Women’s History Month: Tillie Walden by Isabella Ruffatti

Tillie Walden self-portrait, credit: Tillie Walden.

As a kid, drawing caricatures was a hobby, sometimes. Other times, it was an all-consuming desire to put something on paper. I would draw pages full of horses, ants marching somewhere, and myself as a cartoon. Then I discovered Argentine cartoonist Quino’s Mafalda comic strips, which followed a young girl’s adventures with her friends. They were accompanied by mischievous social commentary and dark humour. I wanted to tell stories, and comics seemed a good way to combine writing and visuals.

Mafalda comic strip, credit: Joaquín Salvador Lavado (Quino).

So I tried it out. However, whenever I thought about longer comics, I thought about DC and Marvel. The women in comics in their overly sexy outfits and airy storylines seemed to exist for the men only. For all my love of cross-hatching and linework, the hyper-realistic style seemed unattainable and it alienated me- I found fingers hard enough to draw, never mind whole backgrounds. Surely, there was no place for me in comics, either as an artist or a reader. Writing became my priority for the next four years.

Catwoman cover, credit: DC Comics.

Up until recently, I thought that comics weren’t for girls and women. That is, until I saw Tillie Walden’s work.

On a Sunbeam page, credit: Tillie Walden.

Walden is an American graphic novelist from Austin, Texas. Born in 1996, Walden started to draw graphic novels while still in high school after attending a Scott McCloud workshop, and hasn’t stopped since. She has published six graphic novels, some of which have won Eisner and Hugo awards. Currently, she teaches at the Center of Cartoon Studies in Vermont, US. Her work is simultaneously grounded in personal experience and flying high in the realm of the fantastical, tackling subjects such as girlhood and homosexuality in settings like space, a castle, and the world as we know it. The art is beautiful. The carefully selected colour palette is intuitive, linework is simple but purposeful, and the intricacy of the buildings and backgrounds make Walden’s love of architecture evident.

On a Sunbeam cover, credit: Tillie Walden.

She was recommended to me by a friend, particularly the webcomic On a Sunbeam, which I’m overjoyed to say is available online for free. On a Sunbeam is an LGBTQ+ romance set in space. It presents two different timelines. The first is set in the past, following Mia, a young girl during her school years as she befriends Grace, her first love. The second follows her, now a young woman, as she joins a construction crew whose job is to restore old buildings. She has not seen Grace in years but yearns to reconnect.

LGTBQ+ romance isn’t something I’d have associated with either Marvel or DC. Or an all female cast (Which On a Sunbeam has, save for one character, who is non-binary) and diverse characters who avoid common stereotypes. No, I associated hyper-feminine/masculine bodies, superheroes, and constant reinvention with Marvel and DC. Actually, scratch that. I associated all of that with comics. Period. Only until recently did I realize that that misconception is very wrong.

On a Sunbeam pages, credit: Tillie Walden.

The men and women in comics have insanely huge breasts, exaggerated hourglass figures and giant muscles. I recently watched a video where a journalist asked a cheetah biologist what a human being would look like in order to run as fast as a cheetah. They looked a little like the Green Goblin in The Ultimate Spider Man. Even Peter Parker and Mary Jane, who are supposed to be teenagers, are relatively ripped. Walden’s characters look like real people. Younger characters look their ages, as if it were an alternate universe where Hollywood cast actual teenagers to play teenagers. More importantly, they look more like real women. Her character design is relatively simple, faces look almost the same and hairstyles and clothing are instead used to tell characters apart.

The Ultimate Spider-Man page, credit: Marvel Comics.

Screenshot from “Why Humans Can’t Run Cheetah Speeds (70mph) and How We Could” video, credit: WIRED.

Walden has said when she set out to write On a Sunbeam, she wanted to tell a “a story about space, but I want to tell it my way”. When she thought about sci-fi, she pictured men, cold white spaces and capitalism. Her way of taking on a sci-fi story meant the opposite: warmth, growth, and relationships, also adding a dash of history, architecture, and travel. It meant diversity in a way that’s not tokenism. In her work, there’s more than one woman, queer person, and person of colour. Not Bridgerton-style. But as it is in real life.

On a Sunbeam page, credit: Tillie Walden.

The most intricate parts of Walden’s work are most often the backgrounds. But the function of these isn’t just to be the setting, but to communicate the mood. For example, in her Eisner award-winning memoir Spinning, Walden drew parts of her adolescence as a competitive figure skater thinking about how she remembered the space and how it made her feel. This resulted in certain parts being extremely detailed, while others were incomplete. For instance, during a competition she felt restricted and sad, so she drew the space as growing panel to panel until it came to resemble a cavern. This also led to some accuracy issues. She has admitted that not drawing her skates 100 per cent accurately has driven skaters who read her graphic novel crazy. However, Walden is firm in prioritising emotional honesty, which she hopes readers appreciate.

Spinning cover and pages, credit: Tillie Walden.

I certainly do. It’s the main reason why I love her work so much. She is a queer woman who loves to draw comics. And she does it her way.

There are stories out there for girls and women. Think Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels Smile and Ghosts about girlhood, the Giant Days series, Cassandra Calin’s hilarious and relatable short comics about curly hair and high expectations. The great thing is, there’s more than I could ever list. There are stories out there for girls and women. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Smile, Giant Days, and Cassandra Calin comic pages, credit: Raina Tegelmeier, John Allison and Boom! Studios, Cassandra Calin.

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