This installment of Webcomics Wednesday features Melanie Gilman’s Eisner-nominated As the Crow Flies, a colored-pencil-only comic, now at more than 200 pages and still going strong. (Gillman uses up one and a third pencils per page. That’s a lot of pencils!) At the heart of this story is Charlie, the lone black teen at a Christian outdoors camp for girls. She’s about to embark on a 50-mile pilgrimage up a mountain to a women-only shrine started by a pioneering feminist, Beatrice Tillson, back in the late nineteenth century. Sounds empowering, right?
For Charlie and her new friend Sydney, though, it’s a lot more complicated. Charlie in particularly feels excluded not only because she’s the only black girl (and probably the only queer girl) in the whole camp, but also because she is deeply aware of the fraught history of the woman whose tradition they’re following. The 1860s weren’t the friendliest times for black girls, after all. Not only that, but the camp leader’s careless rhetoric of purification—“whitening” their spirits—makes Charlie question whether she belongs on the trip at all.
Despite her reservations, however, Charlie longs for a connection to God while on the pilgrimage. She prays for signs that she’s in the right place, looking for meaning in every feather that lands at her feet or serene mountain stream where they collect water for the camp. She believes she’s been called here, but in light of how excluded she feels, she begins to wonder whether anyone is listening to her prayers at all.
Gillman has a marvelously delicate touch when it comes to all of these complicated issues, gently peeling back layers to reveal the prejudice in something as simple as a metaphor or a tradition, particularly the way feminism often excludes non-white, queer, or transgender women. Their softly colored panels, additionally, beautifully capture the contemplative mood. They expertly render serene mountain landscapes, from the way the light catches a rocky peak to the bristly needles of a scrubby pine—landscapes that make palpable Charlie’s desire to find some kind of godly connection to the world.
Gillman’s meaningful story is far from over, so start from the beginning and keep checking back on Mondays and Fridays, which is when they update the site.
UPDATE: I’ve changed pronouns referring to Gillman at their request.