July 29, 2021

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"Growing Up is Vicious" - The Emergence of Tillie Walden through "Alone in Space"



For whatever reason, my mind likes to work in ways that are chronological and categorical. I love to classify things by their movements; I love the progression of it all: that led to this; the roots of B are in A, and so forth. I can't tell you why my brain works this way, but I realized this penchant even when I was young. The first band I ever loved was Nirvana, and I remember being transfixed by both the way Bleach predicted Nevermind and the way Nevermind represented a fundamental break with many of the sonic qualities of Bleach. The album - if you can call it an album - that seemed to occupy my mind the most, however, was Incesticide. When I was young, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It seemed both familiar and strange at the same time, sounding more like Nirvana than any other release, but also entirely singular. As I grew to understand music more, I had a better grasp of the compilation. I began to understand that the value of the album was not just in the broad sonic qualities that would clearly codify into the Nirvana I would come to know, but in the less obvious notes and tones that emerge in between the clearer sounds, but that might represent the core foundation of the band. I bring up this digression of a metaphor to compare that experience to reading Tillie Walden's Alone in Space, a similar compilation of an artist's earliest published and non-published work, one that gives us a window into her development as an artist and a narrative storyteller. At points, Alone in Space seems obvious, like you could trace the line directly from Are You Listening back through each work and eventually to the clear start point. At other times, it's more opaque, but still recognizable to some degree. Even when it doesn't perfectly feel like a Tillie Walden page, it is recognizable as something that will become a Tillie Walden page. While at other points in the collection, it is only glimpses, smaller hints of who Walden will become on the page. 

I personally came to Tillie Walden rather late, but I did so thanks to Panel Patter, and specifically my friend and colleague, James Kaplan. It was after the hype of On a Sunbeam but before the publication of Are You Listening, which was the first Walden I read upon release. As a result, I can't help but read Alone in Space with that sort of archaeological lens, wondering how her lines would morph into the lush textures I can't help but associate with her while also marveling at how well she was able to embrace the surreal at such a young age. (Who am I kidding, everything she's done has been at a young age!) The most impressive thing about Tillie Walden for me has been the way she manages to balance the surreal with the realistic, almost to the point that she disarms the reader to the point they are almost unaware they've slipped into a dream made manifest on the pages in front of them. That Walden has always appeared to have that grasp is impressive. Even in her debut graphic novel, she found a way to achieve the kind of sublime balance, and it's a trait that she's only continued to hone.

It's hard to classify the stories in this collection by length. Remember when you were in school, and you could read a short story by Hemingway that was only about five pages, and then the next assignment you'd get would be a sixty-page Flannery O'Connor work also classified as a short story? Anyway, I only bring that concept up because it struck me that everything in Alone in Space is significantly shorter than the rest of her career. The collection includes a novella, short stories of varying lengths, and shorter strips, and one-panel pages, all of which offer specific insight into how Walden constructs her narratives. It's fun to see, for instance, Walden musing on the same themes or emotions she'd excavate in Are You Listening in a quick one-page strip. What follows, thus, is my attempt to learn more about the Tillie Walden I know from her most recent publications. I haven't read a single piece in this collection, and most of what arrives on the page here is lifted from my notes as I read it. Obviously, I'm expanding my analysis, but I tried to keep the core noticings and reactions intact. I want to use this essay to document that reaction as much as work through it.

