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Tillie Walden and Medium [MUSE]

An illustration By Tillie Walden that can be found in her online sketchbook, its titled sketchbook #15. What makes it such a great Walden piece is that it has all of her trademarks in one cute little drawing. You see her playing with another worldly vibe in the background, flying koi, and intimate physical contact; it’s both tender and plain fun, Walden at her best.

Reviewing or talking about a graphic novelist is inevitable for me, so why not dive in and accept my fate?

If you’re a fan of comics or graphic novels or whatever you want to call them, you probably know it’s hard to find where to even start reading. Sure, the big guys at DC and Marvel do have good franchises, Gotham Academy, if I had to name one, but I’ve picked up so many books with a one slapped onto the cover only to find myself in the middle of a story. Some people suggest going through the wiki, but those can span decades of stories. These big stories are cool and all, it’s what makes them so unique, but it’s no wonder that people get confused as to where to start with comics and graphic novels. And few even start at all.

Let me suggest Tillie Walden. 

Walden is a cartoonist with about seven books under her belt, all of them winners, and yes I’ve read them all, that tend to focus on young female protagonists in crazy big worlds that seek to endanger them in one way or another. Naturally her stories are great, her art as well, but what really sets Walden apart is her magical touch. 

Fish spaceships flying through space. A city floating above the clouds. Anyone who can draw can give such atmospheres a magical bounce, but only Walden can make a tiny car traveling through Texas at night as mystical as she does. One could easily dedicate a whole book to her style, blending ghibli, landscapes and 50’s thrillers, but let’s not drown it in words, it’s inventive, it’s fun. She has an obsession with the details of any given space, sometimes an entire page is one panel, a short little deep dive establishing whatever environment we’ve jumped into. On A Sunbeam, her space opera webcomic which you can read here for free, is filled with these moments where space swirls in bright reds or cool purples behind decaying sun shaded buildings. Chapter six, my favorite, doesn’t contain a single bubble, relying entirely on its visuals to tell the story of love blossoming. 

That’s the best thing about Walden, she’s inventive and always challenging herself, and at times even the medium differently in every project, giving each of her works a distinct identity. Her second book alone, I Love This Part, doesn’t for a second dwindle on the aesthetics or style of her first. Playing with colors, a panel per page format, and emphasizing physical contact,  it finds a way to tell the otherwise tired story of young love breaking apart in a way that grabs you and doesn’t let go. “I can’t do this anymore.” Is a powerful line enough, though when only the speaker’s tired eyes are cast against white clouds fighting a pure black sky, it’s as if the words were pumped with something.

A year later with her third book, A City Inside, Walden utilizes black and white, her mystical touch and a therapy framing device to tell the story of another fracturing relationship, though with a very different ending. Sentences are at times broken into different bubbles and spread across pages, forcing the eye to sift through a series of images evoking different emotions, a far cry from the panel per page I Love This Part. I mean, she wrote a space opera webcomic with flying fish spaceships, innovation at its finest.

Though she is always experimenting there are of mainstays. Fantastical imagery and great dialogue to name just two. Ranging from the comforting casual.

“If you close the pop-up ad fast enough, it doesn’t do anything bad to your computer.” “That can’t be true.” “No it is! My brother told me.” As seen in I Love This Part.

To something that is best left speaking for itself. “In the evening you’d write stories about places you wanted to go but that didn’t exist yet. Then one day, you met her… You never understood what she saw in you, she didn’t leave your side, and that was enough, you gave up the sky for her.” As seen in A City Inside. Pretty, right?

Everything is working together to create a feeling. The images, the stories and colors, she isn’t the only one to do this, surely, but the dedication she has for it is refreshing. In the middle of A City Inside, which is my favorite Walden work if you can’t tell by now, the main character’s therapist begins to speak of the sacrifices our main character has made, how she gave up her life for her girlfriend. “You don’t want this kind of life, but you want her,” the therapist says.

The following page doesn’t contain a single word. One panel shows a table filled with food, the other three show her eating bread in a messy way, all nearly the same image, only with a few differences for motion. The girlfriend gives a little teasing smile, before completely cramming the bread into her mouth in the last panel and closing her eyes. The lack of bubbles allows the moment to speak for itself, it’s a very domestic set of images, I mean, all that’s happening is someone is eating, but it creates this comforting, trusting environment. In a film, this moment would’ve been cool, its well composed and so on, but taking a whole page as opposed to a few seconds, pumps it with importance. The story takes a pause and the reader is forced to simply absorb the moment for all it is.

Through fiddling with the medium just a bit, ditching bubbles and playing with motion, Walden creates an atmosphere unachievable in any other medium. And that’s only one example, there is the aforementioned romance scene in On a Sunbeam and the brutal, tense reveal of trauma in Are You Listening…, where Walden tears the panels, colors and outlines themselves to create this oppressing atmosphere, trigger warning, the story deals with rape and sexual assault, though I highly recommend the book. 

Walden dares us to question not even genre, but medium itself, and ask what we can do to it to get what we need. With each book, she finds new things to push and personalize, legibility of words, panels, silence and so on, nor does she go crazy. She always has a thing or two to anchor it down. Cats, landscapes  and school problems to name a few. This, and her visual style in general, helps to make a recognizable style, you know when you’re reading a Walden work.

Now, all of that is great, but where should one start? Honestly, anywhere would be a great place, though her newest collection Alone in Space, just might be the best. With three books and a whole series of mini-comics in one, the collection covers the diverse fields of motifs and subjects that Walden always seems to bring up, it’s the literary equivalent of those bar food samplers with nachos and mozzarella sticks. It’s playful, tragic, comforting and devastating all in one, it’s the future of comics. It’s Tillie Walden. 

MUSE provides monthly curations of all types of arts, authors, and media. On top of author analyses, there’s also the occasional rant-filled review. We hope readers will always leave with a new piece of media to muse over. Click here to read more from MUSE.

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