Two By Melanie Gillman: As the Crow Flies and Stage Dreams

Neither of these books is brand new. But Melanie Gillman is an artist that gravitates toward subject matter that is timely and yet bound to be perennial.

From As the Crow Flies.
As the Crow Flies began online, where it can still be found. While I hate to assume a victory for bigotry, the increasing attempts at library censorship tell me that there are those who would prefer that be the only place a young adult (YA) reader might be able to find it in the future. While librarians generally land on the side of free speech and diverse stories, the increasing attempts to take over library boards and fire librarians for that very stance is a tad unnerving.

In the minds of those who advocate censorship, the YA space is a battleground. Adolescence is a time of change and curiosity. Young adult readers are hungrier for stories of “others” or outsiders than even adult readers. Bodies, hormones, and awakening personal and gender identity, as well as sexuality, are all important to the YA reader - even more so if they are struggling with any of those, or are part of otherwise marginalized populations themselves. While this has always been the case, the current moment is particularly fraught for LGBTQ youth.

Socially, we are in a cycle of regression. Gains in personal freedom and rights of personal expression challenge the cisgender, white, patriarchal hegemony. According to NBC Out, nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills were proposed by state legislatures from January through mid March of 2022, compared to only 41 such bills in all of 2018. Many of these bills and edicts target trans kids, like the controversial order by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas directing Family and Protective Services investigations of parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children. Many of these bills aim to push any question of gender identity as far back into the closet as possible. They often use the guise of “protecting” cisgender women from “unfair” competition from males wanting to invade girl’s sports (not to mention girl’s bathrooms). This is a false and misleading narrative. Boys and men are not rushing to compete in female sports, and there is no evidence that trans women have any intrinsic edge. Some bills aim to criminalize medical treatments that affirm a gender different from one assigned at birth. Others open teachers, school districts and school staff to civil liability for teaching or discussing subjects related to gender identity, sexual orientation and some issues of social justice. Others, like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, are predicated on the false notion that gay teachers are “grooming” children as prey for gay predators. These are old tropes. The con of “denying rights and freedoms to protect” comes up in As the Crow Flies.

As the Crow Flies (Iron Circus Comics, 2017)

On the recommendation of friends from her church, Charlotte “Charlie” Lamonte has enrolled in a week-long Christian girls' summer camp, only to find herself the only African-American there. Charlie’s parents give her the chance to opt out and go home with them. But she longs to connect to God and feels that He has guided her to this place for a reason. She struggles to reconcile her deep and abiding faith with her Black queer identity and the realities of what that means for her in the world.

After orientation, the campers embark on a seven-day backpacking trek into the mountains. To add pain and embarrassment to the mix, Charlie’s period arrives early and unexpectedly. She is eventually befriended by the trans girl in the group, Sydney. They bond over their otherness and forge ahead with plans to disrupt the fabled ceremony that will take place when they reach the final peak.

The camp leaders, Bee and her daughter Penny, are Christians, but feminists as well. They tell the stories of the first women to make this trek - pioneer women living in a late 1800s mining town who set out to bond with God and each other, without their husbands and families. First the men forbade the trip, claiming fear for the women’s safety. Then, as now, the guise of protecting women and children is often the siren call used to restrict women or oppress gay and trans people or racial minorities. When the women set off in the night, the men pursued them. But the women made it to a “sacred place” that they perceived God had prepared for them. Bee waxes poetic about the women’s strength and fortitude, and how these girls are following in their very footsteps. When asked who cared for one woman’s newborn, it is reluctantly revealed that she was left with a wet nurse. The Native American and Black women of the town had not been invited on this trip. The feminism of the camp leaders is sincere, but it is also rooted in white privilege. Charlie longs to confront Bee about this. She imagines scenarios where she does, but each imagined attempt only makes everything worse. Like so many, Charlie seethes and struggles inside. She wants to make change, but doesn’t want to make waves that end up crashing her back against the metaphorical rocks of society.

Because adolescence is a time when so many things come into question, many of the girls are questioning the idea of God as an old white guy. They are starting to see how this impacts their lives and their sense of self. This is a trap that even the staunchly feminist Bee falls into.

Along with lots of questions of faith, identity and feminism, the campers experience the highs and lows of any adolescent camping experience. There are secret crushes. There are forgotten bathing suits, struggles to keep up, and everyone feeling that they’ve drawn the short end of stick when it comes to their “chores”.

The book is beautifully rendered in colored pencil. Gillman spends many pages letting the reader see the potential of God in the impressive terrain around the campers. Charlie’s search for connection gives Gillman an excuse to share their attention to detail and their skills in depicting the natural world beautifully and accurately. This gives the reader breathing room. Like the campers depicted, the reader has a chance to take in the scenery, enjoying the trees and flowers and waterways.

Another reason As the Crow Flies works as a comic is because Gillman expresses the subtle distinctions between different characters' perceptions of the world, without resorting to narrating everyone’s inner dialog. In the case of Charlie, her silences often tell the reader the most. Sydney, on the other hand, has a well-developed reflex for snappy retorts. Most of the characters are middle class, and Gillman endows each of them with clear identities. Charlie fits in on the level of class, but race and her queerness make her an outsider. Both of Charlie’s parents are doctors. Sydney, whose single mother is a waitress waiting for the world to realize she’s actually an artist, struggles with classism.

The book clocks in at 272 pages, but it ends too soon. There are some questions raised that are not answered. What is the big ceremony? How will it cleanse and “whiten” the girls’ souls? More can be found online at Gillman's homepage. This site also contains a lovely story about Sydney before she embarks on this trip, titled "Pockets". In it, one of the primary inequities of female clothing–lack of pockets–is called into question. More importantly, it deals with the real challenges that all parents face, and how having a trans child adds dimensions.

