“These Stories Are Out There” – Reclaiming Queer and Trans Histories with Melanie Gillman

Editor’s Note: This week’s guest post is by Tiffany Babb and is the first interview by a guest writer we’re publishing here on The Middle Spaces. If you’re interested in pitching us a guest interview or have other ideas for a new kind of contribution to the site please send us a pitch!

From the opening page of Melanie Gillman’s As The Crow Flies (2012)

Melanie Gillman is a queer nonbinary cartoonist who specializes in graphic novels for kids and teens. They received their BA at the University of Colorado Boulder and their MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Currently, they are a fellow in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship as well as a senior lecturer in the Comics MFA Program at the California College of the Arts.

Gillman’s breakout webcomic, As the Crow Flies (2012), follows a young black girl named Charlie on an awkward Christian camping trip. It delves into themes of identity, finding friendship in surprising places, and what it means to be oneself in a slightly hostile environment. As the Crow Flies was named a Stonewall Honor Book and was nominated for the Eisner Award for Best Digital/Webcomic and the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Comic.

According to the As the Crow Flies website,  Gillman sharpens an average of 1.33 colored pencils for each page of completed comic art—which means that they used 383 pencils for the first volume of As the Crow Flies alone! The sacrifice of that many colored pencils comes through powerfully in Gillman’s art, which is rich in deep lush landscapes that seem to shimmer on every page. But landscapes aren’t all Gillman is known for. Gillman’s comics are deeply personal, often funny, and true to the experience of navigating the world as someone who feels like don’t quite belong.

This past summer, Gillman and I met at a little café near Flame Con, New York City’s local queer comics convention where they were premiering their newest work Stage Dreams, a lesbian Western romance published through Lerner Graphic Universe.

Tiffany Babb (TB): I know your work originally from As The Crow Flies, which you began as a thesis project. Can you tell me more about how that project came about?

Melanie Gillman (MG): Yeah, so I was at the Center for Cartoon Studies graduate program at the time. For your thesis you have to produce a body of work, and I did a couple different things. One of them was a lesbian vampire romance comic called Smbitten. That one I haven’t published anywhere because it’s a… student work and it definitely shows. And I also started As the Crow Flies.

As the Crow Flies was inspired by some experiences I had as a closeted queer trans kid being packed off to conservative Christian youth backpacking camps every summer—growing up in rural Colorado at the time. A lot of my memories of the isolation and the anxiety but also of the friendships and connections that you can make as a queer kid in those spaces really informed that work.

It started off with the guidance of my thesis advisors, faculty, other students in the program. I put it online as a webcomic, ‘cause I figured at the time when you’re fresh out of grad school and like “Nobody knows who I am,” I couldn’t really approach publishers with this book yet, but I could put it online for free. You can start building an audience that way.

I just kept it up after grad school. The audience slowly started building for it. Word started to spread about the comic. I also grew a whole lot as an artist and a writer over the course of about five years of drawing that book. Eventually, I was approached by C. Spike Trotman, of Iron Circus Comics, who liked the web comic, liked what I was doing, and was interested in doing a print version of it. So yeah, I signed it over to her. And it’s been great.

As the Crow Flies’ Charlie realizing just what she’s in for.

TB: As the Crow Flies is such a tender story. It seems deeply personal, but it’s also very honest to the characters you’ve created. That seems like it would be a difficult task to accomplish because you were writing as you went along for a decent chunk of it. How was that?

MG: Definitely. I mean, when you’re working with such a long story—and the first volume of As the Crow Flies was about 270 pages. It took me about five years to complete that amount.

What happened was that I realized, as far back as grad school, that if I tried to script the whole thing out, and then have all the writing done, and then draw all the pages from there, by the time I got to the end of the book, it would be like working with a writer that was me five years ago. So that writer has five years less experience than present-day Melanie would when they were trying to draw those pages.

So, it ended up being, just for practical reasons, a better method to script out in small chunks. I’d script out twenty or thirty pages at a time. Then I would draw those and go back and repeat the cycle. The benefit of that was that it allowed me to grow and expand as a writer the same time I was growing and expanding as an artist.

The overall narrative arc of the book is the same, but little details along the way, little bits of characterization, little bits of thematic nuance are stronger in the final product because I gave myself that space to adapt and change as a writer while I was producing the [print] book.

TB: Twenty to thirty pages…that’s around the size of a comic book…

MG: Yeah, like a single issue, sort of. I tended to think of it in terms of scenes. Like “I’m going to script the scene when Charlie is talking to this character.” You think of that little scene as its own little narrative arc in a way. You can write that little chunk of story, and once you’re done with that, you can think about the next one.

