Mal, Molly, Ripley, April, and Jo of Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types get to stretch their legs a bit in their first longfrom story outing, but after five decorated years of “Lumberjanes” comics, does the book offer new insights into these precocious teen-aged adventurers?
Written by Lilah Sturges
Illustrated by polterink
Lettered by Jim Campbell
Eisner Award-nominated writer Lilah Sturges teams with artist polterink for the first Lumberjanes graphic novel in a story about finding your way and navigating life, love, and a literal forest.
When the Janes start to become separated during an orienteering outing thanks to a mysterious compass, Molly becomes more and more insecure about the effect of her relationship with Mal on the other girls.
Meanwhile, a lonely woman explorer is trying to steal the compass, with the help of some weirdly polite automaton butlers.
The Eisner-winning “Lumberjanes” comic series is a storytelling treat, sending the five campers and their frequently flummoxed troop leader Jen on adventures that test their courage while teaching them about the value of friendship without being didactic or preachy. On the surface, “Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass” appears to be a perfect vehicle for exploring the relationships between the girls while presenting a non-serialized adventure. Unfortunately, the things that the comic book series skillfully avoids doing are on display here in “The Infernal Compass,” and we’ll get to those in a moment. For starters, the story is too slight to warrant its 148-page graphic novel treatment. The book essentially breaks down as a 100-page story followed by a reprint of “Lumberjanes” #1 (a near-perfect premiere issue that readers of this graphic novel have likely already read) followed by another twenty process, credits, and acknowledgments pages. While this is more of an editorial failing rather than a misstep by the creators, the book doesn’t offer enough bang for the buck at $14.95, especially when compared to the similarly-positioned books by Raina Telgemeier that offer more than twice the original story pages at a lower retail price. The comparison is not perfect or entirely fair considering Telgemeier’s stature in the publishing world, but when coupled with a story that isn’t as cram-packed with adventure or storytelling twists as are in a typical “Lumberjanes” comic book arc, the disparity is more pronounced.
Before touching on the graphic-novel-that-should-have-been-an-annual’s other shortfalls, it should be said that “The Infernal Compass” is actually quite a lovely book, full of handsome linework and delicate watercolor washes provided by polternik, the nom de plume of Claudia Rinofner. The book is mostly monochromatic, punctuated by Excalibur-like bursts of green that effectively break up the grayscale aesthetic and direct the reader’s eye through the pages. Polternik’s designs for the story’s forest dwelling automatons are whimsical and charming, playing with the notions of the proper English butler, unquestionably loyal to their master and more than a little bit creepy. Polternik’s take on the five girls and their frequently harried leader shows a true affinity for these characters even as it generally less dynamic and more classically rendered than typical Lumberjanes stories.
This story is also a generally pleasant and touching if relatively uneventful one. Sturges has the character’s voices down pat, and there are many nice character beats that elevate the proceedings and will please fans of the property. However, the narrative itself suffers from a lack of drama. The titular compass is in itself a McGuffin, its sole purpose is to give explanation to the events of the plot without itself being explained save for a rather unconvincing and half-baked rationale delivered by Henrietta Boniface Nibley, a failed adventurer and an antagonist that should be more developed than she is. Her motivations are unclear, and her about face after the slightest of nudges doesn’t feel earned or even believable. Ultimately her existence is merely to serve as a cautionary exemplar for Molly about how not trusting in your friends can lead to a lifetime of isolation and unhappiness.
As for McGuffins, they can be a great and rewarding storytelling device for allowing writers to surprise readers with unexpected plot twists, but here Sturges doesn’t seem interested in surprising anyone. The bulk of the narrative is spent separating the girls from each other by way of the mysteriously enchanted compass before resolving the primary conflicts rather hastily and anticlimactically. Even for the younger readers at whom this book is aimed, the narrative might very likely feel underdeveloped, saved only by the winsome quintet’s well-developed and skillfully presented personalities and the drama of Molly’s internal conflict with her feelings of abandonment. Ultimately, the story feels like it’s a flimsy excuse to explore Molly’s misgivings about the ramifications of being so public about her relationship with Mal. This in itself is the most worthwhile narrative aspect of the book. It’s a shame that the adventure itself feels so low stakes and without tension. The girls take their predicament in such stride and escape their captors so easily that it seems to deflate what should be stronger emotional and thematic elements.Continued below
Like the failed orienteering project that leads to Molly’s short-lived but life-changing plight, “The Infernal Compass” ultimately, and perhaps accidentally, wanders away from the primary appeal of “Lumberjanes” by sermonizing too much at the altar of friendship rather than just letting the girl’s actions speak for themselves, revealing the storyline’s themes more organically through their interactions with each other and their adversaries. It’s hard to quibble with the underlying sweetness of the story’s resolution, but there are too many head-scratching and pointless plot threads for this one to be a triumphant entry into “Lumberjanes” canon. At the most it feels like a footnote, albeit an important one, to their growing mythology.