Tillie Walden Needs an Editor: Spinning and On a Sunbeam
Two Tillie Walden books have been holding down the edge of my to-do stack table for years now. And they work well in that function, as Spinning (2017) is just under 400 pages, and On a Sunbeam (2018) is over 540! These are bricks of books, is what I’m saying.
Walden does gorgeous art, spare and thought-provoking and expressive, in a variety of genres. Spinning is an autobiography, the story of her time as a teenage figure skating competitor and when she started making her own decisions, including falling in love with another girl and leaving the sport behind.
There are a variety of layouts, based around squares and rectangles in different page thirds and quarters. Most are against plain white, for the ice, or black, for the early morning darkness of getting up for practice, with daisy yellow for highlights.
After two chapters, 72 pages, we know that she likes skating but dislikes competition and the other girls, and she’s moved to Texas, where she has to start again. If her goal was to convey the boredom she feels to the reader, she was successful, as I found the book a chore to get through. So much of it is repetitive, and surprising for a graphic memoir, I didn’t have a strong sense of what she really felt. Key moments or explanations — such as an uncaring mother and her resulting search for a parental figure — the reader will need to guess at or will only realize at the end.
It felt to me like a story that benefited the artist more in capturing it than the reader in pushing through it. Walden says in the end note “I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers.” Which is her choice. I’m the type of reader who would rather an author have a perspective and a point of view. She wants one who will “decide, speculate, guess”. (I find that rude when it comes to someone else’s life.) Perhaps she wants to tell her story without really letting us in — that would be in keeping with the version of her she shows us. Perhaps this is another example of someone young making a memoir too soon. Obviously, this isn’t a popular opinion, as the book won an Eisner for her at the age of 22.
I can’t tell you what On a Sunbeam is about, because I gave up a hundred pages in. The pull quotes call it “a slow-burn romance and a found-family space opera”, which sounds intriguing, but the alternating chapters and time jumps, conveying two separate stories, hadn’t come together for me by that point, so I quit. (When I found out it was originally a webcomic, that made sense.)
It’s not all about the numbers, but the longer a book gets, the more time and attention it demands from a reader, the more worthwhile it should be. I’d rather read shorter, more coherent narratives. That’s my taste. It is, however, true, that editing in comics is difficult. Many times, creators put a lot of time and energy into work before a publisher commits, and then the cost of asking for rework increases greatly, as redoing pages takes more time when they’re drawn, not just written. Given how little many publishers pay, there isn’t a lot of incentive for creators to do a huge amount of rework.
I wrote this piece, by the way, not to slam a young creator who clearly has a following, but so people could tell me what I was missing and where I was wrong about her work. (I’m pretty sure the publisher provided these as review copies.)
I’m surprised you weren’t a fan of these two books. She doesn’t exactly draft stories that can be sped through, but more to be lingered and admired, and she has a sense of naturalistic dialogue that I can only dream of.
If her longer works aren’t you thing, then maybe the much shorter (60 pages) I LOVE THIS PART might be more to your taste. It encompasses the relationship between two high school girls through visual metaphor and sparse communication moments broken through segments of time in one-page panels. Though from reading SPINNING, I saw that Tillie essentially works through her revisiting her formative moments in High School, given how often she returns to the theme of hooking up with a girl her age, then abandoning her through circumstances she still feels guilty of.
There’s a moment in ON A SUNBEAM where the volunteer is standing still in the middle of a crack of broken archistructure, and I went back and reread the pages leading up to it so I could get a better sense of what had just happened, just to admire the beauty of it. I hope to one day create written words that can meet that level of admiration. Of course, halfway through the book, once the backstory of the flashbacks end, the narrative continues on a fairly regular linear course, and it felt somewhat diminishing from there.