TB: Your new book is a shorter, single-volume project called Stage Dreams published by Graphic Universe. When you described it to me, you called it a “lesbian western romance.” Can you tell me more about the book?

MG: One of the things I started doing after grad school was that I got really interested in the queer history of the American West, specifically looking for examples of past queer and trans people who lived in the 1800s, west of the Mississippi, rural America. Part of the reason I was interested in that was because there’s this mythology that a lot of contemporary historians have about queer and trans people. Where it’s like, “Oh queer and trans history only dates back so far as the Stonewall Riots” or “Queer people didn’t exist before then” and “There weren’t any queer people in the 1800s” etc… It became a task for me to find those historical records.  What evidence do we have? What did people’s lives look like? If you were a trans person living in the Wild West, what did your life look like?

The records were hard to locate because it’s a tough topic to research. Especially, if you think about the way that we use language today, it’s changed so much. You can’t go into an archive of old 1800s newspaper and search for the word “transgender” because [the word] didn’t exist back then. So, you have to dig a little deeper in order to find those records. But I did dig a lot, and the stories that I found were really fascinating to me.

I wanted to do a book that involved those histories in some way, but a lot of the records that I found were incomplete. There’s not a lot of information about individual historical characters. I wouldn’t be able to pick one interesting person and write a biography about them very easily. But in fiction you can take twenty different people and collage their stories together and take elements from each one of them and come up with a different narrative, which is fictional but which is informed by a lot of historical research that you did.

It’s a way to piece together an entire narrative and sort of fill in the gaps. And it’s a gap that I feel really personally. For queer and trans people, so much of our history is deliberately taken from us. I think that historical fiction is a nice way to step in and reclaim space for that. To say, “No, we know these stories are out there, even if we know these stories were lost or destroyed at the time.” As modern-day queer people, we can reimagine what our ancestors’ lives looked like.

TB: It’s important work, reclaiming queer and trans history. I think that’s a great point, about reimagining and rebuilding narratives that have been lost or destroyed.

MG: This is a semi-obscure reference, but one of the places where I got that line of thinking was this old black lesbian film from the 1990s called The Watermelon Woman. That movie is about trying to find historical precedent for [queer] people’s lives, and at the end of the movie, it has this disclaimer from the director that says, “I made this all up.”

When you don’t have those histories, you have to reimagine them through fiction, and that was very powerful for me.

TB: Your work often touches on the quiet ways people are told to conform and the wordless ways that oppression can thrive. For example, in Stage Dreams, there’s a moment when the protagonist Grace is talking to Luis, a tailor, about what it was like growing up and putting on dresses around her family. She says, “Nobody ever told me to stop. Not in words at least.” Can you tell me more about that?

The beginnings of a romance (from Stage Dreams) [click to enlarge]

MG: One of the things that I wanted to do with Stage Dreams was that I wanted to talk about transphobia that comes from more subtle directions. So much trans literature is heavy on the discrimination and violence. I’m not saying that those things don’t happen to trans people or that they’re inappropriate for children’s literature, but when you’re a trans kid and you’re looking for books in the library and the only thing you can find are very very violent and traumatic works, that sends a message for what your life is going to look like in the future. I don’t think that is positive or helpful for young readers.

One of my tasks for this book was wanting to acknowledge that transphobia is a force shaping Grace’s life throughout. It’s a legitimate fear that she has, and it’s a factor that has played into her history but to do it in a way that isn’t excessively traumatizing young readers while also not playing into the tropes. Transphobia is not always violent attacks. Often [transphobia] is microaggressions, very subtle statements, quiet implications that the people around you will not accept a certain aspect of yourself.

I think for trans people, you develop this hyper awareness and a level of anxiety around trying to anticipate what kind of behaviors on your end might cause violent reactions from other people around you. So Grace is saying “no one ever told me, but I still kind of knew,” because she’s keeping her own safety in mind and trying to anticipate what are the potential things that she could do that will put her in danger and to find a way to avoid them.

It’s such a juggle that trans people are constantly navigating throughout their entire lives. In particular, when dealing with existing in predominantly cisgender spaces.

TB: There’s a lot of emotional and social labor you’re talking about that is exhausting and in itself a tool of oppression.

MG: A little part of your brain is always going to be on edge trying to anticipate what might be the consequences of what you want to do.

Spies have to get dressed fancy too. (from Stage Dreams). [click to enlarge]

TB: In your comics, you have a very distinct visual style. Your art is so warm and alive. You’ve talked a bit elsewhere about your art process, but how do you go about designing a look for one of your books?

