Melanie Gillman’s Stage Dreams: A Story of Queer Romance and Espionage!

Stage Dreams Character Designs via Melanie Gillman

There is a great deficit of happy stories about queer and trans people, so it’s extra exciting to find an artist that creates them. Melanie Gillman has been a champion of such stories, and has been building impressive body of work. They currently draw As the Crow Flies, a webcomic about a queer 13 year old navigating the treacherous experience of an all-white Christian summer camp, they organized and edited The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance, and, most exciting, Boom! just announced that Gillman is writing the new ongoing Steven Universe comics. In 2017, Gillman will head to Tulsa, Oklahoma to join the cohort of talented writers and visual artists as a Tulsa Artist Fellow. What better way to end the year than by announcing a brand new graphic novel?

In Spring of 2019, Lerner Publishing Group’s imprint Graphic Universe will release Stage Dreams, a young adult graphic novel set in New Mexico Territory Desert in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. Flor, a charismatic Latina outlaw, kidnaps Grace, a charming, upper-class trans woman. In Grace, Flor finds an unexpected partner in all senses of the word. Gillman graciously chatted with me about this exciting new book that sits at the intersections of historical fiction, romance, western, adventure, and espionage! Read on for details.

What was your initial inspiration to write Stage Dreams?

I’ve always loved historical fiction, and it’s so rare that we actually get queer historical fiction. In queer lit and queer history, people try to spin that yarn that queer people were basically invented in the 1960s or early 1970s. So, what was queer history before the Civil Rights movement? What was queer history before Stonewall? We know that queer people existed, we just don’t have a lot of records on what their lives were like. Historical fiction is my way of trying to fill in those gaps.

It helps me personally feel connected to my own history when I’m able to imagine how people’s lives might have went. I also really love writing about the history of the West. I live in Denver and we’re really close to the Rocky Mountains, and we’re bursting with pioneer and western history. I was interested in coming up with a story that meshed all of these interests together, and I also really wanted to write something that was goofy and fun and an adventure story where cute ladies get to smooch at the end.

Stage Dreams Promo via Melanie Gillman

Why set Stage Dreams is in New Mexico in 1861, which is a very specific time?

It worked out well for the kind of story that I wanted to tell. I wanted something that was set in early Civil War history, and as I was diving into research of what was going on in the western half of the country during the American Civil War, I started to realize that New Mexico territory in particular had some fascinating history behind it.

Basically, you have Arizona Territory and New Mexico Territory which, at the start of the Civil War, [are] under Union control, technically speaking. They’re actually a mix of Confederate sympathizers and Union sympathizers all living together, also intermixed with a whole lot of predominantly Latino people and Native people who couldn’t care less about the Civil War. They’re sort of like, all right, the weird northern white people are fighting each other.

I wanted something that was set in early Civil War history, and as I was diving into research of what was going on in the western half of the country during the American Civil War, I started to realize that New Mexico territory in particular had some fascinating history behind it.

So the Civil War breaks out and the South really wants to take over all these western territories for a lot of reasons. Part of it is that they really want to make it to California because California has unblockaded ports, and they’re hoping that they can still maintain trade with Europe and get some European support behind them. California also has a lot of Confederate people who moved out there for the Gold Rush and are still living out there… but the South is like, if we can get to them in California we can bring them back. The South desperately needs troops because their population doesn’t compare to the North. They also want to make it out there because they still think there’s gold in California even though it’s many years past the 1849 Gold Rush. What they really need is a train line that goes all the way out to California, and the quickest overland route for a train line goes right through New Mexico and Arizona.

It sets up this really interesting dynamic where the South starts pushing up through Texas and into Arizona Territory. Arizona territory falls very quickly and easily in 1861, and then after that, in the Santa Fe area, everybody knows that the Confederacy is invading any day now. Everybody’s kind of running around trying to figure out, how do we prepare for this?

That’s tense!

Yeah, it ended up being a really interesting time period to set a story in. It conveniently worked out narrative-wise because this is a story about espionage, and the two main characters are taking advantage of this tense situation to be like, well, if we obtain information from the Confederate troops, we can sell it to the Union.

It’s interesting because I never heard about any of this when I was learning about Civil War history. It was really fun to dive into that and invent ways two kinda goofy ladies could walk into this scene and have a little agency in the broader landscape of this war.