The first third of Alone in Space is dedicated to the reprint of Walden's first published work, a graphic novella titled The End of Summer. In it, Walden highlights the balancing act between the real and the fantastical, and she approaches it with a degree of expertise I find utterly impressive. In his forward to this book, Warren Bernard provides some necessary insight into the inspiration for the story, and it feels like a story positively unique to comics. I'm a sucker for that concept. I love when creators produce works that can only really exist in comics form. I'm sure at some point animation can also achieve the same balance, but I think there is something to be said about this certain type of story that can either only or best exist in comic form. What I love about The End of Summer, and what I'll also admit caused me to flip back and forth a few times to ensure I was picking up every detail, is how remarkably well Walden plays things close to the vest. I'm always impressed when an author pulls back, possibly because I have no ability to do that myself. But Walden doesn't feel the need to explain everything, either trusting that the reader will fill in the blanks or even continue to ponder long after putting the book down. Such restraint is remarkable. That Walden pulls off this feat while still a teenager is even more astounding. I feel that teenagers, quite understandably, have a need to be heard, but more importantly, to be understood. In many circumstances, I'd contend that is why some of the music or literature aimed at young people comes across as a little overwrought when re-examined in adulthood. I don't know how Walden developed that part of her craft at such a young age.

As The End of Summer opens, we are immediately flung into a world that feels somewhat familiar in the vein of a Victorian children's story or one that is Narnia-adjacent. The children of this story - it's a big family of course - live in an infinitely large villa with tunnels and pools that seem absolutely commonplace. There is never any acknowledgment of the extraordinary, no comparison to what would potentially be "our world." It's all laid out straightforwardly. The lack of context we receive is almost more impressive than the actual narrative. Reading it, I was stunned by how tight Walden kept the world, never once deigning to explain to the reader what she was doing. I can't help but find that impressive in any writing, let alone a debut. I'm the kind of reader who almost invariably thinks stories are too long, that more should have been left to the imagination, and Walden truly seems to exemplify that notion in The End of Summer. I found myself paging back and forth as I read to be sure I was tracking correctly. Part of my, for lack of a better word, confusion is a result of the book being black and white. Some of the character designs are just close enough to one another that I often had to double-check. To be fair, I think that is intentional - it is a family, after all. And again, I'll gladly do the work of double-checking. I don't mind. I'd much rather work than read a ham-fisted approach.

Lars is our protagonist, an ill child who opens the collection explaining to the reader that he will likely be dead before Winter's end. Winter, though, for this story, takes on more of a mystical and treacherous connection, elongated a la Game of Thrones to last what the characters estimate to be three years. Lars, who has some sort of unrequited love from his twin sister, rides through the halls of their mansion on a gigantic cat named Nemo. For the core of the story, Walden chronicles the madness of living indoors for three years, gradually depicting the breakdown of the family - an illicit pregnancy, upstairs/downstairs love affairs, jealousy, and, ultimately, the burden of expectation. 

Thus, it is very clear the seeds that Walden has planted in this story will continue to develop and blossom as she progresses on a few short years through her career. She lays the groundwork for the type of allegory she'll embrace in On a Sunbeam and the more surreal sections of Are You Listening, while also prefiguring, via that core theme of the burden of expectation, the core of Spinning. She also establishes the crucial theme she returns to in each piece with increased rigor and vitality, that of the reconciliation of oneself. Walden's characters often need to come to terms with who they are, namely their sexuality, and the fundamental anguish for Lars seems to be that he knows he is going to die before he can become who he thinks he should be, or perhaps even that he has lost what he wants, never to be able to retrieve it. He thus must embrace his fate at a certain point and attempt to interrupt his prescribed course, a trait that becomes a hallmark of Walden's characters taking their lives into their own hands, eschewing the artificial restrictions levied upon them. Walden understands what it means to be young and in need of nothing more than getting out of wherever you are, both physically and metaphorically.

Artistically, it's fun to look at how Walden specifically progresses as an artist. To some degree, it's easy to make some stark comparisons because Walden's most recent work is rightfully characterized by her lush coloring and use of light and shade to add layers to her pages. To another degree, though, it's easy to let that absence of color convince you that Are You Listening is worlds away from The End of Summer, but a closer look at her debut shows the patterns of shading and contrast are there if perhaps not as easily noticeable compared to her full-color work. To be fair, Are You Listening might ultimately represent a big step forward for her style as an artist because it's far more unrestrained in its use of line. But yes, the colors - the colors are something else entirely. It might be even easier to trace Walden's development directly to On and Sunbeam. By the point of its release, Walden's Ghibli-esque line structure seems to have coalesced. You'll notice glimpses of that line structure in The End of Summer, but really, they are only hints. Her use of panels is more rigid and precise, and that's fair - even though she seems to have emerged fully realized as a narrative storyteller, one can't necessarily expect a ton of experimentation in a debut piece. In fact, later in the collection, Walden addresses how she gradually dropped the use of her trusty ruler for a more experimental use of space on the page as she describes some of her earlier strips. 

