Gillman’s brutally honest and wrenchingly beautiful story of friendship explores the simultaneous pain and joy of being young and queer. On Charlie’s first day at a Christian sleepaway camp for girls, she sees what she believes to be a sign from God, but she has a crisis of faith after she discovers she’s the only black girl in attendance and the camp staff start treating her badly. Their cruelty only grows worse during her group’s hike to a centuries-old ceremonial retreat in the mountains. On the way, Charlie meets Sydney, a transgender girl who’s just as fed up with their privileged counselor and oblivious peers, and the two band together for support during the emotionally and physically grueling ordeal. The book is unflinching in its examination of how solidarity among white, cisgender women can harm others. Charlie’s pain is palpable, as are Sydney’s alienation and fear, producing a story that’s as resonant for marginalized readers as it is enlightening for those it critiques. Throughout, Gillman’s meticulously realized colored pencil landscapes remain impeccable. This book radiates love and melancholy in equal measure.
Over the course of the last several years, Iron Circus Comics has earned a legion of fans and a slew of critical successes by publishing books that appeal to readers who don’t often find themselves represented in the pages put out by traditional publishers. Owner C. Spike Trotman began her company with female- and LGBTQIA-friendly erotica anthologies called
Smut Peddler, and the vast majority of the books she puts out continue in that vein, though not all of them have contained erotica. Many of the books are print versions of successful webcomics, bringing the work to an even larger population and creating a strong symbiotic relationship between Iron Circus’ fans and those of the webcomics. Trotman’s strategies are too successful to be ignored, and her business is one of the best examples of how the industry must change to survive. As The Crow Flies is one of the three books Iron Circus funded this year, and the first to reach readers. It collects the first volume of Melanie Gillman’s excellent webcomic of the same name, a story about an all-girls sleepaway camp and the troop who goes there one summer. The focus is on Charlie, a 13-year-old who feels out of place at the overtly religious and adamantly female-focused camp, isolated from everyone else by race, orientation, and the fact that Charlie clearly has a better understanding of what feminism is than most of the adults running the place. It’s an emotional and intimate comic, restrained in many ways and deeply personal, with a backdrop of stunning mountain vistas.
Gillman’s remarkable skill at portraying the way that microaggressions and small slights can quickly escalate to create an environment that’s emotionally crushing and dangerous is something that is hard to find anywhere else. There are comics, especially webcomics, that portray otherness well, but what sets Gillman’s work apart is their ability to show how we are othered by the people in our lives, and how that creates anxiety and isolation that can be nearly impossible to overcome, especially for young people. Charlie is a complicated, nuanced, and sympathetic protagonist, and this year Gillman added “Pockets” to their website, a short comic about Charlie’s friend Tilly, creating even more emotional weight and investment as they expand Charlie’s world.
Alone, that emotional depth would make Gillman’s work well worth picking up. What makes
As The Crow Flies even better is the art. Characters are drawn simply, but without feeling cartoonish or overblown. Expressions and body language are real and weighty instead of outsized. The characters range in shape and size in the way real teen and tween girls do, and it gives the whole book a sense of reality that’s needed to underpin all that emotional weight. Gillman works almost exclusively in colored pencils, and in an age when many comics are drawn digitally it lends texture and color to the art that’s hard to find in most comics. Plant life looks lush and alive, rocks and dirt solid. Gillman doesn’t shy away from showing the effort that goes into hiking up a mountain, but they also make sure that readers understand why so many people do it: the views make it worthwhile. As The Crow Flies certainly isn’t the only comic about summer camp, but it is one of the only ones that’s honest about how much summer camp can suck, how much being a teenager usually sucks, and how much being from a group that’s marginalized and forgotten only makes the teenager part suck more. It’s a story that embraces the truth of how bad things can be without abandoning kindness, and that’s something comics could use a lot more of.
When 13-year-old Charlie, a black, queer girl, embarks on a feminist Christian backpacking trip, she hopes it will deepen her relationship with God. The beautiful mountains they hike through certainly spotlight the majesty of creation, but Charlie’s the only black girl, and the hike leader’s whitewashed understanding of spirituality and feminism makes it hard to feel connected to a tradition so bound up with the history of white supremacy. Still, though, there are moments of grace: her new friendship and solidarity with Sydney, a trans girl keeping her identity a secret to avoid scorn; the attractive daughter of the group’s leader, who takes Charlie under her wing; and moments of quiet contemplation in a beautiful place. Gillman’s lush, warm artwork, rendered entirely in colored pencil, brings the gorgeous scenery lovingly to life. The soft, luminous scenes of the mountains and nature emphasize the enormity of Charlie’s undertaking, both spiritually and physically, and her interactions with the other people on the trip, from snickering over outdated concepts with Sydney to bringing up uncomfortable topics with adults, are nicely paced and expressive. With arresting artwork, this coming-of-age story, originally published as a webcomic, sensitively explores religion, spirituality, feminism, and friendship and perfectly balances thought-provoking moments with heartening humor. Perfect for anyone who loved Gene Luen Yang’s
American Born Chinese (2007). Sarah Hunter
Gr 6 Up –Charlie, 13, is excited to embark on an all-girls Christian camp’s backpacking trip. However, despite Camp Three Peaks’ commitment to feminism, head counselor Bee and many of the campers are unwittingly racist and homophobic, and Charlie, who is black and queer, grapples with self-doubt. She confides in God, wondering if a feather that follows her on her trek is a sign from above, and her spirits lift as she bonds with the more outspoken Sydney, a trans girl who feels similarly alienated. This contemplative graphic novel, taken from Gillman’s ongoing webcomic, perceptively explores race, gender, faith, and friendship. Elegantly composed, richly hued images vividly portray the lush forest setting and shy, thoughtful Charlie’s inner turmoil as she yearns to voice her opinions. Scenes in which she appears on the periphery of panels or crowded by the speech bubbles of her insensitive fellow campers adroitly capture her isolation. Gillman zeroes in on seemingly small yet achingly relatable moments as Charlie and Sydney’s friendship slowly develops. The book subtly folds in lessons about identity and the danger of assumptions; both girls learn and grow about each other, themselves, and the larger world. VERDICT Heartfelt, stimulating, and sure to spark discussion about feminism’s often less than inclusive attitudes toward marginalized groups. For all graphic novel collections. –Mahnaz Dar,School Library Journal
Collecting Melanie Gillman’s continuing and multiple award-nominated webcomic in a first volume,
As the Crow Flies was successfully crowdfunded earlier this year and brought to print by Iron Circus comics. The book follows a week in the life of queer 13-year-old Charlie Lamonte at Camp Three Peaks – a rural Christian retreat where teenage girls follow in the footsteps of a group of 19th century pioneering women by retracing their annual all-woman pilgrimage.