How did you go about doing research for Stage Dreams? Or did the research come before the story?

They kind of developed at the same time! I did a little bit of research beforehand just to make sure that I was getting the basic facts right, and then I wrote the story itself. I was able to do that because the more important parts of the story, rather than the historical background, are the characters and their lives and interaction. I knew once I got the basic historical story down that I could fill in the character’s lives and overall narrative, and then go back to the research end of things.

It’s historical fiction, I am blurring a few lines along the way, but I wanted to make sure that I got at least most of the stuff right.

For the research part, I went to my local public library. In Denver we’ve got really great resources for historical researchers; the Denver Public Library system is astonishing. The librarians really helped me out there. It’s funny, I went into the library and I was like, I don’t know how many books on such a specific topic as New Mexico, 1861 there will be, and au contraire! There was like an entire shelf dedicated to exactly that topic, which both speaks to the Denver Public Library being really on the ball about having a good collection and also just that historians freaking love to write about the Civil War. I dived into the library for a couple weeks and read a whole bunch of books, just to make sure things are mostly on the level. It’s historical fiction, I am blurring a few lines along the way, but I wanted to make sure that I got at least most of the stuff right.

The editor I’ve been working with has been great about catching me on things. He spent a really long time going through all the slang in the script that I sent him and being like, well, you know this phrase right here actually dates back to 1870, not quite the 1860s.

When I think of Civil War stories I don’t think espionage! I think, especially in school, you typically just get a bigger picture of things. How big a role does the espionage piece play?

Pretty big; that’s the main driving narrative force in the story. One girl is a runaway, [and] the other girl is an outlaw who abducts her and initially hopes to ransom her for cash, but then is convinced that this runaway girl can help with an espionage mission. And again, they’re taking advantage of the tense political climate where the Union army knows that the Confederacy is coming in, and is probably desperate for any amount of information. So here walks in this southern girl who’s really good at talking to Confederates and has a very convincing Georgian accent. She can help out this rough and tumble outlaw who doesn’t know anything about Confederates and definitely doesn’t sound like a southern girl. She can help her infiltrate this army cotillion essentially in hope of gaining information. That’s the bulk of the book; them figuring out how are we going to do this, how are we going to make it work, and then actually, on the scene, going into it with them.

…women spies were actually really really active all throughout the Civil War because of gross sexism at the time, where men tended to assume that women were innocent and naïve.

It’s interesting too; women spies were actually really, really active all throughout the Civil War because of gross sexism at the time, where men tended to assume that women were innocent and naïve. If you were a good enough actress you could waltz into these places and be like, I’m just a regular old girl! And men would trust you. There were a ton of really interesting women spies working both on the Union and on the Confederate side all throughout the war, and were in a lot of cases more influential than the men. Harriet Tubman was working as a Civil War spy for many years, so there’s a really rich history of women going in and fucking things up. It was really fun to get to draw on some of those stories and have that be an element of the narrative, ‘cause you don’t get to hear too much about that in Civil War history.

Stage Dreams Character Designs via Melanie Gillman
Meet Stage Dreams’ leading lady spies! Flor and Grace.

Your webcomic, As the Crow Flies, is also aimed at teens and young adults. What draws you to write for this audience?

Part of it is that same line that all queer YA authors give, that I really didn’t get this when I was a kid and I desperately wanted it. As an adult I’m like, I have the power! I can make these things happen for kids today! It’s also just fun writing for young audiences. It gives me a little more permission to be imaginative and creative with the narratives, and to just to make it fun. That’s something that you don’t get a lot in queer fiction in general; just stories of queer folks going out and having adventures! And also falling in love – it’s a good romance, and no one dies, nothing bad happens to them. There’s a little bit of reverse childhood fulfillment going on there; making the books I wish I had as a kid. But it’s also that I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It’s a really fun age group to write for.

On the opposite side of things, are there particular challenges you face to keep things age appropriate?

I do have to rein myself in sometimes, much less with As the Crow Flies, because it’s a self-published book. I’m definitely of the opinion that kids are very sharp and you don’t need to sugarcoat things. If anything, they can tell when you’re sugarcoating things for them.