It is especially intriguing to consider her line structure. The backgrounds of The End of Summer are exceptional and provide perhaps the best pure "art" of the story. The intricacy of detail in set pieces like the ornate front doors of the villa, lavish cakes, and other delectable treats, and long hallways adorned with baroque moldings and tall columns all demonstrate how much effort and attention Walden gives to the world of her work. But it's easy to notice the difference in how she constructs her characters. By the time of On a Sunbeam, Walden seemed to fully embrace her Studio Ghibli-inspired character aesthetic. You can see the seeds of that progression, but it's clear that Spinning represents another step before it all seems to coalesce in On a Sunbeam. The characters of The End of Summer, in interesting contrast to both its backgrounds, are more impressionistic in comparison to the cleaner lines of her later work.

Original Cover of "I Love this Part"

The second larger piece of the book is also Walden's second published work, (what I'll categorize as) the short story, I Love This Part. It probably resonates the strongest with me in terms of its emotional component, even more so than the very visceral end to The End of Summer. This story is really where I see Tillie Walden become who she is as a storyteller and cartoonist. I Love this Part is both beautiful visually and thematically, and it's easily my favorite part of the collection. Told through entirely full-page panels, it either fully embodies the components of Walden's art and storytelling, or prefigures them enough that the next steps seem natural. It looks and feels more like her later work than The End of Summer. She captures the surreal in a beautiful, metaphorical way, depicting the two main characters as giants who tower over the landscape. I can help but feel touched by that metaphor. I Love this Part is a love story, or more accurately, a story of heartbreak, and Walden channels the way a young romance feels at each stage. Her giant girls are larger than life because that's how young love feels. Part of youth is the idea of invincibility, and one hardly feels stronger than when they're at that point in a relationship. They're also isolated - there aren't any other giants around. It's only the two of them - nothing else matters and, more to the point, nothing else can truly challenge them. I can't think of a better way to capture this notion, and again I return to the brilliance that is Walden's ability to hold back, to show rather than tell. That she is creating these works while she is still very much an adolescent herself (perhaps still is if you consider the full maturation of the brain at age 25) allows her proximity to these feelings is one thing; that she espouses with a profound yet subtle consideration is another. 

While the way Walden conjures heartache and loneliness in I Love this Part builds a foundation for her approach to similar themes in the rest of her portfolio, it also represents a significant building block for her artistic style and sees her further honing in on some of the styles of The End of Summer while moving on from others. Specifically, this is where we begin to see her characters look like, well, Tillie Walden characters. This is where you can truly see the Ghibli influence clearly emerge, while it only existed at the edges of The End of Summer. Even more important is the way she brings shade and color to create what I always feel looks like a watercolor aesthetic (though I believe I read she colors digitally). What I love most about this type of style, and what Walden typifies with her own approach, is the wild nature of it. You get hints of this in The End Summer, but it comes out much more pronounced in I Love This Part and will continue as a core element in the rest of her works. 

There is an imperfection of the color (and in I Love This Part, she's truly only using a purplish-gray to accent the other shades) that feels inherently more natural. Too much comic coloring is sharp and precise. There is bleed here, and it's beautiful. Not everything has to be precise. It's even more beautiful in contrast to the way Walden crafts architectural backgrounds. There is a particularly exceptional scene where Elizabeth and Rae complete their homework on top of skyscrapers with fluffy clouds off in distance, the contrast between the precise lines that comprise the buildings and the flowy, almost wobbly lines that shape the girls and the speech bubbles. 

