Lerner Publishing/Graphic Universe
September 3, 2019
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Three years ago, I interviewed incredible color pencil artist Mel Gillman about Stage Dreams, a young adult graphic novel they were drawing for Lerner Publishing’s imprint, Graphic Universe. We talked about Gillman’s process, and it was fascinating to learn about the laborious, wrist-aching process that goes into creating the gorgeous layer cakes of colored pencil which make their comics so distinct and beautiful. As a librarian I was delighted to dig into Gillman’s research process, which involved a lot of time spent in public libraries, and especially loved exploring how Gillman built a fictional tale about heroic queer and trans teens within a framework of truth and possibility. It’s one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done.
Three years later, the comic is here and I’ve read it, and then read it again, and each time I open it, even though I’m only loading a digital review copy, I tear up a little. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I think this story deserves my emotional response. (Also, I’m a Pisces.) Gillman’s work is so well intentioned and beautifully executed that it might make you cry, too.
The comic is set in 1861, in the New Mexico desert territory, where many dangers threaten travelers. Among them is the Ghost Hawk—a creature many believe to be part hawk and part woman. The Ghost Hawk hunts for stagecoaches filled with tasty human prey, and feeds them to her monstrous children.
Flor, the real Ghost Hawk, likely adores this story. However, she’s a regular human—the kind who dreams of living on a quiet goat farm. (Of course, she plans to fund it by robbing wealthy folk while flirting with pretty girls.) When she swoops a gorgeous young noblewoman out of a stagecoach and plans to ransom her for cash, Flor is surprised to find that the woman is actually broke and on the run. Grace is a trans woman trying to get to California, where she can live as her true self and become an actress. Together, the unlikely pair concoct a plan in which they’ll steal information for the Union and use the reward money to start their new lives.
Right before the book came out in September, Gillman wrote a blog post on the Lerner publishing website about the difficulty of researching queer and trans historical figures—people who often needed to hide themselves in order to survive—and the importance of imagining their lives into the gaps of history. It’s an approach that reminds me a lot of Morgan M. Page’s fantastic trans history podcast, One from the Vaults. In the intro to each episode, Page briefly discusses her approach to history and describes it as “her favorite kind of gossip.” With Stage Dreams, Gillman similarly looks at an interesting moment in history and attempts to fill in some gaps with much deserved queer and trans joy.
And oh—despite their struggles, this comic is full of so much joy! Flor especially is a joyful character; our first glimpse of her face is literally a smaller panel that shows her smile, just before she swings from a cliff to rob Grace’s stagecoach. She’s perhaps not the most thorough planner, as Grace is quick to point out—a dirt poor outlaw doesn’t know how to behave in high society, which kind of makes walking solo into a fancy Confederate party to steal information overly risky—but she’s endlessly optimistic. Her goat farm isn’t a distant, whimsical dream; it’s something she whole-heartedly believes she will have. Ahh, but after just one more very exciting heist, which happens to involve a beautiful girl!
Grace is more grounded and realistic, but she’s also at the beginnings of her joy. There is hope on the horizon in California, where she can fulfill the childhood dream of being an actress. When she runs into the dazzlingly attractive Ghost Hawk, she also begins to meet Ghost Hawk’s compatriots—specifically Luis, a tailor who within minutes of meeting her proves to be an understanding, sweet, and encouraging friend. There is excitement in their heist plan and acting—Grace gets to play the part of a rich debutante, and she’s got all the gossip and, thanks to Luis, beautiful clothing on hand to make her performance a slam dunk. The stakes for both girls are high, but they are having a LOT of fun.
They’re also flirting a whole bunch, and it’s fantastic! Gillman spectacularly illustrates Flor and Grace’s flirty body language. It’s just the right amount of awkward—Flor tells Grace she’s beautiful while standing VERY close to her, and then leaps away when Grace blushes because she’s deeply embarrassed. During the dress-up sequence of the comic, Grace compliments Flor’s lips without thinking, and then curls into herself with shyness. We learn a lot about these girls just from how they dance around each other and attempt to hide their feelings.
In our original interview, Gillman talked about their time researching Santa Fe, and absorbing the colors of the desert that became the comic’s color scheme—turquoise, salmon, pale green, and yellow. These colors make up the palette for the whole comic, not just the stunning landscapes. When they get all dolled up, Grace and Flor’s dresses are vibrant turquoise and purple, which makes them stand out just enough. As spies, they don’t want to attract unnecessary attention, but they do attract eye of the reader just as the adventure ramps up. As always, Gillman’s landscapes are stunning. The weight of their pencils emphasize the endless expanse of the desert, and the treasure that clouds, heavy with rain, carry in such a dry setting.
Stage Dreams contains about five pages of fascinating back matter which provide stories of real life trans people from the era, discussions of race in New Mexico in 1860, the history of women spies and, my favorite—cute minute details that Gillman layered into the comic! I especially loved a note about a sewing bird who appears in Luis’ shop.
I absolutely loved this comic, down to the smallest details. It’s incredible to imagine queer and trans readers picking up this book in a library or a store and realize that it’s made entirely for them. Buy yourself a copy, your teens a copy, your library a copy, or everyone you’ve ever met a copy.