MG: A lot of the art style comes intuitively for me. I think every cartoonist’s style is very individual to them, kind of in the way that every person’s handwriting is a little bit unique. You don’t really think about it a lot of times. It’s just the way your hand moves across the page.

I think there’s something similar in comics, where the way you tend to draw is an extension of something like your handwriting. It’s very natural and intuitive to you. Unless you deliberately try to mimic a particular style, which is a different thing.

But for [Stage Dreams], one of the things I was thinking about was wanting to bring in color and softness and a richness, a level of colored pencil texture that would feel really warm and safe and inviting for young readers. It would also have a little bit of a look to it—like a period piece. There’s an organic, hand-drawn softness to it that I hope will evoke the dusty feel of being in the New Mexico desert. How everything is a bit beaten up and sunbaked and dirty, but there’s also a lot of color and life and energy to all of the surroundings that you’re seeing as you’re moving through these spaces.

Historical research was also a part of how I was designing a lot of the set pieces. I spent a lot of time—for the landscapes I actually went out to Santa Fe and spent a couple of days roaming around the deserts and the arroyos doing sketches of the plant and thinking about the colors that I want to bring into this book.

I also visited a lot of history museums in the area, trying to look for photo references of historic buildings, and costume references. There were a couple moments when I had to cheat too. The confederate ball takes place in a building that didn’t exist until a couple years after the events that happened in the book, but I was like “This was the style of the building that I want to have in this piece, so I’m just going to fudge it anyways.”

TB: You mention you were checking out museums. Were those the archives you were going through or were you searching online archives?

MG: A little bit of both, actually. I travel a lot for comics, you know, for conventions. Any time I can take an extra day in a new city I try to dig into a local history museum and see what they have available that I can glean from.

There’s so much Civil War history that’s being archived in history museums across the country. Almost any local history museum, if it’s in an area that had any connection to the Civil War whatsoever, has some amount of documentation from the war and exhibits that you can visit and take reference photos from.

I also did a lot of online archive research, especially for trans history. The local history museums, they’re great on things like Civil War research, and they’re not always so great on things like trans history. But there are a few resources out there that are doing really great work in trying to archive old historical records of trans people, like the Digital Transgender Archive. It’s an amazing free online resource that is collecting old newspaper articles, old books, old journal entries. Anything they can find that points to the existence of trans peoples’ lives in the past. It’s really easy to search too. You can search by identity, by location, by time period. That was invaluable when I was doing a lot of research.

There are a few local [queer archives] too. I started the research process for [Stage Dreams] when I was still living in Denver. I went through the online archives of the Colorado GLBT historical society to see what they had. So being able to access things like that was very useful. It’s really a mélange of different research from a bunch of different places that you have to cobble together to make your fictional narrative.

TB: Why the Civil War?

MG: A lot of it was actually that I found out about this weird piece of Civil War history that happened in New Mexico. I didn’t even know there was a Confederate campaign to take over the New Mexico desert, early on in the war, and it was turned away by a regiment of Union troops that [fought back] in this giant mud fort.

I really got interested in the history of women spies in the Civil War. There’s a lot of juicy thematic stuff that you can dig into with women spies in the Civil War. They were positioned in a way that, because of the way that sexism functioned at the time, women tended to be written off. Like “No women could be spies because they were too dumb” or something like that. Which gave them an advantage in that particular space because they were less suspicious when they were trying to spy for the various sides. I started digging into that history [a couple good places to start: Uncivil Podcast, this Smithsonian Article, and again, the Digital Transgender Archive], and that seemed like a very fun and rich topic and also a topic that I never learned about in any of my history classes.

It seemed like a fun idea to tie that to a queer and a trans narrative too. Just to tie in more of an adventurous element and to bring in a broader American history that maybe young readers haven’t heard of before. I think if you’re not growing up in New Mexico where these historical sites are nearby, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this [Confederate campaign] before. That’s one of the fun things about historical fiction too, bringing different parts of history back into the limelight.

TB: You’ve got some great historical notes in the back of Stage Dreams, which were fascinating to read. I’m sure they’ll be useful for teachers in the classroom too. Is that why you included them?

MG: It’s a combination of reasons. Talking to my publisher, we knew that teachers and librarians and students would be really interested in this. But also, I just had so much fun researching it on my own that I wanted to share a little bit more of it. You can’t always get all of that information into the pages of a comic because the comic should first and foremost be a fun narrative. You can’t drag it down too much by being like “Let me tell you about the sewing birds in the tailor’s shop!”, but you can have a little appendix in the back that talks about it.

