Web comics are a dime a dozen these days, it seems. Yet occasionally, out of the depths rises an occasional bright star. A few years ago, that star was Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona—a graphic novel that often gets described with words like “quirky” and “subversive.”
Total dog whistles, right?
Yep! And when I hear them, my ears hear “queer AF and full of people of color and run out and buy this right now.”
As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman is also quirky and subversive. It’s beautiful, too. It was nominated for an Eisner in 2014. It’s true that 2014 was a long time ago, and, like a lot of web comics, As the Crow Flies has been ongoing for several years. Now, however, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, it’s available in print format from Iron Circus Comics.
I think one of the reasons that As the Crow Flies hasn’t broken out like Nimona did is that it’s still unfinished. The graphic novel collects only the first volume, and the web comic is still ongoing. It’s also very, very slow to update, partly due to the fact that Gillman hand-draws each panel in colored pencil.
The other reason might be its complexity.
I started this review with an ironic poke at people who would shy away from what is often categorized as “social justice warrior” work. It’s true that this story follows a queer, black 13-year-old on a camping trip, but what I left out was that our protagonist, Charlie Lamonte, is at a Christian youth camp run by . . . aging feminists. The story, while being about being “the queer one out,”what it’s like being the only black person in the room, and friendships formed despite (and because of) that status, also takes aim at God, Christianity, and well-meaning but totally hurtful TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists).
Below is a four-panel page showing a conversation that our protagonist, Charlie, has with Sydney, another camper who has been questioning all the God stuff, after they hear the historic story of Beatrice, a before-her-time woman of the 1860s who led women to leave behind their oppressive and abusive husbands and families to follow her on a vision-led hike through the woods.
I won’t spoil why they feel this way, but they’re not wrong.
For me, it’s moments like this that really make this graphic novel stand out. I was especially fond of the spunky Sydney. Other than her tendency to wear dresses in the woods, she’s just who I’d be at a camp like this: too loud, too controversial, and . . . so outspoken as to end up friendless. The relationship that she and Charlie slowly form is another wonderful aspect of this story.
I have to say that I didn’t think I’d ever recommend to people a story about what is essentially a Bible camp, but the way God (or god) is talked about in this comic is always lowercase and with a critical eye. As someone who was raised as a non-Christian secular humanist, this story surprised me by being relatable even when talking directly about Christian beliefs and religion. This story seems especially powerful right now, when so many public figures claim to be Christian while living seemingly unexamined, nonspiritual lives. While Charlie’s relationship to God is a bit part of this, it’s certainly not the only part. It’s much more a classic tale of finding your allies and friends wherever you go.
I hope Gillman will forgive me for saying so, but goddamn this is “subversive” and so, so good.