LGBT webcomics: Melanie Gillman gets epic

lgbt webcomics melanie gillman as the crow flies

LGBT webcomics: Eisner-nominated artist Melanie Gillman talks Christian youth camp, life, and their latest epic, As the Crow Flies.

As the Crows Flies is artist Melanie Gillman’s lushly-drawn tale of homophobia and hiking which was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014. When they finish it they plan to celebrate with a rad tattoo! We asked them to tell us more about, well, everything…

Let’s talk… As the Crow Flies

As the Crow Flies is an incredible web comic that has been nominated for the Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize (2013) and an Eisner Award (2014). How would you describe the story to new readers out there who want to know more?

As the Crow Flies is a story about a group of queer teens who befriend each other on a week-long Christian youth backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains. The central theme of the book is about queer experiences in religious spaces that aren’t all that friendly to queer people; how it feels to be erased by your own faith, and how queer kids learn to advocate for themselves. It’s about 250 pages long as of this writing, and drawn entirely in colored pencils.

lgbt webcomics melanie gillman as the crow flies

As the Crow Flies: Art by Melanie Gillman

You went to Christian youth camp yourself. What was your experience of it?

A mixed bag! It can be extremely stressful and isolating, feeling like you’re the only queer or trans person in the camp—or that if there are more queer/trans people, you may never know, because most Christian camps aren’t exactly safe spaces for young queer/trans people to be out in. On the other side, being able to spend time in the mountains always felt very re-centering for me; in a way, I started using that pervasive sense of isolation (both physical and social) to turn inward and try grounding myself further in my faith. That didn’t end up being the healthiest solution—but the experience gave me a lot to draw on for As the Crow Flies.

Are there any characters in As the Crow Flies that you feel especially close to? Are there any you particularly love to draw?

Charlie and Sydney are the ones I feel closest to (probably not surprising!) The two of them are going through a lot of the same issues I went through in Christian spaces as a kid, so I’ve ended up putting a lot of myself in them. Sydney’s fun to draw because she makes the best faces – and Penny, too, because I love getting to make the “cute-older-counselor-everybody-has-a-crush-on” character a muscly drummer lady with a unibrow.

The story is being released as a twice-weekly web comic. Do you know what the ending is? How will you celebrate its completion?

I have the story plotted out to the end, which is probably around 200-some pages away. My guess is that the book will be around 500 pages total by the end. As for celebrating, I’ll probably get a tattoo to commemorate it! Then immediately dive into my next big project.

Let’s talk… artsing

Your colouring choices are so warm and tactile. Do they reflect your mood in that very moment? Or are your colours structured and planned?

Structured and planned is closer to the truth! I’m using five different colored pencils total for As the Crow Flies – ivory, naples yellow, terracotta, magenta, and chrome oxide green. Every page in the book is some combination of those five! But within that limited palette, I organize the colors in each panel to suggest things like temperature, mood, time of day, atmospheric depth, and to draw the reader’s eye to the most important parts of the drawing.

lgbt webcomics melanie gillman fish

“Because some days, all you wanna do is draw fat girls with battleaxes.”

Art: Melanie Gillman. Via Pigeonbits

How do you shape your drawing routine?

I work every day, pretty much from when I wake up until when I sleep, with a few scheduled breaks in between to do things like cook, read, and exercise. It’s actually more work to schedule my not-drawing time! I have to make sure I’m always setting time aside each week to NOT work—it’s really easy for cartoonists to injure themselves by pushing their drawing hand or back/neck/etc too hard. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way a couple times.

lgbt webcomics Melanie Gillman lumberjanes

Variant cover for the new issue of Lumberjanes.

Art: Melanie Gillman. Via Pigeonbits.

Do you prefer to stick to one mammoth project at a time and see it through, like a graphic novel? Or do you break things up with side-projects?

A combination of both! I love mammoth projects, and I’m sure I’ll always have one of those on my plate. I also really enjoy completing smaller side projects, though, and tend to learn a lot from them—small projects are always a chance to experiment and try something new. I wouldn’t recommend anyone focus monomaniacally on just their magnum opus graphic novel—better that you work on a variety of different things, and see what new skills you can gain with each new project.

Indie publishing a print graphic novel must be potentially pretty expensive. Do you think crowdfunding could be the way to go?

