Sunday, December 3, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #3: Tillie Walden

**It's hard to come at Tillie Walden's fourth book (but the one with the biggest splash) Spinning directly, so I won't. The book is a continuous, repetitious almost, series of images of her on the ice. The same expression, the same actions, again and again for 400 pages. The book is a product of her idea for her senior thesis at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and what she had to draw so much of in this book ran counter to the things she actually likes to draw. She revealed that in an answer to a question I asked her at a panel; the reason why her buildings are so beautiful and detailed and her figures are so often sketchy and barely-drawn looking is that she doesn't like drawing people. She likes drawing places: buildings, castles, cathedrals, palaces, cities. There's almost a compulsive quality to these drawings, of which she's able to do a few of in this book, like a set of doodles without end.

** Getting this out of the way: the book is about the dozen years Walden spent as a competitive ice skater, both in individual competition as well as synchronized skating. Walden acknowledges that that's not what the book is really about, however. It's not a love letter to skating, nor is it a tell-all that reveals how awful skating can be. Skating is almost incidental. Walden said that it's up to the reader to decide what it's about, which makes sense for a number of reasons. She wrote the book just a couple of years after she quit skating. She transitioned almost immediately from skating to drawing, something she had been doing as a hobby. There's a line that almost feels like escapes her mouth, one of many she tosses of casually and doesn't address again, where she says of art "I don't feel this huge passion. It's just...when I start a drawing, I want to finish it." Compulsive behavior once again, which makes me wonder about her relationship with art now.

** Walden's work ethic is renowned. At the age of 21, she's already written five books. She published her first after her first year at CCS. What's the line between work ethic and compulsion? Does it matter? Without saying so, Walden unquestionably would say it does, because work ethic implies at least the possibility of joy while working and compulsion can be pathological.

** So much of the book is about looking perfect, about being ideally synchronized. It's all about surface qualities when one is being judged. That's why the most visually striking panels are those that are askew in some way. Consider the cover, where the identically-coiffed and made up skaters are all blankly and cheerily looking one way, and the bespectacled Walden is looking in the opposite direction, an uncertain grimace on her face. Walden knew exactly what she was doing and when she wanted a facial expression to pop or a pose to grab the reader's attention, it did. The contradiction of drawing perfection and conformity in a sloppy manner was a deliberate strategy.

** Ice is a pretty convenient metaphor for Walden. A shy and reserved girl, she had to deal with moving from New Jersey to Texas and finding new teams and teachers. There was also the matter of dealing with bullies and (eventually) worse. Ice is painful and deadening, and there were points in the book where Walden is emotionally restrained to the point of being almost robotic. Even when she acknowledges pain or love, it was hard for her to do so in an unrestrained way--especially pain. She disconnected herself from the feelings and plugged herself into the routine of skating.

** Chris Ware once wrote, of reading Peanuts as a kid and feeling heartbroken at Charlie Brown's lonely, frequently outcast existence, that he exclaimed, "I'LL BE YOUR FRIEND, CHARLIE BROWN!" There were many points in reading the book where as a reader, I felt the same way about Walden's travails. What's the book about? It's about loneliness. It's about the desperate attempt to connect with someone on a deep level. What made things worse for her is that she knew from a very early age that she was a lesbian but was terrified to come out. That was another level of surface, another kind of pretend, another coat of ice.

** Her twin brother John is a key character, mostly by his absence. It's interesting that someone she describes in the book as "my everything" appears so little in the narrative. To be sure, her life was consumed by skating, but he doesn't really act as a sounding board or someone she even spends a lot of time with at home. There are two exceptions; on pages 122-23, there's a scene where Walden is frustrated with her homework and seeks out her brother, who's watching TV on his laptop. It's an old Nickelodeon show, Zoey 101. There are three magical panels as she lies down with him to watch. Their eyes bulge and eyebrows arch in exactly the same way as they're sucked into the formulaic narrative in the first panel as stars start to appear in the negative space of the panel. They then lie right next to each other, their eyes in total sync with each other as they continue to be enraptured. The third panel is just their heads, as they lie together asleep under a blanket of stars. It's absolutely exquisite and unburdened by any narrative text. Two siblings, their DNA so very close, their minds in lockstep in that moment.

The other exception is when she comes out to her brother after news of her girlfriend starts to spread. His reply, "It's just sorta...wrong, I think" was met in return by her with ice. Pretending it didn't hurt. Walking it off like a tweaked ankle or bruised knee. It's telling that the next scene is with her sympathetic, loving cello teacher. When asked what she did that week, she plainly said, "I came out", and then stammered "like, um..of the closet, like...cuz I'm gay" with the latter three letters in tiny print. Her teacher says all the right things and there is a scene where Walden just starts sobbing in her arms.

** The coming out scenes and everything surrounding her romance with Rae are overwhelmingly difficult scenes to read. The romance inspired Walden's second book, I Love This Part, where when they were together (often looking at a computer screen), the world around them became very small. It's raw and sweet and real, neither overromanticizing nor underrating its importance as an experience. It's all about emotion bursting off of every page, that fictive layer allowing Walden to go all in. It's her best comic with regard to figure work as well, though her innovative layouts and clever eye had a lot to do with how the comic was designed and arranged.

The coming out scenes, cruelly, come after her girlfriend's mom had read her private emails and realized that her daughter was a lesbian, and immediately forced her to cut off all contact with Walden, thanks to religious bias against homosexuality. Walden's mom made a smart-ass comment about wearing suits at her wedding, wondering if it was a phase and bemoaning not knowing what to do, when the answer was obvious: love and support your child. Her goofy dad, who was the one who had been taking her to skating practice at 4am for years, initially tried to make it about him ("I'm so sorry. If I did make you hate men..."), as though sexual orientation meant hatred of the opposite sex. His follow-up comment about her going to bars to pick up women even though she was underage was a classic dad line; clueless, but attempting to be supportive. Her friends tried to act cool but immediately became defensive, saying they weren't attracted to her when she never gave the slightest inclination that she was. What's the book about? It's about betrayal.

** The fleeting moments when Walden and her girlfriend got to be together are depicted with great tenderness and care. So much in this book finds kids living their lives mediated through a screen, and in the case of their first kiss, it was a youtube video called "How To Kiss A Girl" that they "practiced" together that led to them opening up. Even in that experience, Walden felt euphoria and joy, sure, but she noted that the overwhelming emotion she felt was fear. Rightly fearing judgment that she knew would one day come, she was robbed of the true joy of that moment by hatred. Yet she didn't stop and slowly revealed things to her girlfriend Rae. This part of the book was about taking risks, something she did every day on the ice. The difference is that she didn't have a coach telling her how to do things.

** Walden slowly lets slip to Rae that her bully at school forced her and other girls to act things out sexually. She doesn't depict this, but she does later depict the horrific sexual harassment she was subjected to by her SAT tutor, a guy she had come to like and trust. It's a scene with a level of moment-to-moment detail she usually saved for a skating routine, only she didn't have the training to immediately deal with the threat, and she even blamed herself for wearing a tank top that day. Like many such incidents, after she was able to fight him off, he dismissed it as nothing, asking for her number. In the case of both her tutor and her bully, she depicted both of them with no facial features at all. Just blanks, protecting herself from the trauma even as she drew it out, as she told her truth. She also discussed a near car-accident and an actual car accident that she had while driving that had powerful negative effects on her but that she never shared. What's this book about? Trauma, and naming that trauma. Shining a light on secrets.

** It is odd for a 21 year old to write a memoir about events that ended shortly before she started writing this book. There is something to be said for the passage of time to allow a person a chance to process events and go into greater detail regarding emotions. However, this is a book that's closer in nature to the kind of autobio comics that Ariel Schrag used to do about high school, many of which were written in high school. Walden noted in the afterword that she did no research in the making of this book. She took no notes, interviewed no one and didn't even visit old, familiar rinks and buildings to get a better grip on what they were like. She didn't even look at old photos. Instead, she wanted this book to be about her most visceral memories. Memories of time spent on the ice, taxing her body to the limit. Memories of being alone in hotel rooms--her most treasured times. Memories of practicing at a mall and slowly being accepted by others. Memories about what it felt like when she came out at 14. Despite the icy exterior of her character, this is memory as an affective experience, an almost somatic experience.

** There are two questions a reader might have when reading this book: why did she start skating, and why didn't she stop long before then? She answered the first question in a manner both matter-of-fact and heart-breaking: she was starving for affection as a five-year-old and she found a warm, loving coach who cared about her as a person and not just a medal-winning machine. There's an amazing panel that boldly copies the Studio Ghibli style that informs her work on a general level where she embraces her coach, the visceral sense of love almost overwhelming her more controlled line. She kept skating out of inertia, but also perhaps to keep chasing that feeling. There was also a sense that she felt like she couldn't stop, that she'd let people down. In the end, no one really cared if she quit, least of all her mother. What's this book about? It's about feeling abandoned, which leads to feelings of worthlessness. Being able to compete in something with tangible results, especially when she had to go through tests to go through the amateur ranks, had to temporarily fill that hole. It's telling that her parents almost never went to competitions. Unlike the other girls, she didn't have a "skating mom". Her mother resented the money spent on skating and put Walden in humiliating positions at times when those skating moms confronted her about paying for ice time.

** Walden doesn't spare herself, either. Her best skating friend, Lindsay, was someone she never let in emotionally. She didn't come out to her. Walden admits to using her and being a bad friend. Walden wasn't afraid to depict herself as ruthlessly competitive and indifferent to the other girls, even if it was a defense mechanism. Once she established herself, she wasn't afraid to leave behind her old group and hang out with the older girls. The book is about being responsible for one's own actions. There's a level of self-awareness that no doubt came about in thinking hard about her memories, sorting through them and putting them in context, and sometimes awareness can be painful. Walden doesn't flinch in depicting that pain and the ways in which she herself came up short as a human being.

** This was the right book for the right time. It was a reflection that Walden clearly needed as a person as much as she did an artist. Written from a position of relative freedom and independence as a cartoonist and an adult, she nonetheless used this book as a series of baby steps in telling a story she needed to tell to herself as much as anyone else. The skating serves as a relentless metaphor in so many ways. As a sport demanding body control and image, Walden similarly tried to control her emotions. It's a sport that's highly based in technique, much like drawing is. What Walden never admits to is feeling any sense of joy whatsoever from being on the ice at any time. I don't think she does, and that there's a sense in which staying on the ice is a way of punishing herself on a subconscious level. She's Sisyphus On Ice, with that boulder being back in place at the bottom of the hill every morning at 4am. As she discovered later, to her great dismay, she held the keys to hell all along. In fact, there were no keys. There was no hell. She just had to walk away.

** One can only hope, as a reader of this work, that she never looks at drawing in the same way she does as skating. That it brings her happiness to make marks on paper. What's remarkable about this book is that it isn't perfect. The pacing is erratic. She buries the lede on many of her most important discoveries. Her relationship with her family is underdeveloped relative to their importance to her emotional health. A lot of the day-to-day details of skating begin to get repetitive. None of this matters. A perfect book would have missed the entire point of the experience, that perfection is illusory. This book was the best she could do in terms of remembering horrible events, boring events, silly events and emotionally powerful and positive events. A cartoonist should improve with each work, but every person runs their own race. Walden has always been willing to get better in public and has never been precious about her line. The perfect is the enemy of the good as a cartoonist, and seeing Walden stick to her instincts as a writer and artist in the making of this sprawling, sometimes unwieldy but always engaging book, makes it rings true. She's pretty much decided to abandon autobio and return to the comforting veil of fiction, but I hope she reconsiders down the line. Her voice rang true in a time when it was hard to speak as a child, and her giving voice to that child in this book is perhaps the greatest gift she gave to readers and herself. What's the book about? It's about healing, hope and growing up in spite of everything. It's about learning to forgive and love yourself.

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