Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #10: Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden is the rare CCS student (she's class of 2016) who went to the school straight out of high school. She's also the even rarer beast: the young comics prodigy. With two books under her belt (both from British publisher Avery Hill) in the span of a year, she's shown the voracious desire to get better in public demonstrated by the likes of Dash Shaw, Michael DeForge, Sam Alden and other recent cartoonists who started publishing serious work as teenagers and rapidly cycled through influences to evolve their styles.

Walden's first book, The End Of Summer, has all the assets and pitfalls of an ambitious first work. It's a book about an insular royal family of some vague Scandinavian descent that is preparing to lock down the palace for a three-year period. It centers around Lars, an eleven year old who is all too aware that the sickness he suffers from will take his life before the end of that period. His relationship with his siblings and parents and the distance between them takes center stage, along with the close relationship he has with his twin sister, Maja. Walden's greatest asset as a cartoonist is her sense of restraint. She only gives vague hints as to what's happening in the palace and why, leaving the reader to connect the dots. That restraint allows the reader to understand that beyond the plot and its machinations, the important thing in the book is the relationship between Lars and Maja, and the ways that relationship is disrupted but ultimately cherished.

Walden's draftsmanship is impeccable, and it's not just to show off, either. The vast ceilings, the precision of the detailed domes and arches, the overwhelming majesty of the palace's construction are all rendered to demonstrate how emotionally empty it is. Filled with small children, it threatens to swallow them up and drive them insane. The problems with the book arise in the last third or so, when there are several key moments that are depicted silently. There's not enough differentiation between her character designs to let the reader know what's happening, and to whom. Her choice of not over-writing and providing extra textual clues as to the action was a sound one in terms of storytelling, but she didn't quite have the chops to pull it off here. Walden wanted a story about twins and wanted it to resonate with mythology (there's a long sequence tying things in with the Norse creation myth) and have an apocalyptic feel, all while maintaining a strong emotional through-line. That she doesn't quite get there speaks more to her ambitions than her weaknesses as an artist.

Her second book, I Love This Part, is different in every way from her first except in that it explores a loving relationship between two people and the obstacles they encounter. If her first book was overstuffed with imagery, then this book is far more spare and lyrical in its approach. We are introduced to two teenage girls who are schoolmates. Early on, in a series of larger-than-life images, the reader learns that they are also soulmates. Those early images depicting them as giants using mountains to rest on as they lay down together, of using skyscrapers to lean on as they kvetch about homework, of embracing in the areas between brownstones. It's an inspired visual metaphor for the energy that flows in the early days of a new relationship, especially one that doesn't quite have an identity yet. Everything feels bigger and more important somehow.

As the book unfolds, it continues to deliver one character moment after another, each one filling up a single page. The anecdotes range from private jokes to body anxiety to daydreams about future recipes. Through these snippets of quotidian dialogue that feel so remarkably authentic, she also slips in their love for each other and the notion that they probably can't tell anyone about it. The book's climax is actually in the middle, when one of the girls breaks up with the other, saying "I'm not like you. This is wrong" as she's weeping on the phone. Walden made this a continuous sequence, breaking up the flow that she had established earlier in the book as a series of perfect moments. There are two extended flashback sequences from the girl who's just been dumped, and they are notably almost entirely in black and why, in contrast to the shades of purple that add to the dreaminess of the earlier section of the book. The ending is heartbreaking, as only here do we even learn their names, and the girl who feared their love and broke up sends the other girl some music. There's weeping on both ends, as the purple is used to depict a blustery sky in the final pages. Walden pulls off their connection and the heartbreak of their breakup with a minimum of melodrama, as the emotion and sentiment depicted here is hard-earned with her careful character development.

It's hard to source Walden's character design style. There are hints, however; the giant cat in The End Of Summer is named Nemo, and that immediately connected the work to Winsor McCay. There's a delicacy and almost fragility in her line that also resembles that of Chris "CF" Forgues, or perhaps more accurately, resembles CF's direct influence Henry Darger. What is certainly true is that her work doesn't resemble that of the peers in her age group, nor really of any contemporary cartoonists working at the moment. Thematically, I'd say that Alden and perhaps Daryl Seitchik are the closest to doing what Walden's doing right now, involving the occasional fantastical element into stories deeply rooted in a young person's attempt to understand the world and their place in it.

Walden was tapped to do the Annual Appeal comic for CCS this year, a plum assignment that she deftly knocked out of the park. Titled Q and A With Tillie Walden, it's done in a manner that's now familiar with her: restraint in the use of text, all in service of both the image as well as the formal layout of the comic. In doing a Q&A about being a cartoonist, she revealed her own passion, her fear in leaving home, and a powerhouse pictorial display of why she loves its location of White River Junction--all done in an ingenious fold-out spread that Dan Zettwoch would approve of. The end of the pamphlet shows that she's one of the rare individuals who understands that they are a comics lifer at a very young age, as she grasps that the form is capable of anything. She's grounded in her tools and the fortunate mindset of still being able to enjoy the sheer act of drawing while being tasked to draw. Walden has a long and promising future ahead of her.

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