The only black member of the trip, Charlie’s already faltering religious convictions are put to the test as the week progresses. While the rigid traditions and spiritual dogma of the hike become more and more questionable Charlie finds a supportive presence in fellow camper Sydney and they both begin to challenge the ideals of the camp that the others take for granted.
Gillman’s greatest strength as a storyteller is their ability to bring us so fully into Charlie’s perspective, underlining the unconscious bias and exclusionary behaviour she is forced to deal with throughout her backpacking trip. That sense of marginalisation is sometimes overt – an early sequence where a hike leader obliviously talks about “whitening our souls” for example – while on other occasions it’s depicted more subtly but no less effectively in visual terms, with Charlie often portrayed on-panel as spatially isolated even within her peer group.
In Sydney, Charlie finds a confidante who allows her to more directly examine the doubts she has about her place at the camp. An event that was supposed to be a celebration of liberation and inclusivity slowly begins to reveal itself as one steeped rather in privilege and exclusivity, and the pair find themselves united in a common cause. Characterisation is delicately observed – both visually and through the book’s employment of naturalistic dialogue (particularly in a latter scene where the girls discuss the assignation of a gender to God) – ensuring audience investment in the characters as we too react to events through their eyes.
Gillman’s panel-to-panel storytelling emphasises a sense of place through the frequent intermittent multi-page scenes of the group traipsing through the stunningly beautiful countryside. There’s a pacing here that asks the reader to slow down their reading speed and immerse themselves in each single, evocatively coloured panel, creating a sense of lingering time as each day of the hike passes. Frequent changes in perspective remind us of the majesty of the sprawling terrain the group are traversing.
Gillman’s command of the pure language of comics, though, adds so many extra thematic layers to the book. The recurring and significant motif of a floating feather falling through individual images in an early sequence, for example, or their use of speech balloons and panels to zoom in and out and highlight Charlie’s feelings of detachment even when she’s in the company of others.
There’s a particularly effective run of pages towards the end of this volume that place smaller panels within panels to signify the bustle of activity from the rest of the hikers while ensuring our focus remains on Charlie. It leads into a number of pages of varying panel sizes that play with our conceptions of time passing and between-the-panels comprehension to powerful effect.
Most importantly, though, this is a book that, as the Kickstarter promotional material pointed out, can now be found in print by the “real Charlies and Sydneys of the world” and one that, in microcosm, speaks to us all about the unconscious biases and entrenched inequalities that permeate every strata of our societal structures. Gillman’s story continues here online but this first print collection will hopefully ensure the story reaches the even wider readership it deserves.
Broken Frontier - Andy Oliver
Faced with a week of backpacking at a Christian feminist camp for girls, 13-year-old Charlie isn't enthused. Charlie—born Charlotte—doesn't feel like a regular girl nor is even sure she's a believer. She certainly isn't white like the other campers. Not alone in her gender variance, she and her well-meaning but blinkered fellow campers come to learn that behind assumptions about both past and present are far more complex realities. Gillman's superb work with colored pencils gives a richness and dimensionality to Charlie's coming of age. (SLJ 11/17)
Gr 6 Up—Charlie, 13, is excited to embark on an all-girls Christian camp's backpacking trip. However, despite Camp Three Peaks' commitment to feminism, head counselor Bee and many of the campers are unwittingly racist and homophobic, and Charlie, who is black and queer, grapples with self-doubt. She confides in God, wondering if a feather that follows her on her trek is a sign from above, and her spirits lift as she bonds with the more outspoken Sydney, a trans girl who feels similarly alienated. This contemplative graphic novel, taken from Gillman's ongoing webcomic, perceptively explores race, gender, faith, and friendship. Elegantly composed, richly hued images vividly portray the lush forest setting and shy, thoughtful Charlie's inner turmoil as she yearns to voice her opinions. Scenes in which she appears on the periphery of panels or crowded by the speech bubbles of her insensitive fellow campers adroitly capture her isolation. Gillman zeroes in on seemingly small yet achingly relatable moments as Charlie and Sydney's friendship slowly develops. The book subtly folds in lessons about identity and the danger of assumptions; both girls learn and grow about each other, themselves, and the larger world. VERDICT Heartfelt, stimulating, and sure to spark discussion about feminism's often less than inclusive attitudes toward marginalized groups. For all graphic novel collections.—Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal