Thursday, August 04, 2022

Alone in Space by Tillie Walden

A novel, prose or graphic, is one thing. You can grasp it in your hand, make big statements about it, sum it up in a few words. (Maybe badly, maybe incorrectly. But you can do it.)

A collection, on the other hand, is already multitudes. It flows through your hands when you try to define it: a little more over here than you first thought, oh wait maybe it's more like this, no no I've got it now it's totally thus.

Alone in Space is a collection: it's basically the first four years of Tillie Walden's comics career in book form.

Well, wait. Like all collections, I need to immediately back up. This does include work from about 2013 to 2018 - three published books and a bunch of shorter works. That timeline somewhat overlaps her first two "big" graphic novels, 2017's breakout Spinning and On a Sunbeam in 2018. So maybe the first thing to note, as I have before, is how hard and diligent a worker Walden is: this is a lot of pages, a lot of different stories, a lot of writing and drawing, to come out of one person in a short amount of time.

Another caveat: I say "career," but pretty much all of the short pieces here were schoolwork, assignments when she was studying at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). And to caveat the caveat: so was Spinning. Schoolwork can become published work, and did.

But here's how I think the timeline worked. Walden made comics in highschool, and published them online, the way anyone can these days. Some of them may have been short stories; one of those stories is here. But I think what became her first book, The End of Summer, was in that mix too - maybe was most of that mix. The small British publisher Avery Hill - who also published this book - noticed her, and offered to publish her work. That must have happened right around the time she decided to got to CCS: she was there for a two-year program in 2014-15 and 2015-16. And her three books from Avery Hill were published in June 2015, November 2015, and sometime in 2016 - so all, I think, reached the print world while she was at CCS but largely was work done before that.

So these are stories from a young creator, one working very hard to get better and to tell stories the way she wants. They show a lot of variation and change, obviously: they're from someone going from age sixteen to twenty and studying how to do this.

I'm almost happy to say that I find the first book, The End of Summer, the least successful. It has real strengths, especially in characterization, but it tries to do too much, has too many characters who are all part of the same family and all look very similar, and is set in a milieu that I don't think Walden meant to be a honkingly huge metaphor but comes across that way. It's about an aristocratic family, a very dysfunctional one in quiet, buried, aristocratic ways, in a world where winters are years-long and killingly cold, and some of the events during one particularly eventful winter. Frankly, I think I missed large chunks of what Walden was trying to do here: I had trouble telling characters apart a lot of the time, so I'm murky on who, exactly, the more horrible members of the family are.

I Love This Part, though, feels like mature Tillie Walden right away: a love story set in probably middle school, with vignettes each on single-panel pages, often with surreal backgrounds, telling a bittersweet growing-up story about two girls who don't quite want the same things at the same moment.

A City Inside is even heavier on the surrealism, and may be one more step in that same direction. It's a dream vision of the future of one woman's life, or maybe a true premonition, or something else - a life as it is or was or could be, presented more poetically than naturalistically.

The back third of the book is the shorter pieces: one very dark story from highschool and then mostly a bunch of work for CCS classes. They are varied and different, sometimes working out the same kind of material as the longer stories, sometimes very clearly class assignments of the "talk about yourself in this way" or "do an X story in the style of something you like a lot" style.

Again, this is a collection: a bunch of work by one person over a few years. It's not thematically unified. It doesn't cleanly map out artistic development. It's a bunch of stuff, all of it at least reasonably successful, by someone ferociously talented and (this is more important) even more ferociously devoted to doing the work and getting better. If you've liked any of Walden's longer books, you'll find pieces to love here.

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