In her short career, cartoonist Tillie Walden’s talent for creating works of emotional depth and deep personal reflection, including understanding and embracing her own sexuality, has resulted in two Eisner awards—Spinning in 2018 and Are You Listening? in 2020—and an L.A. Times Book Prize in 2019 for On a Sunbeam.
Walden’s new book, Alone in Space, to be published in July by Avery Hill, is a chronicle of her earliest published work, collecting three early graphic novellas in one volume: The End of Summer and I Love This Part (both originally published in 2015), and A City Inside (2016). The book also includes a generous sampling of one-off strips and short stories drawn between the years Walden was 16 and 20, including ephemera from her two years of studying at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, Vermont. As a result, the collection neatly archives the early years of this multiple award-winning, highly prolific young creator’s career.
Walden was born in 1996 in San Diego but spent her early childhood years in New Jersey. When she was 10 her family moved to Texas. She was encouraged by her father and inspired by the Winsor McCay comics and manga he gave her to read. But Walden kept these influences close to the vest until she began to draw her own comics in earnest many years later. She has also cited Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio, as a major influence.
In her early works, Walden’s storytelling explores themes of loneliness, alienation and romantic yearning through the use of fantasy and dreamy, indirect allegory. These early works are also notable for Walden’s remarkably detailed, skillful renderings of various architectural forms. Her first novella, The End of Summer, published when she was 18, depicts a royal family hibernating in their vast castle through a deadly three-year long winter, slowly unraveling due to their isolation and the eventual exposure of dark family secrets. Walden tells the story through the eyes of Lars, a sensitive, bedridden adolescent whose best friends are his deeply troubled sister Maja and his gigantic cat named Nemo. Walden says that Lars and Maja were based on “a mishmash” of herself and her twin brother. “It’s a dark and somber story,” Walden says, “But I was in a dark and somber mood and didn’t really overthink it. It’s very much a raw portrayal of where I was in that moment.” The End of Summer earned Walden the 2016 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist.
Walden recognized her same-sex attractions at a very early age and channeled her sense of disaffection into a gay-themed work for her second novella. I Love This Part, told in a series of full-page drawings, is a visually striking tale of two young schoolgirls falling in love, based loosely on Walden’s own experience with her first girlfriend. In the scenes that delineate the girls’ mutually amorous feelings, Walden captures the romance by depicting the pair as giants, soaring high above the buildings and the trees surrounding them. But as fears and doubts about their secret relationship creep in, the pair are presented in normal proportions, as if their angst is literally cutting them down to size.
Walden, who tends to work instinctually and without a full working script, nevertheless felt compelled to present something that would allow her to “come out to the world that I'm gay.” As to the reversed proportions of her characters and their surroundings, she explains, “I actually think that the mechanism of drawing big characters against a little world was a method of shielding myself a bit from the raw reality of what happens when two twelve-year-old girls develop deep feelings for each other. It really was just sort of a drawing comfort zone for me.” She admits to being “somewhat surprised” that so many people really connected to the story. The book won Walden another Ignatz Award and was also nominated for an Eisner award.
With her third book, A City Inside, Walden branched out a little thematically, while still relying on her instinctual, organic approach to storytelling. The narrative describes a woman’s life from childhood to adulthood, including her first relationship with another woman.
“I wanted to leave behind straight narrative and try writing what felt a little bit more like poetry, and in a very different voice than I was used to. I did A City Inside very much as a stream of consciousness project. I just started with page one, going straight to ink, and I still remember thinking, I don't know what I'm doing, but I like where this is going,” Walden explains. She felt compelled to examine larger life issues: “I had really stayed sort of firmly in this more youthful space of dealing with kids' stories. Even though they were dark, they were still about children. I hadn't touched upon time, and how time passes. I hadn't touched upon adulthood or aging,” she explains, citing A City Inside as among her favorite creations.
Walden graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2016 and credits CCS for nurturing the ethos of always finishing her projects. She thus managed to turn her thesis project into the full-length graphic memoir, Spinning (First Second), her first fully autobiographical work. The narrative is a deep-dive into the 12 years Walden spent as a competitive figure-skater, all the while grappling with coming-of-age and coming out, as well as a traumatizing sexual assault. The book was a success, winning almost universal critical praise and landing Walden an Eisner Award for nonfiction, Best Reality-Based Work.
Walden says the process of creating Spinning was difficult but also rewarding: “I worked not just through raw emotion, but through a little more understanding, a little more thought. I made drafts, and did a little bit of writing beforehand, which I hadn't really done before. My process began to change, I started trying to define things a little more.”
As with her previously published work, Walden enjoyed working with her editor to help synthesize the raw material that resulted in Spinning. Walden says, “I've always had quite a significant editorial process because when you make a story, just like that, without a plan, you get a lot of really interesting raw materials. I work without a plan and then at the end someone helps me pull it all together, shape it and help me see what it needs, like: ‘You're touching upon something interesting here, you need to expand on it. You don't need this other stuff.’ Otherwise, I just work on my stories and make them as they come.”
Walden followed Spinning with a 500+ page opus On a Sunbeam, which she first presented as a webcomic before it was published as a book by First Second in 2018 (Walden has chosen to continue to present the entire work online for free). Sunbeam is also a queer romance, with the central relationship between protagonist Mia and her long-lost love, Grace, set within an intergalactic science-fiction fantasy, with the characters journeying through all kinds of alien worlds and magical landscapes. Walden explains, “at the time I was living in Japan, and then in Germany. I was bouncing around Europe and who knows where, so the story itself is very influenced by all this traveling, these strange new places, strange new worlds. I was feeling a bit unmoored, and Mia, the protagonist of Sunbeam, is also feeling unmoored for much of that story.”
In 2019 Walden published Are You Listening?, a magical-realist fantasy that again features a pair of young women in love, this time on the lam from danger in an increasingly dangerous landscape. Walden considers the book the end of a very specific era of her life, and says she thinks that all the books she will do in the future “will be very different,” She explains that, “my life looks very different than it did. Now comics still occupy a lot of my time, but they definitely don't occupy all of it. I'm glad I went through everything that I did, all that exhausting touring and stuff, because to know that something's wrong, you have to just experience it and be able to see it and then change whatever isn’t working. I learned a lot.”
As Walden readies for the release of Alone in Space, she looks back on these early works with a sense of affection, while continuing to look firmly to the future. “The person who made those stories was a much unhappier Tilly, and I think a little bit stranger,” she muses. “I want to honor and appreciate who I was back then. And I do think that you can't change where you came from or what your roots are. I still see so much in those early stories and early books; I see myself trying so hard to express myself. And I can never fault myself for that.”