spells, promises, wagers, etc.).
17. Otherkin appeared as a subculture in the early 1990s and is considered a religious movement by some practitioners. See Jobling (2010), Kirby (2013), and Lupa (2007). [page 71]
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