It’s been a good option for a lot of creators! Drumming up the several thousand dollars you need to print a book on your own can prove next to impossible for most cartoonists. Kickstarter in particular is great because it works as a pre-order system; ideally, it gives you the money you need to print the book, and a nice cache of pre-orders so you don’t end up with a giant print run taking up your entire basement. It comes with its own set of dangers, for sure – plenty of people have lost money on successful Kickstarters, sometimes because of unexpected changes in their personal life, or even minor mistakes like miscalculating tax or shipping – but it can be a great tool for self-publishers nonetheless.

Let’s talk… LGBT webcomics

Do you think the webcomic format for As the Crow Flies could make it easier to access by readers who may be going through similar things as the characters?

Yes! That’s one of the big reasons I decided to do this as a webcomic in the first place. I love full-color printed graphic novels, but they can be expensive and have limited reach; the internet, on the other hand, is more or less free and limitless. It felt insincere to start publishing a book about this subject in a way that might make it difficult to access for kids going through similar stuff – low-income kids, queer kids living in queer-unfriendly communities, etc. Ideally, once it’s finished, I’d like to have both print and web versions available, so I can keep it up online but also get it into bookstores and libraries.

Have you got some other favourite web comics out and artists there? Do you ever collaborate on projects?

My biggest collaborative project right now is The Other Side, an anthology of queer paranormal romance comics I’m editing along with Kori Michele Handwerker. We’ve got a stellar line-up of 19 different stories, all by different cartoonists, and everyone turned in absolutely fantastic work. (I even got to collaborate with Bitmap Prager on a short story for it, about falling in love with the nonbinary monster who lives under your bed!) We’re in the book-design stage right now, and are hoping to Kickstart the book this Spring. As for webcomics, the ones I’m reading religiously right now are O Human Star, Eth’s Skin, Mare Internum, Star Trip, Agents of the Realm, and Witchy.

As a queer nonbinary cartoonist – as you say, a queertoonist – have you found the internet to be a place where queer, nonbinary and/or creative people can support each other?

The queer comics community has been one of the most welcoming communities I’ve ever been a part of! Knowing I’d have community support from other cartoonists was one of the big reasons I finally felt comfortable coming out publicly as nonbinary. The internet’s great because it’s such a big place, it’s relatively easy to find and make friends with people who are in a similar place as you. If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’m not sure I’d have even been able to name more than a handful of queer/trans cartoonists, and the idea of being able to take part in a giant community of them would’ve sounded like a fever dream. But that’s where we are now! And it’s growing every day.

Let’s talk… present, past and future

Congratulations on quitting your day job in 2015! How does it feel? Are you planning other big changes in 2016? Or even smaller but equally important ones?

I have a few big projects that’ll be released in 2016! At minimum, The Other Side will get published, and the first issues of the Care Bears series I’ve been illustrating for Lion Forge the past year will be released. There’s a chance the first print volume of As the Crow Flies will be put into the works this year, too, though I can’t say anything definite there just yet. Other than that, 2016 will be a year to just keep working, keep pushing forward!

LGBT webcomics Melanie Gillman 2015

Art: Melanie Gillman. Via Pigeonbits

Your first graphic novel, Smbitten, is a lesbian story about swing dance and vampires. What was the inspiration behind this one? (with all that vampirism we’re guessing it’s not fully autobiographical…).

Haha, no, not very autobiographical! This was my first graphic novel, one I completed as part of my graduate thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I think of it as my “practice” graphic novel – it was a short, self-contained book, that gave me a way to practice long-form storytelling and working with colored pencils. Those skills all came in handy once I started working on As the Crow Flies! And the things I’ve learned from As the Crow Flies will hopefully make my next book even better. Every comic builds on all the other comics you made before!

Would you say your work has progressed over the years, in terms of theme or technical approach?

Absolutely. Comics is one of those skills where there’s no real way to learn how to do it, except to do it. And as long as you’re trying new things and pushing yourself, your work will improve noticeably over time. I’ve become a much stronger writer and illustrator over the course of my comics career, and I’m still learning!

Let’s talk… the next generation of webcomics

Do you have any advice for artists who have a big idea and are thinking of setting up their own webcomic?

Get started! The best thing you can do is start working on it. Today. Get a script, get feedback from people you trust on that script, start drawing pages, build up a buffer, then start posting. Audience building can take a long time for cartoonists—10 years is about average—so the sooner you start that process, the better off you’ll probably be in the long run.

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