Smash Pages Q&A: Melanie Gillman

The creator discusses ‘As the Crow Flies,’ now available from Iron Circus Comics, as well as the upcoming ‘Stage Dreams,’ Colorado, colored pencils and more.

Since it launched in 2012, As the Crow Flies has been a webcomic beloved by many people. Drawn in colored pencil by Melanie Gillman, the comic tells the story of Charlie, a black queer 13 year old on an all-white Christian youth backpacking trip. It is not just a striking beautiful comic that looks like nothing else, but it tells an important story in a thoughtful, nuanced way. It is a story of identity and religion, community and discrimination with a cast of real, relatable and beautifully drawn characters.

Gillman just finished writing a run of Steven Universe comics for BOOM! Studios and has already announced their next project, Stage Dreams, a graphic novel that Gillman described as a “queer western romance adventure story.” The first half of As the Crow Flies was just published in a print edition by Iron Circus Comics and Gillman was kind enough to talk about writing, life, Colorado and colored pencils.

How did you come to comics?

I was one of those people who started in comics relatively late in life. I wasn’t one of those kids who was drawing all the time. I fancied myself more of a writer. I was trying to write prose novels for most of my youth – and doing a horrible job at it. One day in college just on a whim I went, why I don’t I try drawing a comic. I don’t know why this happened, but drawing that one terrible first comic was one of those light pours down from heaven moments where I went, I love this, I don’t want to do anything but this for the rest of my life! And I have no idea what I’m doing because I’ve never drawn a comic before and the comic that I just drew is pretty terrible so I’m going to have to put in a whole lot of work to make this happen. But I kept at it. I fell in love with it. And then I just made a commitment that I was going to try every day to find at least a little time that I could work on comics. Eventually had a decent enough portfolio that I could go to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is a two year MFA program in Vermont. I did that, graduated and from there it’s just been a lot the same old story that most cartoonists have – you keep working at it and you start getting little jobs and the little jobs start turning into bigger jobs, you self-publish work online and you start to get work in print and you keep being persistent.

What was it about CCS? Why did you want to do an academic program?

At the time when I did my application in 2009 the school had only been around for a couple years and there were only a handful of comics programs in the entire country. I heard about CCS because of Lucy Knisley. She was a grad student there at the time so I was following her livejournal and reading about her experiences there and that sold me on the program. In particular the thing that I liked about it was they sold it as comics boot camp. The philosophy is, we’re going to make you draw a whole bunch of comics and you’re going to keep pushing pages out and because you’re just continually producing you’re going to get better. That really appealed to me because I needed someone to kick my ass into gear and make me draw a whole bunch of comics with some guidance and learn about how to do it better. I also liked that CCS had a philosophy where you didn’t have to adhere to a house style. They weren’t going to try to push you into making work that Marvel or DC would like or Oni or Dark Horse. They were very much, any way you draw comics is valid, you just have to practice and put in the hours and be good at honing your particular individual voice as a cartoonist. That appealed to me a lot. I wanted guided attention as I went down my own weird little queer comics path.

Did you start As the Crow Flies right after you finished school or while you were still there?

I started it as part of my senior thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I think I drew the first 36 pages while I was there. So I had a little bit of guidance from the faculty members as well as the other students and my thesis advisor for the early section, and then continued it after I graduated and moved on.

Where did the idea for As the Crow Flies come from?

Some of the inspiration is autobiographical. I was a queer kid growing up in a conservative Christian community and got packed off to summer camp every year. A lot of times those summer camps were backpacking camps. I lived right at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Denver so it was very easy to find wilderness outdoors camps where you send your kid for a week or two. So I ended up doing a lot of that. I have a lot of very vivid memories of that whole experience. I didn’t want to draw a strictly autobio story about that because I felt like my own personal stories about that are probably not interesting enough to make a good book out of. Because of my overall experience of the camps as a whole, and the year upon year of going to situations like that, I felt like I had enough insider knowledge that I could make a good fictional story out of it. You can give yourself a little more emotional distance from some of the less great things that happened by putting it into a fictional context. Also growing up next to the Rockies which is just a beautiful place so a lot of the landscape drawing that goes into As the Crow Flies is pulled pretty directly from my own memories of being outdoors and hiking. A few other things get mixed in there too – experiences I’ve had as an adult, faith crises that happened later on in life, gender identity questioning. I ended up rolling up a whole bunch of different influences and experiences into one fictional book.

You spent a lot of time on the landscape. Is this something that comes naturally to you? Is your sketchbook filled with nature drawings?

