Tillie Walden Returns Home With an Important Message

The prolific graphic novelist says eat spicier food; kiss more queers

For cartoonist and illustrator Tillie Walden, science fiction had long been infertile creative fodder: a genre rife with sterile graphics, dull storylines, and cishet bros. So what’s a queer gal to do when she wants a quality LGBTQ-centric narrative and beautifully drawn illustrations?

Ignatz-award winning cartoonist and illustrator Tillie Walden returns to Austin with her latest work (Photo provided by First Second Books)

In the pen-and-paper-clutching hands of Walden, it meant doing what she does best: writing and illustrating her own story. Plus, an intergalactic tale of romance sounded like a fun idea to the artist, who recently finished writing her coming-out and coming-of-age graphic memoir Spinning. “I was like, ‘Okay, I want to tell a story about space, but I want to tell it my way,’” Walden recalls. “So, of course, that means I wanted it to be about women and queer people, I wanted it to be warm, I wanted it to be about history and architecture, and travel, and growth, and relationships. All these things started coming up for me.”

What came out for the Austin-born, now L.A.-based artist was the webcomic-turned-graphic novel On a Sunbeam (officially released in book form Tuesday, Oct. 2). It’s an epic “space opera” brimming with queer romance and finely detailed panels. The main storyline orbits around Mia, a young girl who, with the help of a tricked-out spaceship and its restoration crew, searches the ends of the universe (literally) for her long-lost love Grace. The entire crew is on the LGBTQ spectrum and there are several queer characters of color, creative choices that Walden says were completely intentional. “I’m always really bothered when TV shows and movies and books have one character of color, one queer character, and they think that that’s enough.” She continues, “But, as a person in this world, I know that we find people who are like us [queer, people of color, women, etc.], so I have characters in situations where they’re hanging out with a bunch of queer people, and it’s totally realistic.”

Not only is On a Sunbeam chock-full of young, queer characters, they also never torment themselves over their queerness à la Glee; Love, Simon; or Faking It. Though Walden acknowledges it’s essential to have stories that address the pains that sometimes come with being an outsider, she contends that it’s equally important to “have stories where we can just explore and have fun and not worry and just be who we normally are.” That, in a way, says Walden, helps normalize the fact that both these characters and people in real life are queer. (The closest a character comes to lamenting anything related to their sexuality is when Jules, a loudmouth, feisty crew member, once thrown into a potentially life-threatening situation, regrets, “I should’ve done more drugs … kissed more girls … eaten spicier food ….”)

Queerness may be a matter of fact in On a Sunbeam’s universe, but while Walden was working on one particular chapter that involved nonbinary crew member Elliot, Trump was elected, and like so many other creatives during that tumultuous time, Walden turned to her art for expression. What transpired was a powerful scene where Jules takes a captain to task for constantly blowing off Elliot’s they/them pronouns. “I had not been planning to have any moment in the story where their identities were invalidated,” says Walden. But, in light of Trump, she thought, “I need to do something. I need Jules to go off on someone because I’m still pissed off and I’m still upset right now.”

These days, the ever-prolific Walden is working on two new books (still under wraps due to publisher confidentiality), but there’s no doubt they’ll be just as diverse as her current work. When asked about her ideal solution to creating more diverse, minority representation within the comics world, she’s quick to answer: “I don’t think it has anything to do with having more people drawing or creating stories about more diverse characters – it’s about hiring more diverse people. It’s about structuring the industry in a way where the gatekeepers are and where the money is going [goes] to people of color, queer people, women. A lot of people are focused on what’s happening in the books, but what we need to be focusing on [is] what’s happening in the industry behind the scenes.”

Walden returns to her hometown BookPeople (603 N. Lamar), Thursday, Oct. 4, at 7pm, for an On a Sunbeam reading and booksigning. Register online for a free pre-event comics-making workshop with the virtuosa herself. p.s. You can find the original (and totally free) On a Sunbeam webcomic here.

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Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam, Spinning, BookPeople

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