Monday, December 25, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #25: Melanie Gillman

Melanie Gillman (who uses they/them pronouns) has been at their expansive webseries As The Crow Flies for well over three years, and the first print volume has been published by Iron Circus Comics. I can’t think of a more complementary fit between artist and publisher, especially since the popularity of the webcomic made its kickstarter campaign (a staple of Spike Trotman’s company for each book they publish—and not a single campaign has come up short) an easy sell.

This is a slowly-paced, contemplative book that emphasizes (despite everything else going on emotionally and spiritually) the relationship between humans and nature. In particular, its focus is on being present and experiencing nature aesthetically, taking in the beauty of each moment and connecting one’s own life force to that of life around you. Gillman astoundingly uses colored pencils for every panel and page, and this allows them total control over every image while maintaining a soft, human touch. Just as Gillman emphasizes in the story how important it is to be able to continually perceive just how beautiful nature is, so it is also the case that the reader is reminded what a treasure it is to look at each beautiful page.

Their character design is simple but extremely distinctive, especially with regard to the ways they draw so many kinds of differently shaped faces and is able to render them consistently, page after page. That simplicity makes the facial expressions of their characters their laboratory for expressing emotion and providing a specific path for character interaction. Body language and gesture are part of this, but the reader must follow the character’s expression in relation to each other to truly follow the action.

Something that is not noted in this book is that it’s the first volume in a series. This is important, because otherwise the reader would be baffled by the ending. It’s a minor point, but most book series make it a point to slap “Volume I of a thousand…” on the front cover, inside the front cover, at the end of the book, etc. And while those books try to tell something of a complete story in a single volume, this first offering from Gillman is most certainly not that, even if there is a solid break point on page 272.

The story follows Charlie, a queer, thirteen-year-old African-American girl, being dropped off at a wilderness adventure Christian camp. She has immediate and continuous doubts about being there, especially when she walks in and realizes that every other girl there is white. Throughout the course of the book, she gets to know a few of her fellow campers, is taken aback by some insensitive comments by both the counselor and other girls, and by the end of the book plans some subversive action with her new friend and ally Sydney, a trans girl. The trail they’re taking follows that of a (fictional) woman named Beatrice Tillson in 1894, who led a revolt of sorts against the men in the town by going out on a sabbatical with all of its women.

The plot is simple. The ideas that Gillman explores are difficult and complex. It would have been shooting fish in a barrel for Gillman to have Charlie experience something like a fundamentalist/evangelical assault, filled with characters of faith who are portrayed as clich├ęs and hypocrites. Instead, Gillman weaves an exploration and critique of feminism that is not intersectional along with a personal and meditative examination of religion and spirituality--all told by well-meaning but flawed individuals. As it turns out, not all of the women were allowed to go on this journey in the 19th century; there were servants of color who were told to stay behind to take care of the children. Bea makes an off-handed joke when Charlie asks her for a tampon where she’s relieved that Charlie didn’t tell her that she was a demon-worshiper or really a man, implying that as a Christian and feminist, Bea would tend toward the trans-exclusionary side of things.

The thing that Charlie zeroed in on was Bea talking about the sacred ritual at the end of the journey, a “purification” that involved a “whitening of the soul”. When Charlie eventually mentioned this to Bea’s daughter Penny, the latter was horrified by the use of this metaphor. It spoke to how just as the book was about Charlie finding her physical footing on the trail, so too was she finding her footing, her voice and confidence in interacting with others in direct ways. Charlie talked to God throughout her trek, wondering if she should really be there and starting to doubt her faith altogether. She and Charlie devise a pact to find a way to disrupt that final ceremony and expose its hypocrisies. Gillman also starts to explore some of the other characters, like mean girl Adelaide, who confesses to being conscious of her meanness and how she’s trying to be better, especially with regard to Therese, who obviously adores her.

Gillman hits on the essential idea that right and wrong are frequently easy to differentiate and are only complicated by people themselves, who are contradictory and complex and often irrational. They note that there are layers of belief systems with regard to race, class, gender, sexual identity, sexuality, etc that all have a place in how these belief systems play out, and that by ignoring or minimizing any of these component parts, any competing system that strives for fairness is incomplete. Every character in the book that gets extended time feels real because Gillman strives to tell their stories from their point of view, even if that narrative excludes others. Gillman doesn’t need cheap conflict or obstacles to tell a compelling story; indeed, such tricks would only detract from the conflict that’s on the intellectual, emotional and spiritual level in this book.

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