It’s been a little bit different with this book, and it’s not that I feel differently about my readership in this case. A lot of what it comes down to is that I really wanted this book to be European album sized, so like a fancy hardcover edition, kind of like Fantasy Sports.

It’s an exact 100 pages?

The script right now is like 83 pages of comics, and there is gonna be a little bit of front and back matter; some historical orientation and a few historic notes in the back. It’ll be around 100 pages total, which definitely puts it in that Euro album edition. Lerner was like, well, your artwork is so detailed, it’s going to look beautiful, it’s going to be really immersive, but a lot of librarians are gonna shelve this in the children’s book section if it’s that size. So I need to watch my language a little bit.

One of the big battles that I fought when I was writing the script for this book was that I really wanted the rough and tumble outlaw protagonist to use very colorful language, on the level of like, “God’s Tits!” as a swear. I might not get away with that now because it’s going to look like a children’s book to a lot of people.

That’s a bummer though ‘cause that’s the kind of stuff you can see a kid really loving.

I would have adored it as a kid! You win some, you lose some, and I get the argument that queer comics in particular get challenged so often at the school and library levels. I mean, look at all the nonsense that’s been happening with This One Summer. I can see where my editor was hoping that we could try to pick our battles; maybe avoid a little bit of heartache down the line.

Something I find frustrating is that sometimes librarians will assume certain things about a comic without really considering it. Having to work around that on your end sucks.

It’s an educational thing too because library friends that I’ve talked to about this stuff, it seems like some of the old guard librarians are kind of hesitant – especially towards comics in general but especially queer fiction – whether or not it’s age appropriate for young readers. It’s interesting. This book is an explicit romance – not explicit in the adult content sense, but these are two ladies and one of them is cis and one of them is trans and they’re gonna be smooching by the end of this book! Just knowing that that alone is going to be enough to get this book challenged in a lot of places; it’s interesting going in knowing that. But I’m really interested to see how it’s taken, because other than the fact that it’s a queer romance there’s nothing in it that should be objectionable in any way. If it was about straight people then no one would bat an eye at it.

So in terms of working with a publisher – because normally you get full control over everything in your work – were there any other challenges aside from the challenge of potentially being challenged?

Experiences working with traditional publishers [will] vary depending on the particular publisher that you’re working with. So far, Lerner has been really great. I’m excited to work with them because their specialty as a publisher is getting books into schools and libraries, and they do a little bit in the traditional bookstore market too. I’m excited that they were willing to consider a book like this on one level, and they’ve been really open to my ideas about the book and the format that I want to do. I’m probably getting off easy in terms of my first traditional publishing experience.

Some of that might be that I have built up a reputation for myself as a self-publisher and that it’s clear to everyone involved in this transaction that I don’t necessarily need a traditional publisher for any of my books. I know how to do all of this stuff on my own. Once you get to that level you can approach the negotiating table as, what kind of resources does a publisher offer me that I might now not be able to do on my own?

It puts a lot of balls in the court of the author. It’s something that I tell my students a lot because I want to reassure them. Starting out in self-publishing, starting out in webcomics, the stigma used to be that you’ll ruin your career [and] no one will value it, but it’s the opposite. If you can build up that reputation for yourself and build up your audience, you’ve got clout when it comes to the negotiating table, and that will make things better for you in the long run.

New readers who have never seen your work are lucky; they get to see these beautiful colored pencil landscapes and art. Have you always worked primarily with colored pencils, and why colored pencils?

I didn’t always work with colored pencils! When I first started doing comics I tried really hard to work with dip pens and nibs, partially because I did the thing that a lot of cartoonists do where they’re like, “I want to draw comics!” and then you Google search “how to draw comic,” and Google tells you professional cartoonists use these tools and do this stuff and you’re like, all right! I will teach myself how to do that stuff.

It was bad. I really did not like inking, really did not like inking with nibs. This is when I was at the Center for Cartoon Studies, so kind of on a whim I picked up colored pencils again and started playing around with the idea of drawing a book all in colored pencils. I do have a little bit of history with colored pencils because my mom was a colored pencil artist for many many years. I’ve kind of always known what they’re capable of, because I’d get to see the super beautiful, giant, detailed portraits of horses or whatever that my mom was drawing. Obviously I had to put in a ton of work to get to a level where they look nice.

No other medium makes sense to me on an intuitive level in the way that colored pencils do.

