Thursday, December 31, 2020

31 Days Of CCS, #32: Tillie Walden

It's fascinating to watch Tillie Walden's progression as an artist, because it's clear that with every project, she's adding some new technical skills to her toolbox. In her first book, it was hard to tell any of the characters apart, because Walden admitted that she didn't really like drawing people. She liked drawing buildings. She addressed that in subsequent work that was more directly character-oriented, while still keeping the key element of her work: a strain of magical realism that seeped onto every page until it became the new defacto reality. Walden mastering other formal elements, like a sophisticated use of color, made each subsequent work even richer, though she never strayed from the romantic fantasy elements in her comics.

Her most recent book, 2019's Are You Listening?, is a lot of things at once. It's a road story. It's a classic quest. It's a romance. It's science-fiction. It's magical realim. It's a highly personal story about paths that were clearly intimately familiar to Walden. At it's core, however, this is a story about trauma and how we deal with it. In particular, it's about how some people are not allowed to have the space to even speak their trauma and what happens because of it. 

It's the story of Bea and Lou, both running away from a small town in Texas for different reasons. For Lou, who's in her late 20s, she's running away from the trauma of her mother's death as well as the expectations put upon her as someone who developed the skills of a prodigy at a young age. Bea is in her late teens and is running away from an abusive situation, one where she has no voice to speak on it. All she can think to do is just run. She happens upon Lou, who takes pity on her, and together they drive through Texas. 

Lou is driving to see her aunt, while Bea lies to her about where she's going. Lou once again takes pity on her and allows her to simply travel with her. For about the first half of the book, Walden builds up both their stories and neuroses, hinting at their deeper roots, while drawing what amounts to a love letter to her Texas home. Walden builds a master class on the use of light, especially at night time. It's not simply dark on the road; it's a kaleidoscope of bruised pinks and purples, harsh oranges, and cheery yellows. The world becomes a little stranger and a little more stark on these back roads. 

When they meet a cat on the road and decide to return it to its owners. They name the cat Diamond, and it has a tendency to run away but lead them to useful places. This is when their journey becomes increasingly strange, as they seek out a town that doesn't exist on maps called West, and they are pursued by sinister agents of the Office of Road Inquiry, who badly want the cat. One of the running subplots in the book is Lou teaching Bea how to drive. It's a useful skill, but it's also a metaphor for the role Lou plays for Bea in this book. She's not a rescuer. She can't solve Bea's problems. She's not her mom or her sister or her lover. But Lou has been through some things and knows that if you can be mobile, you can outpace your problems for a while. 

They both learn lessons from the cat. The most important one that's revealed is that the cat, despite the belief of the Office of Road Inquiry and their own eyes, does not possess magic powers. The magic is in the land, available to anyone who sees it and believes in it. There are some spectacular chase scenes worthy of Carl Barks in the book; they are beautifully cartoony and ridiculous, but also terrifying. The heroes just barely stay a step ahead of their pursuers, we discover, because they want to stay ahead of them.They find West and Bea returns the cat because her will is far stronger than she understands. It's the steely will of a victim who refuses to be victimized again. It's the will of a survivor, and that's what Bea and Lou are.

The question "Are You Listening?" refers to how we listen to the land and ourselves--our own potential. Lou is a fascinating character because there are ways that she's lived a life similar to Walden's. As she depicted in Spinning, Walden spent years as a competitive ice skater, throwing her entire life into it, until she just quit. Walden then threw that intense discipline and work ethic into comics, completing six graphic novels in about five years' time and graduating from CCS. That too, took its toll. Being a prodigy doesn't necessarily just mean displaying great talent at a young age. It's a reflection of the obsessive need to be good at a certain thing and practicing it endlessly. Sometimes, you need a break. Sometimes, you need to visit your aunt, especially when other aspects of life come crashing down on you. Walden shows a great deal of kindness to these characters, allowing them to get what they need from this trip while supporting each other. She feels for both of them, because she understands what both went through, to different degrees. 

The only thing I wanted from this book that I didn't get was for it to be bigger. It needed to be French-album size in order to really stretch out its pages. It needed Texas to feel bigger. It needed the colors to really spread across its pages. The size and scope of its environment needed to swallow up its characters just a bit more, allowing them to grow in stature, emotionally speaking, when the time came. Despite the hundreds of pages Walden has drawn up to this point, featuring bold experiments and resonant characters, it still feels like this is all prologue. This was the first book of hers that started to balance her playful sense of experimentation with more personal storytelling, all while staying within her usual lane of exploring particular kinds of friendship and love. It's exciting seeing her on this journey. 

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