The last longer work in this collection is the short story A City Inside, a work Walden herself describes as one of her weirdest. Not to belabor a point, but it's another prime example of Walden's ability to dip into the surreal, channeling some magical realism to elevate metaphor and bring a daydream kind of quality to another love story. A City Inside represents something different from I Love This Part in that it feels more indebted to The End of Summer than it does predict her future stylistic choices. Her black and white panels are sharper, and she uses thicker shades compared to the lush textures of I Love This Part. One of the hidden treats of Alone in Space is that we see that Tillie Walden did not necessarily move in lockstep from one stylistic progression to the next. Instead, her progression more spirals and loops. She pushes away from a precise geometry at one point only to return to it again before lading on her freer expression of space. She plays with lines, from their thickness to their sharpness, looking for that Goldilocks moment of creativity. Much of this stylistic experimentation and maturation owes itself to the idea that most of Alone in Space essentially functions as a chronicle of Walden's coursework at the Center for Cartoon Studies. What we get is almost a portfolio, with some works created deliberately in a style to grow and challenge the young artist, and others representative of the magic of putting a pencil to a page and discovering where it can go. In this particular situation, Walden's voice comes through almost as fully formed as it does on her most recent release. What we get to experience is her journey into how to best amplify that voice with lines on the page. I can't help but imagine that it's almost the reverse of what we'd see if we read a creative writing student's MFA portfolio; I assume most writers would possess the core of their style, and the growth would be how to find their particular voice. 


An early Tillie Walden strip from 2016, the first time she drew space!

But, if you've been following Tillie Walden's career, you probably know most of what I'm saying. You're not some newb like me who jumped on the train late. You've read these when Avery Hill originally released them, and what you're interested in is the end of the book, the collection of some of her earlier work - some pre-publication, some assignments from her CCS time, and other strips commissioned for various online publications along the way. There are two that I find particularly intriguing. One is In the Palm of Your Hand. It's a prime example of Walden's maturation as a cartoonist because it demonstrates how she, very early on, has that sublime ability to toe the line between real and surreal. In much of her early work - both her early published work and the assignments she completes for CCS - Walden experiments giant girls. In some instances, I think she uses the larger-than-life ladies to mine a metaphor, but in other circumstances, I think that she is simply exploring the spatial phenomenon. In the Palm of Your Hand marries the giant girl concept with the themes of fragility Walden explores throughout her work. She explores both the confines and comforts of connection that connotes the kind of feeling your get when you reminisce for just long enough that you start to regret things. 

The other early work that jumped out at me is one that looks to be Walden's oldest work, a short story from 2013, three years before she would publish The End of Summer. If I've spent some time tracking the progression from End of Summer to Are You Listening, there is assuredly an equal if not bigger progression from this work to her early published material. One thing that struck me throughout this collection as a whole is how much she plays with panel layouts, perhaps even more so than other aesthetic considerations like line or color. Walden lays out Glare entirely via six-panel pages aside from deliberately missing panels towards the end of the story utilized to connote the commotion of the climatic event. Yet again, she proves that very early, she was adept at showing us more by telling us less. But outside of that storytelling technique and Walden's subtle yet pointed dialogue, you'd be hard-pressed to realize this is a Tillie Walden strip. She does happen to create some very detailed backgrounds, but everything else looks so incredibly different. Most of the shading and coloring outside of the darkest blacks seems to be done with pencil and the story, set at night (the Glare in the title refers to headlights) is dark both artistically and thematically. It is beautiful, though, to see how she understands the pain of being young while being young. This isn't reflection; there is no attempt to reconcile the past. Glare is the process; it's her feelings laid bare on the page. Walden wryly comments on her angst in the brief blurb that introduces this story, but she connects with a core component that I would contend continues to define her work. She almost dismisses this piece before she tosses a subtle comment, "growing up is vicious." 

Alone in Space is available now. Check out Avery Hill's website for insightful interviews about some of the works in the collection.