Thirteen-year-old Charlie; a black, queer teen, finds herself in the middle of a Christian backpacking retreat for girls. As the only black camper, Charlie feels like an outsider. From the start, the camp leader, Bee, describes redemption as a “whitening.” As Charlie listens to her, she grows uncomfortable, but chooses to stay quiet and wrestles internally with herself and her choice to come here, which she believes was God’s answer to her prayer.
The group soon sets off on a pilgrimage inspired by a similar one a group of women took in the 19th century. As the hike goes on, Bee tells the story of these women and preaches about feminism, but it becomes clear to Charlie that this feminism only included the white, straight, rich women of the time. A girl like Charlie would never have been included in this first pilgrimage. Feeling more and more out of place, she pleads to God, questioning why she came and begins to doubt herself.
Fortunately, Charlie befriends an outspoken girl named Sydney, who is also an outsider in the camp. Sydney confides in Charlie that she is transgender, but is keeping it a secret for fear of ridicule from the other campers. They find comfort in each other as they discuss their lives, religion, and thoughts, realizing they both are left out of the history of the hike. The story ends before the hikers reach their destination, leaving some questions, but ultimately is still a satisfying conclusion. (As the Crow Flies started as a webcomic and was published after a Kickstarter campaign. Melanie Gillman continues to work on the story of Charlie and Sydney, and a second volume is planned.)
With realistic and detailed colored pencil illustrations and several wordless pages showcasing the scenery of the hike, the book has a strong sense of setting and place. You can feel the sun beating down on Charlie as she struggles up the mountain. The enormity and beauty of the environment make it easy for Charlie to believe in and talk with God. A feather seems to be following her around and she feels it is a sign from above. This splendor also makes the casual racism and homophobia feel like a slap in the face. The juxtaposition of such beauty with ignorance is startling, pulling Charlie and you away from the nature.
The characters are dynamic and diverse. Charlie interacts with mean girls, who tease Sydney for wearing skirts, but by the end one of them has a change of heart. The kindness of Bee’s daughter helps Charlie along the way as well. For such a short and concise story, a lot is addressed; including race, religion, sexuality, and feminism.
With heart and humor, As the Crow Flies makes you think and consider what you’ve been taught about feminism, religion, and history and consider who has been left out of the story.
Appropriate for tweens and older, this is a must-have for diverse and inclusive collections.
As the Crow Flies, vol. 1
by Melanie Gillman
Iron Circus Comics, 2017