Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #53: Spinning by Tillie Walden

The cliche is that you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to get good at it. But what if you get good, and then realize you don't like it? And what if those hours started when you were five or six years old, before you really had a choice?

Tillie Walden was a competitive skater for twelve years, quitting near the end of high school. So that first choice wasn't hers. But somewhere along the line, it became her choice, as it always does -- no one does something seriously and competitively for a decade by accident. And no one stops doing it by accident, either.

Spinning is Walden's first major work of comics: it pretty much has to be, since she was born in 1996. But maybe the same drive that kept her getting up at four in the morning for practice all those years is what motivated her to write and draw these four hundred pages. Spinning exists because Walden was a competitive skater: not just in the trivial way that this is the story she's telling, but in the deep sense that she's the person who can look at her life this intensely and turn it into art because she did something difficult and taxing and demanding for so long at such a high level. Most people don't work that hard before they turn eighteen; a lot never work that hard at all.

Walden tells the story of her skating life starting with its big dislocation: her family moved from New Jersey to Texas at the end of her elementary school years, when she was already serious about skating and part of a competitive synchro team. Her life wasn't wonderful in New Jersey, with a nasty coach and relentless bullying in public school, but it was the only life she knew. Everything was different in Texas -- private school, different names for skating routines, a whole different competitive landscape. But Walden still did well, on the ice as she didn't, quite, in school.

We all need something we can be good at. Especially if we feel isolated and alienated to begin with. And Walden did: not just a Jersey kid in Texas, but a girl who realized early on that she was attracted to other girls, in a family and among schoolmates and fellow skaters who she knew would not understand or support her. Walden's first love was a fellow skater; she tells that story here, touchingly. She was forced out of the closet, earlier than she wanted, by the forced break-up of that relationship, and got none of the love and support she deserved.

Spinning is about skating, but skating is just the lens: it's about Tillie Walden, and how she grew up and started deciding what she wanted for herself. She was gay. She wasn't going to go to college. She wanted to draw and tell stories. And, finally, she was done with skating.

It is frankly amazing that Spinning is Walden's first long story, that she has this level of control of her art and story at the beginning of her career, that she has this distance and clarity about her own life so early. Spinning is a major graphic memoir, full stop -- not just good for a first book, not just good with qualifiers. From the evidence here, Tillie Walden is a major talent: smart, hard-working, tenacious, with a relentless eye and a light, Adrian Tomine-like line. I hope to keep reading great comics from her for the next forty years or more.

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