I also definitely wanted a space to bring in more of the queer and trans history that I found along the way. I wanted readers to know, coming away from this that even though this is a work of fiction, doesn’t mean that trans people themselves were fictional in the past. I wanted to make sure there was something in the back that pointed out that this is a book inspired in many ways by real historical figures.

Because again, queer people and trans people, we aren’t told about it enough. We aren’t told enough that we have these ancestors, we have these historical narratives that go back through every time period. It’s just that these records have been lost over time. I really wanted to make sure that teachers, librarians, and kids who are reading this book have that historical note that points towards actual historical figures.

TB: Your stories give voice to people who are usually silenced, both over history and in the present. They are told to be quiet, to keep their emotions in. And yet the faces that you draw are so expressive. There’s something really significant about that, I think. Can you talk more about allowing your characters to feel non-societally-acceptable feelings?

As the Crow Flies’ Charlie bonding with fellow camper Sydney.

MG: Yes! Well, part of the facial expression thing is that I like doing it. I like drawing silly faces on everyone. One of the amazing things about comics is that you can communicate so many things non-verbally.

In human conversation— this may be a junk science statistic…that I read on the internet once—something like 90% of human communication is expression and body language based. That’s something that you can really bring forward in comics that would be harder to do in a non-visual medium. It’s harder to do that in prose without excessively describing facial expressions. In comics, you can have silent panels when someone’s face and body reactions speak volumes to how they’re feeling. My favorite ones show the internal struggle when you are feeling a thing but trying to show you’re not feeling a thing.

That dual identity is such a classic trans experience…you’re experiencing emotions but trying very hard to control how you are communicating those emotions to the outside world. Again, because [how you communicate emotions] can put you in danger. Too much candidness can put you in danger. This whole story is about going into a spying situation, going in as actresses. So, you’re trying to be very in control of your face and your expressions and your body language the entire time because you’re trying to project this notion to the outside world, even if it’s not a true notion.

There’s a lot of parallels between the spying narrative and trans people moving through the world. There’s a little bit of acting that goes into being a marginalized person. It’ll come out in different ways in different situations for different people, but it’s a thing that we all kind of have to learn to do at some point.

TB: On that note about visual mediums, why the medium of comics?

MG: For trans literature in particular, visual depiction of trans people in American media is so often controlled and produced by cis people. That is a problem oftentimes because cis people often have particular notions of how trans people are supposed to look or supposed to act which are not accurate or true or as nuanced as they should be. The wonderful thing about comics, if you are a trans author writing a trans narrative, is that you’re drawing from your own memories of your own community and the people you love around you. You’re able to visually control how your characters are perceived by readers, and that is so important for trans narratives in particular, I think.

Obviously, it was a joy getting to develop the visual look of these characters in this world and do it in a way where it’s all coming through my own lens as a nonbinary author and as a person who is invested in my own queer community around me. Being able to put that on the page is just really a beautiful thing.

One of the things I love about comics is that they are probably the closest medium out there for you as a reader to be able to see through another person’s eyes because that’s what the act of drawing is. I’m depicting the world as I see it, as an author.  When readers look at trans characters that I have drawn, what they’re seeing deliberately on the page is the love that I have for the community and the people around me put down into a visual form on paper. That’s magical in a way, and that’s something only comics can do.

TB: Thank you so much for your time today. I know you just got this new book out, but is there anything else your readers should be looking forward to from you in the future?

MG: The big thing that I’m working on right now is the second volume of As the Crow Flies. That’s been going on behind the scenes, and I am hoping to restart the web comic version of that, hopefully in the next six months or so. I’m in the middle of building a buffer of pages and getting the whole website redesigned. It’ll take some time, but eventually that’s going to come back. That’ll also be published by Iron Circus, but probably not for a couple of years because I am very slow.

Other than that, I’ve been working on some short form things, a couple of new pitches that I’ll be sending out to my agent and publishers down the road, which I can’t really talk about it too much because they haven’t been sold anywhere. But yeah, keeping busy.

* * *

Melanie Gillman is redefining what sorts of stories young people should have access to through their groundbreaking work in portraying (and reclaiming) queer and trans narratives in comics. Not only are Gillman’s stories intimate and personal, they also place young queer and trans characters in settings in which they have existed but have not necessarily been represented.

For those who have any interest in queer fiction, I highly recommend picking up Stage Dreams from Lerner Graphic and checking out As the Crow Flies at www.melaniegillman.com. Keep up to date on Melanie’s work through Twitter @melgillman and on Instagram @mgillman.


Tiffany Babb is a poet, essayist, and comics obsessive. She has an MA in American Studies from Columbia University and is currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. She is particularly interested in writing about genre, story structure, and seriality. You can find out more about her work at www.tiffanybabb.com and follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow.

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