As The Crow Flies was named a Stonewall Honor Book in Children’s and Young Adult Literature by the Stonewall Book Awards in 2018. It was also nominated for an Eisner and an Ignatz. This recognition, as well as the fact that queer and trans identities are depicted in ways that parents and young readers can understand and identify with, are both likely to protect the book’s place on library shelves, while other books with similar themes may see more challenges.

Stage Dreams (Graphic Universe, 2019)

Stage Dreams is set in the New Mexico Territory in 1861. Then as now, travel may lead to an interesting mix of accidental companions. On a stagecoach headed farther west is the quiet Georgian debutant Grace Overland; an underage boy hoping to join the Confederate army; a preacher; a man who seems to be mixed race; and one loudmouth raconteur, the type found on every mode of public conveyance. He tries to engage with everyone and has an opinion about everything. He ends up regaling them all with the tale of the Ghost Hawk - a half-bird, half-woman monster that robs stagecoaches and terrorizes the West.

The passengers are suitably frightened when a brown-skinned woman dressed in men’s clothes robs the stagecoach in the company of a hawk. The Ghost Hawk is disappointed to discover no actual gold, just useless newfangled promissory notes - or as we would call it today, paper money. In a last desperate hope, she captures Grace, the debutante, with the intension of ransoming her.

The Ghost Hawk turns out to be a clever bandit named Flor. With the help of her hawk and a well-trained horse she has been trying to secure enough resources to outrun warrants and start her own goat farm. Flor is further disappointed to find that the debutante is a trans sharecropper running away from possible conscription into the Confederate army and towards dreams of being an actress in San Francisco. They recognize common interests and become business partners.

At this time, Union blockades are interfering with the Confederacy’s funding. Confederate General Sibley has already captured some area in what will become Arizona, and there are plans to further exploit the resources of the frontier. Flor and Grace hatch a plan to attend a social event put on by would-be Confederate interlopers to gain intelligence to sell to the Union Army. While the outcome of the Civil War is well known, there is still a great deal of mystery and adventure in stories like this one. Needless to say, things do not always go as planned.

The story resolves, but it is clear that Grace and Flor could easily have further adventures. There is definitely a spark between them and there are many wonderful places their story could go.

Stage Dreams, like As The Crow Flies, is beautifully drawn in colored pencil. It captures the varied pastel tones of much of the Southwest. The color palette of this book fits my own taste, with lots of greens, lavenders, pinks and corals. One of the great things about this being a graphic novel and not a standard book is how those colors enliven a past that is so often sepia tone in the mind. Gillman’s art brings a liveliness and sense of fun to history. The characters are distinct. Flor and Grace have wonderful faces. Flor is all chiseled angles and Grace is cherub-cheeked and blonde. Luis, the tailor, is another wonderful character. He is talented, African-American, and sympathetic to Flor and Grace and their plan.

The back of the book is annotated with well-documented history and fun facts - from general truths about trans folks in military service and living out lives in communities, to coping with minor historic inconveniences such as the fact that the tailor must display dresses, though the clothing hanger has yet to be invented. In this book Gillman has gone deeper in research and made a stronger effort to show how trans people made their way in a world that has done a great deal to erase them from the history books.

For many years American history, especially concerning the West, has been literally white-washed. Indigenous populations abounded. Much of the land had formally belonged to Mexico and a large number of those people stayed when the title changed hands. The West was a place where people of African descent could seek their freedom. It was a place for people to reinvent themselves and live the life that East Coast or Southern societies might frown upon. One of the lies perpetuated about the past is that everyone was cisgender and heterosexual. This makes the current “emergence” of LGBTQ people seem abnormal, and for many, frightening. These lies are one of the things that make adolescence so much harder for LGBTQ kids. With the rise of oppression in the present, it is helpful to start to see the truth: that LGBTQ people have always existed, will always exist, and that the promise of fulfilling lives can be realized. It is refreshing to see the American West populated with a wider and more realistic range of skin tones, gender identities, and hinted-at sexualities.

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These books are great for the YA reader. They are also a wonderful way for parents and caretakers to find an entry point to discuss what can be difficult subjects. Sensitive, well-developed graphic novels (and comics) can act as doors to open conversation. Bryan Talbot’s A Tale of One Bad Rat was an entry point for kids to talk about sexual abuse and violence in the home. It showed a path to recovery and self-empowerment. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home deals with sexual orientation, abuse, and family dysfunction. Gillman’s books also offer an entry point to discuss what can be difficult subjects: queer identity, sexual orientation, and finding ways to belong while still being true to the self. Neither Fun Home nor A Tale of One Bad Rat were written specifically with the young adult audience in mind, which may explain why Gillman’s characters’ arcs are not as complete as Helen’s in A Tale of One Bad Rat, nor as deeply layered as Bechdel’s self-analysis. They do, however, pose questions - and, more importantly, they show queer characters having meaningful relationships and striving to see a place for themselves. Is Gillman the only person doing books on this subject? Of course not, but Gillman is an artist to watch. As a nonbinary creator, Gillman meets those readers with compassion, honesty and insight. The inviting colored pencil drawings, the well-rendered diverse characters, and the attention to the natural world makes their work particularly enjoyable. Gillman's works are destined to be one of the bridges that help queer, trans and nonbinary kids over the chasm of adolescence and into more self-realized adulthood. And they can help friends, family and allies understand that journey a little better.