No other medium makes sense to me on an intuitive level in the way that colored pencils do. I guess I think in layers, and I think in color mixing and limited palettes. I also really love the look of them; I really love the soft textures and the atmospheric depth that you can get with them. With any layered medium, there’s not just one level of color or ink sitting on a page, there’s five or six colors and they sort of build up into these layered cakes that sit on Bristol board. It’s almost like you can peer into them; they’ve got a bit of depth to them. It’s a really hard effect to describe in words!

It’s something a lot of people say about Maxfield Parrish’s artwork. He was a Golden Age illustrator way back in the turn of the century and he used to work with egg tempura, I think. It’s a similar thing where he’s applying layer upon thin layer upon thin layer of color until you almost get this see-through layer cake that you can sink into visually. You can do a similar thing with colored pencil because it’s another semi-translucent layering process. It lends itself well to the kind of work that I like to do, which is outdoors and expansive landscapes; very detailed, full color images, things like that. A lot of little things really work for me, but it is a hella persnickety medium.

Sample Splash via Melanie Gillman
Some of Gillman’s incredible colored pencils, for Stage Dreams.

And arduous, right? How long does it take you, from start to finish, to get through a page?

As the Crow Flies, right now, it’s funny, I’m getting slower the longer I take with this book because I used to put less detail into the pages and now I put more! Right now the As the Crow Flies pages are taking me about 12 hours each, start to finish. Those are actually smaller pages. My originals are something like six by eight inches? They’re pretty small. The Stage Dreams pages are going to be a lot bigger. I’m probably going to be doing those somewhere around 11 by 15 or so?

That is a big difference!

A huge difference! Those are going to take much longer to color, but it’s going to be fun, too! I’m really excited to get to work with these giant canvases, especially for a story that’s set in rural New Mexico desert. I got to visit out there this past Labor Day and I spent a whole bunch of time just wandering around arroyos and sketching plants and trees and landscapes and whatnot, and it’s so beautiful out there! I’m really excited that, as long as it’s going to take, there’s a lot of opportunities in getting to draw in that huge scale. The kind of landscapes that are going to be in place for this book – for any Western, landscape is a really important part of it – are going be a lot of fun, if my hand doesn’t fall off.

There’s a little blurb on As the Crow Flies about the number of colored pencils you go through; how many colored pencils do you think you’re going to have to sharpen into oblivion making this graphic novel?

The Stage Dreams pages are going to be twice as big, in terms of area, than As the Crow Flies pages. So probably double the amount as As the Crow Flies?

Do they know you really well at the store, like, oh, here’s Mel, coming to get the colored pencils!

For As the Crow Flies I only use five colors, and I know when my art supply store gets a new shipment of those. I go in immediately and clean the whole stock out! It’s funny because every now and then I’ll hear that they got a new shipment and I’ll go in, and somebody else has cleaned out my colors before me. I’m like, who is it! I need to find this person and fight them!

If you use a limited palette in As the Crow Flies, are you planning to bust out something very different for Stage Dreams?

It’ll be a different color palette but it’ll probably be another limited one. I try to not use more than five colored pencils in any particular scene. The one thing that might be different with Stage Dreams is that the location moves around a lot and the time of day changes a lot too, so I’m probably going to shift around the color palette a little bit with scene changes and things like that.

When I was out at Santa Fe the colors that really struck me were a vibrant turquoise and a salmon and a really pale green that transitioned into yellow, especially in all the rabbit brush. That was one of the benefits of actually getting to go out there and spend time in the wilderness in Santa Fe; I did spend a lot of time thinking about, OK, if I only get to pick five colors to work with, which are the most important ones and how can I strategically pick colors to be blended together in order to form other colors? It’ll probably be a light yellow, a vibrant turquoise, a salmon pink, a dark green and maybe one other, but I haven’t decided on that one.

This book is sure to be a gorgeous and exciting story that, while still being far off from it’s publishing date, will give us something fun to look forward to. To get updates from Gillman while they color until new colored pencils become tiny nubs, follow them on tumblr and twitter. You might get some unexpected sneak peeks!

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.

One thought on “Melanie Gillman’s Stage Dreams: A Story of Queer Romance and Espionage!

  1. This was a great interview, Alenka, and I love the concept behind this GN, looking forward to reading it.

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