I definitely like doing it. I don’t think anybody would draw a book like As the Crow Flies if they didn’t like drawing landscapes. [laughs] That would be a nightmare. I do try to do a lot of outdoor sketchbook nature drawing. When I was living in Colorado, I would try to at least once a month take a bus and go as deep into the woods as I could and just spending a day hiking and drawing. I didn’t want to get to the point where I was starting to forget how it looked and how it felt to be in the mountains. I made that a part of my practice while I was out there. Now I’m living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is a lot more flat. [laughs] It’s a little different. So I still try to go out and draw, but it’s not quite the same. I’m relying a little more of memories and photo reference. I do have a decent size collection of pictures I’ve taken over the years. Overall some of it’s from memory, some of it’s from live sketching out in the wilderness or photo references that I took and yeah some of it’s cobbled together mixtures but I really do enjoy landscape drawing. Which I think probably shows in the book.

Yes, unlike Charlie, I would have guessed that you like hiking and spending time outdoors. But as you’ve been working on this for a few years, how has the story and the process of making the comic changed as you’ve been doing it?

It’s changed in a lot of ways. When I first started As the Crow Flies I didn’t have the whole thing scripted out. I did that deliberately because I knew that I was still growing as a writer and I knew that this was a book that was going to end up taking me years to do. I didn’t want to lock myself down into a script that I knew I would probably want to change down the road. So there are a lot of little subtle things that have shifted over the course of me making the book. I’ve learned more about the characters, I’ve learned more about the themes in the story that I want to write about, and also the world has changed a little bit. I started it in 2011 and we’re in a very different place in 2017. Things like that alter the course of the narrative and the ways that I’m building the characters and their relationships to each other. Probably not anything that too many readers will pick up on in a really striking way.

If you work on a comic for five-six years and you keep drawing every single day, you’re going to become a better writer and a better artist over the course of it. I’ve gotten a lot better at drawing and writing over the course of the story. I think that the end of the book has a different feel to it in a lot of ways than the beginning of the book. A lot of that is because you’re looking a bigger spread of work over the course of that 270 some pages. You see a lot of personal progress as an artist which is something that happens with anybody who is still relatively young or new in their career and working on a long form project.

When you say that you didn’t script it out, did you had the plot and the structure mapped out from the beginning? Has that remained the same?

That has more or less remained the same. I always knew what the overall narrative arc was going to be. I knew the important points I wanted to hit. I knew where I wanted the story to land at the end and what’s going to happen at the climax and the necessary stuff I wanted to get through in the middle. It’s more the path that I’m taking to get to those important points that shifted a little bit in subtle ways over the years that I’ve been working on it. Also I think the characters have changed and evolved a little bit. That’s largely me thinking about them more, writing about them more, and learning about them more. They’re growing as entities in their own right and that does shift the way that the story progresses because they become richer human beings over the course of writing this.

One reason I ask is because I read this in one sitting before we talked and Chapter 3 felt a little different. It was slower and more deliberate, there was more focus on the landscape, you got into the characters a little more. It felt more confident, I would say.

I believe that. Throughout this book, I’ve given myself permission to experiment and try new things. I think you can see that in Chapter 3, especially, because I gave myself permission to do things which are sometimes unusual – especially in webcomics. Like the sequence in the middle of chapter 3 which is entirely silent which is just panels of Charlie moving through the wilderness. I don’t know that I would have been confident enough to do that in the early chapters of the book, but by the time that I got to Chapter 3 I’d been working on this for several years and I’m more confident of my skills as a storyteller. It’s about me going, why the hell not, I’m the boss of this comic, I can do what I want! [laughs] I’ve found that the more that I give myself free reign to try things, the more that I grow as a cartoonist overall. I’m still always trying to push myself in the hopes that the next page that I draw is going to be even better than the ones that came before it. I think the best way to do that is to consciously give yourself permission that it’s okay to try things and it’s okay to fail sometimes. It’s okay if those experiments don’t all work because it’s all part of a learning process. So yeah I think you can probably see a little bit more of that coming out in Chapter 3. It’s also the work of an older writer, too. In my advanced age of 29 years old. [laughs] But the more that I grow up as a person, my narrative priorities change. My understanding of the spaces that Charlie is moving through – and also her emotional connection to both the wilderness around her and her relationship to God, which are two very tightly knit themes in this book – change. The more that my own feelings evolve on that, the more that starts to get reflected in the story itself. I don’t say too much about that on the surface of the story because I don’t want to weigh it down with too much philosophizing, but there’s internal thought processes that go into all these storytelling decisions. That and a certain amount of risk taking that I think is easier to do when you establish the framework and know where you want to go with this story. So yes, it happened in chapter 3 and will probably happen more in Chapter 4. Especially because Chapter 4 is where a lot of the shit hits the proverbial fan in terms of this story.

I read that you work at a fairly small size.

