This year’s shortlist for the Best Digital/Web Comic Eisner Award is one of the most diverse we’ve seen and one of the most insightful is Melanie Gilman’s As The Crow Flies webcomic. The tale of a gay African American teen on a Christian hiking trip touches issues of homophobia, racism and gender, all within the stunning scenery of the Rocky Mountains. With beautiful hand drawn pencil artwork, Melanie’s work informs, educates and entertains without ever feeling preachy, so we got in touch to find out more about experiences on teenage camping retreats and how the industry recognition as helped develop this wonderful web comic.
For readers who are new to the As The Crow Flies webcomic, what’s your ‘elevator pitch’ to tell people about it and get them excited and wanting to check it out?
MG:As the Crow Flies is a story about a group of queer teens who meet during a week-long Christian youth backpacking trip. The central conflict in the story follows Charlie, a 13-year-old queer Black girl, who’s trying to figure out how to keep herself safe in an otherwise nearly all-white camp; and Sydney, a 12-year-old white trans girl, who’s working out similar issues regarding personal safety in a transphobic “feminist” space. The camp itself is hiking toward a secret, historic “women-only” shrine hidden somewhere deep in the mountains, where the whole group will get to participate in a mysterious religious cleansing ceremony – ‘cuz that doesn’t sound ominous AT ALL, right??
Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind it? Is it based on your own nature hiking camp experiences or did you just try and concoct the most socially awkward situation for a gay African-American teenager and let the story play out?!
MG: Some of it is based on personal experience, for sure! Christian youth camp – and usually being the only queer kid around for miles in a very queer-unfriendly space – was something I went through almost every year from about 3rd grade on. I drew on my memories of the emotional experience of these camps quite a bit for the story, but the actual events in the narrative of ATCF itself are almost all fictional. Charlie and Sydney are on their own backpacking trip, not following a route I took. I concocted a camp that would allow me to talk about the subjects I wanted to tackle in the story – specifically, the intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism you find in Christian spaces and (worse), supposedly feminist ones.
Tell us a bit about your process, I assume it’s all hand drawn and then scanned in, is that a quite laborious task? Do you work very far in advance and produce lots of pages in one go or do you see where inspiration takes?
MG: Haha, “laborious” is definitely the word to use for colored pencils! Everything in the story is hand-drawn, then scanned in and cleaned up a bit in Photoshop. It usually takes me around 8-10 hours to complete a page, depending on how detailed it is. I do tend to script quite a bit in advance, but as for drawing the pages themselves – I wish! They’re usually finished the same day I post them, which has more to do with other time commitments (comics is only one of my three jobs) than wanting to give myself free-reign, inspiration-wise. It’s my dream to someday be one of those webcartoonists with a nice, comfy buffer of pages, but it’s not quite feasible right now!
How far in advance do you have the story plotted? Do you have an end in sight or are just letting the story evolve naturally for as long as it needs to?
MG: There’s definitely an end in sight! I spent about a year (while I was in grad school at the Center for Cartoon Studies) working out the overall narrative arc before I let myself put colored pencil to page. I don’t have the entire story thumbnailed start to finish, though, so there *is* a little bit of wiggle room for me to incorporate new ideas as they come to me. And I think that’s actually helped the story! There’s this funny thing about making long-form comics, where if you’re always working from your old thumbnails, it’s almost like trying to work with a writer who has several years less experience than you! You grow a lot as a writer while making comics, and I try to embrace that and always give myself room to change things when needed.
Some of the scenery shots are truly breath-taking, and a great way to help pace the story, are those landscapes on your door step or do you use extensive source material? And do you ever regret setting it in the mountains when you are rendering an entire page full of pine trees?!
MG: They’re about an hour or two away from my doorstep! I live in Denver, which is nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. I definitely use a lot of reference photos, but I also try to make sure I find time to take actual hikes in the mountains at least once a month or so – drawing trees and rocks from life is my equivalent of a gym workout for ATCF. As for regret – no way! The landscape shots are some of my favorites to draw — they always feel very meditative (if not a little carpal-tunnel-inducing.)
Who are your artistic inspirations? Your work is really reminscent of an English artist called Posy Simmonds
MG: Oh gosh, the Posy Simmonds comparison is really flattering! She’s one of my favorites – “Tamara Drewe” is one of those books I re-read every year or so, just to remind myself that the comics medium is capable of things like it. As for other creators – a lot of the work I read is webcomics (unsurprisingly), and in the past few years, there’s been a ton of amazingly high-quality work published by other queer cartoonists. Just to name a few off the top of my head – Blue Delliquanti, Sfé Monster, and Kori Michele Handwerker are people whose work I follow religiously.
What made you decide to release it as a twice weekly web comic rather than as a print edition or digital collection? How do you find the process of releasing your work digitally and any plans to release it in other formats (either print or digital?)
MG: The webcomics medium just felt right for ATCF – I was thinking a lot about accessibility when I started the comic, and about what would be the best way to make the book easily available, especially for kids who might be going through similar things and looking for this kind of story. I still think it’s the best decision I could’ve made! I love a lot of things about webcomics, but it’s been really neat to watch the comic build a readership over the years, and know there’s people following the progress I make on the book in real time. As for editions in other formats – I’d love to do a print edition sometime. Mostly it comes down to trying to figure out the best way to print a bunch of giant, full-color books without having to sell one of my kidneys!
How significant has the Eisner nomination been for you? Has it got you more attention as a result and what do you think of the other nominees?
MG: The Eisner nomination was huge for me! I’m still a relative newcomer to the comics scene, so this is easily the biggest news of my career thus far. I’m not banking on winning — the Eisners are decided more or less by an internet popularity contest, and one of the other contenders is The Oatmeal, which I suspect will easily clean all our clocks. As for the other nominees – the one person I *would* like to mention is Dax Tran-Caffee, whose work I was unfamiliar with before the nomination, but I’m so happy I know about it now! Dax is wonderful, and I’m honored to be nominated alongside them. (Also, not gonna lie, pretty excited that there are TWO genderqueer cartoonists nominated in the Best Digital category – when has that ever happened??)
You can read the As The Crow Flies webcomic at melaniegillman.com and while you’re there why not lend your support and help buy some new coloured pencils for a future episode!