'As the Crow Flies': loneliness in the great outdoors

Mountains seem to have been big theme among Eisner nominees this year. In High Crimes, the ever-looming presence of Mount Everest reminds the readers of the upcoming dangers posed by nature.

A similar thing happens in Melanie Gillman's Eisner-nominated webcomic As the Crow Flies, although not to quite as perilous an extent. There's no immediate danger here; the mountain is an expanse of wilderness that stretches as far as the eye can see. Long, wordless passages pause to explore the borders, which seem to stretch beyond the page to show that there is no visible end. No tiny towns dotting the landscape, no tiny outposts of civilization beyond a small camp. Just rocks and trees. While there might be a wild animal in that tangle of leaves and branches, that never poses an immediate threat.

No, the biggest danger in these woods is loneliness.

As the Crow Flies follows Charlie, a queer African-American girl who finds herself in what may be the loneliest place on Earth for her: a hiking retreat for Christian, mostly white, girls. She's immediately uncomfortable stepping into the church at the campgrounds, surrounded by Christian imagery and girls who hail from a completely different race. Upon hearing that the camp is all-white, Charlie's mom is immediately upset, as Charlie's father gave no indication it was going to be this way. She sympathizes, offering Charlie the option of coming home with them. This tender act of mercy, though, may have led Charlie to her fateful decision: She's going to tough it out.

Hiking provides an interesting parallel. After all, what is hiking but intentionally making yourself uncomfortable? You push your body through dirt trails, through thick underbrush and clouds of insects. Water isn't filtered, coming instead straight from the river. You sleep on lumpy ground and depend on a fire for warmth. The girls undertake this trip to become closer to nature and thus closer to God, but what if you're not even sure God is speaking to you?

The trip becomes a hellish trial for Charlie, and not just because of the physical challenges -- everything about the situation makes her uneasy. The end of the hike will have a ceremony called "the whitening," which fills her with dread. It feels like something that will rip the identity out of her, despite reassurances from the only other non-white member of their party.

Things that seem malevolent to Charlie, though, seem innocuous to most everyone else. The adult supervisor, for example, is convinced of the hiking retreat's value as a strong stand for feminism. The legacy of the retreat began when the women of a nearby town decided they were fed up with having to constantly feed and clean up after the men. "The thing to take away from all this," says the supervisor, "is that women's community -- what those women were working to build back in 1870, a what we're still building today -- is a threat to male dominance." The story begins to fall apart, though, when the girls ask pointed questions. Each response alienates Charlie more and more.

As the Crow Flies is rendered in a colored pencils, which gives the comic a natural, earthy tone. The nature scenes feel authentically dusty, and the hard edges of the rocks stand out from the softer strokes. It also makes the characters seem small, lonely characters trying to make sense of a confusing world.

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