I do. My originals are 7 by 8 1/2 inches. What it is is a pad of 14” x 17” bristol board cut into quarters. That was entirely a decision that I made when I was a poor grad student and wanted to economize the amount of expensive bristol board that I had to buy. [laughs] The downsize of that is that it’s a weird size to make a book out of. That’s not a standard graphic novel size, but the smallness of the size works for me because colored pencil is such a tedious medium. Essentially every square inch that you add onto a page is going to mean extra time that you have to spend on it. As it is, these pages take me about ten-twelve hours each to draw. It’s already a pretty significant time commitment as is, so if I were to make them any bigger I think it would just slow down the process even more – and I’m already very very slow. But yeah, they are pretty small.

So the book is almost the same size as your originals.

The book is a little bit smaller. The books are 6 1/2 by 8 inches so relatively close to the size of the originals. The art gets printed smaller because the books have bigger margins.

You’ve talked a lot about using colored pencils over the years, but you do mention on your website that “On average, 1.33 colored pencils are sharpened into oblivion per page.” I just love that phrasing. Can you walk me through how you draw a page? Because you’re penciling and then using colored pencils over every square inch of the page.

The only thing that gets inked are the word balloons. The text is done with microns or whatever I have lying around. Everything else is all colored pencil. It all happens on the same piece of bristol board, so the originals look more or less like the final pages that get printed. They have the layout and the colors and the lettering all there on one page. Which I don’t actually recommend to other cartoonists, because it makes a whole lot of extra work for you to have it all on the same page.

I will pencil it with regular graphite pencils. Colored pencils is a layering medium and I have five colors that I use for As the Crow Flies. After I do the graphite pencils I’ll usually start with the middle tones, usually orange for this book. I’ll go over all the pencil lines, sort of as if I was inking them, with orange pencil. Then I do a tonal map where I fill in all of the areas of the page in that orange pencil. More thinking about which areas of the pages need to be dark and which areas of the page need to be light, and less so thinking about which parts of the page need to be orange and which parts do not need to be orange. When you look at these pages, almost every square inch has a little bit of all the other colors in it. With some exceptions – the skies are usually just yellow and cream. But almost every square inch of the page has some combination of those five colors mixed in there in some sort of layer. By the time that I’m done with these pages there are probably ten-twelve layers of color deep. There is a whole lot of coloring something with one color and then picking another color and going back over it, taking another color and going over that and you just build up this layer cake of colors. Especially for the dark areas. Any time a pure black shows up in the panel art, that’s usually 6 or 7 layers of orange, green and magenta piled on top of each other because you have to just keep going over it and going over it and mixing those colors in order to get a black out of the color palate that I’ve chosen – which does not have a black in it.

How did the book end up getting published by Iron Circus?

The very first time that I worked with Iron Circus was when I got a story accepted into The Sleep of Reason which was the horror anthology that they put out. That was my first big break in the comics biz. I really didn’t have any professional experience behind me. I was fresh out of grad school. I was so floored when Iron Circus accepted my story. I was so excited. I got an actual paycheck for drawing a comic. It was so much fun and I loved working with Spike. We became twitter buds after that and she knew about As the Crow Flies and about a year and a half ago she sent me an e-mail that was like, “Hey Mel, when are you going to publish As the Crow Flies? Can I do it?” I was really excited about the chance to work with her again. Also I’m so excited about the direction that Iron Circus is going these days with expanding their line and the selection of books that they’re picking up and just the overall quality of Iron Circus books. I was really, really pleased that I got the chance to work with Spike on a project like this.

You also announced that you’re working on another graphic novel, Stage Dreams.

That’s with Lerner Graphic Universe. That won’t be out for a few years. I think the release date is Fall 2019. It’s a short graphic novel, only about 90 pages, and it’s a queer western romance adventure story. So it’s a whole lot of stage coach robberies and ridiculous espionage hijinks and ladies kissing – because those are all things that I love in a story. [laughs] This is more of a fun escapist adventure story. It’s definitely not as dramatic or heavy as As The Crow Flies is.

So this is Volume One and it has the first three days. Is this roughly the halfway point?

More or less the halfway point. The story all told is going to encompass five days. Volume 2 will probably be about the same length of volume one, maybe a little bit shorter. I don’t have a good date in mind for when that’s going to be available because it pretty much depends on how quickly I can draw the next 200 pages or so and I am very slow. [laughs] So it may be a few years.

I was not going to ask.

[laughs] It’s fine.

The book is out this month; would you like to send us out with the sales pitch?

The book is available through Iron Circus – and Iron Circus is working with Consortium which is an imprint of Ingram so it should be available in bookstores.

The overall sales pitch for the book: It’s a story about queer and trans teenagers who are stuck in a Christian youth camp and befriend each other and build community and keep each other safe along the way in the face of a lot of micro-aggressions and discrimination from white Christian feminist spaces that embody this camp. It’s all drawn in colored pencil, so if you’re a fan of ridiculously detailed mountain landscapes then this is a good book for you. If you’re a fan of LGBT coming of age stories and friendship stories then this is a going to be a great book for you. It’s for ages 12 and up. The characters are all 12-13 so I like to say it’s good for pre-teens to adults.

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