Melanie Gillman is the accomplished writer and illustrator of As The Crow Flies along with many other works (Melanie has a graphic novel about lesbians, swing-dancing, and vampires). As The Crow Flies is about a 13-year-old queer African-American girl, named Charlie, who ends up at an all-white Christian youth backpacking camp. Charlie’s tale of discovery, identity and teenage anxiety is told through Melanie’s gorgeous colored pencil drawings. I talked to Melanie about the comic’s inspiration, art style and future projects.
Ryan: I had some identity confusion when I was young at summer camp. I feel like many kids have. Is As The Crow Flies based off of any personal camp experiences you had as a kid?
Melanie: Yep! Christian youth camps (and often being the only queer kid in sight there) were a very common part of my childhood. The story itself is fiction. Almost none of it is an exact re-telling of any specific experience I had, or any specific camp I went to myself—but I drew a lot on my memories of those camps as inspiration for the comic and the characters.
Ryan: The characters in As The Crow Flies are all so unique and different from your “typical” female comics characters. What made you want to tell Charlie’s story?
Melanie: Lots of reasons! It can be hard to find young queer/questioning characters in comics, so I figured I could try to tell one of those stories myself. I was also interested in exploring how queerness and crises of faith can intertwine and inform each other in some young Christian people—especially those who find themselves in queer-unfriendly religious environments. That’s another thing I’d love to have more of in comics—not just stories about queer people, but also about how queer people work through problems that aren’t generally considered “queer-specific”, like crises of faith.
Ryan: I feel like comics are always lacking more strong female characters for young boys and girls to look up to. Were there any female comics characters you read as a child that you looked up to or inspired you?
Melanie: Very few, unfortunately. I gravitated much more toward prose fiction than comics as a kid, and related much more to the women characters I found there. I was raised on a lot of the classic 90s YA books, like The Golden Compass and several of Tamora Pierce’s series, which were always populated with smart, tough, and multifaceted women characters. It’s entirely possible I might’ve read more comics as a kid if I’d been more aware of comics by and about women. I certainly hope that’ll be the case for the current generation of kids, who have access to superb comics by people like Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, and Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (not to mention thousands of webcomics).
Ryan: The pacing of As The Crow Flies is very relaxed. It’s like a beautiful Chinese romance film. Do you think that any comics you read growing up or media you love inspired you to give us this world-view at an intimate, leisurely pace?
Melanie: Haha, I actually can’t think of any! I was a weirdo, high-energy kid, and my tastes generally skewed toward much more fast-paced work. The slow, quiet pace of ATCF probably reflects much more of my adult tastes—and, more importantly, it felt right for a story which has so much to do with the natural beauty of the mountains they’re hiking through, and the quiet evolution of Charlie’s inner life.
Ryan: The artwork in your comics is so beautiful. What is it about colored pencils that drew you to use them for your art?
Melanie: I get asked this question a lot (especially since colored pencil is a relatively unusual medium for comics), and I wish I had a better answer! Colored pencils just make sense to me on some innate, intuitive level. They allow me a good amount of control over all the details in a piece, but still give everything a comforting, handmade feel. The act of building panels up slowly, by drawing in layer upon layer of different colors, always feels very meditative to me. The process really fits the pacing of the story!
Ryan: How long does it take you on average to draw a page for a comic?
Melanie: For ATCF, I spend 8-10 hours per page, depending on how much detail needs to go in. Pages with 12 bajillion pine trees, as you might imagine, take much longer than pages with mostly just characters/dialogue.
Ryan: I love your mythological lesbian screen prints. If you could be one mythological creature, what would it be?
Melanie: A giant, sentient lizard queen.
Ryan: Are you working on any other new projects right now?
Melanie: Way too many! On top of ATCF, I’m doing a ton of freelance work, planning a secret anthology project, scripting my next book, and drawing a side story about Sydney and her mom for my Patreon backers. Oh, and my teaching dayjobs. Sleep is overrated.
Ryan:Anything else you’d like to say to your readers?
Melanie: I have the nicest readers in the world, honestly. I’ve met so many wonderful, supportive people through working on this comic, and I’m just so happy the comic is reaching them. Thank you!
Melanie’s work and As The Crow Flies can be found at the site www.melaniegillman.com.