From Webcomic to Graphic Novel: Melanie Gillman On Queer Representation

The author/illustrator of an insightful graphic novel about a queer teen confronting hostility at a backpacking camp discusses the path to publication, inclusivity, and the power of the visual medium.

Melanie Gillman’s contemplative webcomic–turned–graphic novel, As the Crow Flies (Iron Circus Comics, Nov. 2017; Gr 6 Up), centers on the friendship between two young people pushed to the margins of a Christian backpacking camp. Camp Three Peaks was founded in honor of (fictional) 19th-century pioneer and protofeminist Beatrice Tillson, who every year left her husband and family behind to hike up Mt. Sanctuary, accompanied by the other women of her settlement. Each summer, campers follow the same 50-mile route.

However, 13-year-old Charlie, who is queer and black, sees through the camp’s message of female empowerment—here, solidarity is for white, cisgender, heterosexual women. She quietly seethes at counselor Bee’s racist remarks (redemption is described as the “whitening” of souls) and the campers’ casual homophobia, and chafes when Bee glosses over the role of the black women who cared for the children while Beatrice Tillson and her cohorts made their trek. But on the hike up the mountain, shy Charlie discovers a kindred spirit in Sydney, who also finds Camp Three Peaks unwelcome but who’s more willing to speak her mind.

“A lot of Christian literature is very white,” said Gillman in a phone interview with SLJ, “and a lot of Christian spaces are not...as open and inclusive as they would like to be.” This novel represents an opportunity to change that.

Though light on action, the book is rich in its examination of characters’ inner lives and their self-reflection. When Sydney explains that she packed mace for protection, Charlie is initially skeptical. ”What the hell does this girl know about feeling unsafe?” she wonders before realizing that Sydney is trans and that many so-called feminist groups have treated trans women with hostility. “These two kids grow by talking and listening to each other and challenging and deliberately questioning some of their own assumptions,” says Gillman.

Developing Charlie and Sydney’s bond has been immensely rewarding for Gillman, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them. Gillman sometimes encountered counselors like Bee at Christian youth camps, but rather than “challenging the system by going toe to toe with adults,” they coped by forging connections with other campers. Gillman is interested in exploring how “queer kids have agency over their own environments and the communities that they build with each other and the ways that they use those communities to keep each other safe.”

The author/illustrator adroitly uses the visual medium. To convey Charlie’s silent rage at Bee’s “whitening” comment, Gillman superimposed the protagonist’s frantic inner monologue (“Maybe I misheard?” “I’ve gotta do something, but—”) over the rest of Bee’s speech bubbles. Gillman also placed Charlie in the foreground and the other campers in the background, Charlie’s turmoil a sharp contrast to the other girls’ boredom. “Every cartoonist worth their salt is doing that on some level,” says Gillman. “We’re always thinking about the ways we can change our compositions and the ways that those compositions are going to have different emotional effects.”

Even Gillman’s choice to draw in colored pencil makes a difference. With visible pencil marks and delicate shading, the art feels incredibly intimate—a benefit that comes at a price. “If you’re working with inks and digital colors, you can move a lot faster,” says Gillman, who spends 10 to 12 hours completing each page of Crow. Though colored pencil is “slow and tedious,” it felt appropriate for this “meditative, detail-oriented” story.

The book has taken an equally deliberate path to publication. As the Crow Flies started five years ago in webcomic format, as Gillman’s senior thesis at Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies, garnering accolades including Eisner and Ignatz award nominations. Its publication by Iron Circus Comics is the result of a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign. As Charlie and Sydney’s story unfolds, Iron Circus will continue to publish print volumes, but readers will still be able to access the comic for free online.

“I want this book to be available to as many people as possible and through the easiest channels,” says Gillman, who notes that though there’s much more queer YA and children’s literature available today, there are still kids and teens who might feel uncomfortable checking the book out from the library or asking their parents to buy it.

Older readers, especially queer and trans adults who never saw characters like them growing up, have also taken comfort in the novel, says Gillman. They added, “It’ll be an adventure, publishing a book like this in the middle of the Trump administration. More than ever kids are going to need positive and affirming queer stories.”

Comments

Kathleen Kerner

I always find it ironic when an article about recognizing diversity of any kind resorts to stereotyping Christians. Contrary to popular media portrayal, an awful lot of Christians do not fit the stereotype that Christians are white, cisgender, and intolerant. How about positive and affirming views of all people, including Christian ones?

Posted : Dec 13, 2017 05:27

TDB42

As The Crow Flies is a book about queer and trans Christians, Kathleen.

Posted : Dec 13, 2017 05:27


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