“Far beneath the ship, the world is mourning; they don’t realize he’s alive”
I still haven’t read On A Sunbeam, Walden’s book that I bought over two years ago (I got a lot to read, people!), but I have looked through it and dug the art, so I figured this would be good, at least from a visual perspective. And I was right! The art in the book is wonderful, and shows a nice growth by Walden over the years. The three longer comics that begin the book are from about 2016-2018, and then we get a bunch of very short (1-2 page) comics beginning in 2013, and it’s very interesting to see how Walden’s art changes. In the earliest comic, from 2013 (when Walden was 16/17 years old), she uses soft pencils and a lot of shading. Her figure work is pretty good but also a bit rudimentary. When she heads off to the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2014, her work immediately changes, as she begins to use a finer lines, less shading, and she becomes a bit more abstract (not too much, just a bit). The short comics are assignments for CCS, and they’re very interesting – there’s a Little Nemo pastiche, there’s a Studio Ghibli pastiche, there’s experimentation with colors and spot blacks and heavier lines and lighter lines and light in general, and there’s the beginnings of Walden’s interests both in drawing giant humans in cities and other regular-sized places and in intricate machinery, which shows up in her longer comics. The three longer comics are very impressive, visually. “The End of Summer” takes place in a giant mansion, where a family is preparing for and then living through a long winter, where they can’t go outside. Walden uses a very thin line and intricate details to create a beautiful but disturbingly cold place, a place where it’s easy to believe bad things would happen to people trapped inside, even if the family makes sure that their kids have everything they could want for their long confinement. She creates these large spaces that dwarf the people moving through them, and the use of stark blacks and soft grays to contrast the painful whites bring the temperature down in the drawings, slowly turning the mansion into a mausoleum. It vaguely reminds me of Eddie Campbell’s work in From Hell, although Walden’s line is thinner and more delicate, but the sense of place and the way she draws the character puts me in mind of that. The second story, “I Love This Part,” is a romance between two teens, told in single-panel pages and utilizing Walden’s habit of placing large people into regular landscapes. She uses thicker lines than on “The End of Summer,” making the characters a bit more down-to-earth, and she puts them in more casual clothing, so they look a bit more relaxed. She uses a purple color palette in the comic (she likes purple, she writes later), and her watercolor-style adds a wonderful tone to the bittersweet romance. Early on, when the girls are exploring their feelings, the purple adds depth to the interaction, as Walden keeps the dialogue brief and unremarkable, like most conversations between people who don’t quite know how they feel about each other. When one character breaks it off, Walden drops the purple and uses only black and white, until they decide to give it a chance, and then the purple briefly returns. But it doesn’t last, and the purple begins to feel melancholy, as the couple drifts apart. By the end, the purple has become more dominant, and it signals the tragedy of people who can’t break free from what society wants them to be and just be happy. In the final long comic, “The City Inside,” is a bit more abstract. She still uses spot blacks, but instead of shading, she hatches, so that the drawings are a bit more stark. At the same time, she simply draws some lines for hair and grass instead of drawing a shape, so the work slides toward the dreamlike just a bit. She still draws some intricate patterns and such, but that combined with the slightly more abstract work makes the story a bit more surreal, even when she creates a city that has solid buildings and towers. It’s meant to be not quite real, so the style change works very well. It’s very interesting looking at the way Walden’s work evolves as she tries different things to match the tone of whatever she’s drawing. Some artists do this very well, and Walden is one of them.
The three main stories are interesting. “The End of Summer” takes place in an unnamed place that’s not quite our world, as the existence of three-year-long winters and a giant housecat testify. The family is fairly large, so there are several characters, but the boys all kind of look alike, so it’s hard to distinguish them from each other. The main characters, Lars, hangs out with his giant cat, Nemo (the Winsor McKay influence is very strong in this story), and things happen. It’s a very dreamy story, as the members of the family slowly go mad from the isolation, but it doesn’t have the biggest impact because we don’t really know all that much about these people, so their choices don’t affect us all too much. It’s a gorgeous story, to be sure, but it’s a bit empty. “I Love This Part” is better, as Walden focuses on the two unnamed girls who fall in love even though one of them thinks it’s a bad idea. We don’t know why she thinks this, but the implication is that someone in her life is telling her that lesbianism is bad, and she can’t move past that. It’s a sad story about people wanting to be in love but not being able to quite overcome the forces in the world that don’t want them to be in love. “The City Inside” is an interesting story about a young woman working through her feelings for her significant other in what appears to be a place for guided meditation. The woman thinks about her life and how she fell in love and what it means if she doesn’t have love, and it’s somewhat vague but also fairly effective. She doesn’t know if she deserves to love and to be loved, so she needs to work it out. The short comics tend to be one or two pages, so they don’t have much narrative heft, but they’re very interesting exercises, showing a writer who is working out who she is, which isn’t surprising as Walden is still a young woman herself (she was born in 1995). So this book might be better because of the art rather than the writing, but that doesn’t mean the writing isn’t interesting.
This is unlike Noelle Stevenson’s book in that it’s not really a memoir, just an artistic journey through a cartoonist’s development. It’s quite neat to see how Walden experiments with style, both in her art and writing, and it’s a neat primer for her other work. It’s always neat see how an artist grows in their work!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