Thursday, March 15, 2018

As the Crow Flies

I read As the Crow Flies as an entry in the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards, and I have to admit I went into the text with a chip on my shoulder. From the onset, I thought "young girl goes on a wilderness hike with a church group, not going to be my cup of tea." Boy, was I wrong. Much like the theme of this book, which deals with people's preconceived notions of specific experiences and social groups, I felt transformed by the insights and events depicted in its pages. As the Crow Flies is the best kind of book about identity, where it forces you to look outside of yourself and question your thoughts, values, and prejudices in a real manner. It turns out that this book was totally my cup of tea and one of the best graphic novels I have read this year.

The main story in this graphic novel follows 13-year-old Charlie Lamonte, a black, queer child, who attends an all-girl, all-white Christian summer camp. The centerpiece experience of the camp is an extended hike where the counselors teach them about the history of the place in terms of an exceptional band of independent women. Of course, their messages are replete with assumptions about religion, gender, and some race, which Charlie bristles at.

She feels isolated, alone, and often offended, but she comes to look at things somewhat differently over the course of the hike. Some of this change comes from getting to know Sydney, a fellow camper who has issues of her own, but some of it comes from Charlie's reflections while out in the wilderness.

I have to admit that this book, which collects the narrative of an on-going webcomic, started out pretty slowly, but about halfway through it had me hooked and totally engaged. What I like about it is that it tackles many identity issues with candor and sincerity, offering a complex look at them without offering easy or pat solutions. This book maintains a difficult balance between offering experiences that are relatable while also presenting a nuanced take on identity politics. It turns out to be both compelling as a story as well as engaging as inquiry, which I feel is no easy feat. I am very much looking forward to the follow-up book that continues this story/conversation.
As the Crow Flies is the creation of Melanie Gillman, who has been running this webcomic since 2012. It is a celebrated work, nominated for Eisner and Ignatz Awards, and the recipient of a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators. I very much admire the unique artwork in this book, done with color pencils. The characters are very well rendered and expressive, and the scenery and tone are very well suited to this tale. Gillman talks extensively about their work on this webcomic and book in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been overwhelmingly positive. In a starred review from the School Library Journal, Mahnaz Dar called it "heartfelt, stimulating, and sure to spark discussion about feminism’s often less than inclusive attitudes toward marginalized groups." Caitlin Rosberg concluded, "It’s a story that embraces the truth of how bad things can be without abandoning kindness, and that’s something comics could use a lot more of." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review and called it a "brutally honest and wrenchingly beautiful story of friendship."

As the Crow Flies was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and published by Iron Circus Comics. They offer a preview and some more info about it here. It was originally published as a webcomic, which you can read here.

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