The title of Tillie Walden’s sixth graphic novel is a question: Are You Listening?
For eighteen-year-old runaway Bea and her twenty-seven-year-old neighbour, Lou, answering that question is a complicated matter. The two women are in states of transition. Both literally, Bea and Lou are road tripping across Texas to Houston, and figuratively, they are in a liminal space between who they were and who they are becoming.
The journey is long, they drive through the night into the day and back into the night; time bleeds at the margins. Bea and Lou know little about each other, they are companions of convivence and coincidence, Lou was passing at just the right time to offer Bea a lift . They talk — what else is there to do on a road trip? At first, they discuss nothing much. But as the trip continues, they dig deeper. Bea and Lou are both suffering from deep pain, lonely and hurting, lost in their own lives. They draw each other’s trauma out in rivulets.
Outside the landscape begins to mould and twist, roads knotting into impossible designs, bracken growing at unnatural speeds, obscuring the sky. Is what they’re seeing real or is it a shared delirium?
Are they listening?
At twenty-three-years-old, Walden is something of a prodigy. With six published graphic novels, her bibliography is larger than many authors twice her age. Her fourth work, the graphic memoir Spinning, won the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work. Her fifth work, the romantic-science-fiction-epic-adventure On A Sunbeam, was a critical darling, and landing in many ‘Best Of’ lists in 2018, including those for the Advocate, the Washington Post, and AV Club. All this Walden managed while publishing a new graphic novel every ten months.
Walden is as prolific a multihyphenate creator (author-artist-educator) as she is a reserved public figure. This is to say, she attempts not to be one to the best of her ability. In a 2017 interview for The Comics Journal Walden said she dislikes discussing her personal life as if it were an extension of her work. So much so, that in an interview context, she relishes the opportunity to tell people “I’m not going to answer that question.”
This is not to say Walden believes none of her personal life seeps into her work. In the same interview for The Comics Journal she went on to say, “Everything that I do has some of me in it”. The pieces of herself scattered throughout her work, whether they be direct memoir — as in Spinning — or a more symbolic, emotional representations of self — à la A City Inside — are gifts to the readers, not an invitation for them to dig deeper, “The rest of my life is for me and my loved ones.”
Walden’s desire for readers to view her as a separate entity from her work can be interpreted as an application of Roland Barthes’ theory, Death of the Author. Her application of the theory, however, is unusual. The common practice is for the reader to kill the author, ignoring them in their analysis of a text. Walden, meanwhile, attempts to kill herself before a reader approaches her works. Had her way, a reader’s knowledge of who she was would begin and end with the name on the cover.
Despite Walden’s desire to be (metaphorically) dead on arrival, details about her are suffused throughout her work. If we return again to the concept of the Death of the Author, Jane Gallop has a reply to Barthes’ theory. Killing the author, she argues, is never a neutral decision. There is always an underlying motivation, the killer wants the author removed to support a specific reading of the text. This is a self-defeated practice. To ignore the author is to actively avoid reference to their biography, in essence, to cast a shadow across their work. The absence of the author leaves a space where they would have been, and from that space we can trace the outlines of what is left unsaid.
Such shadows are not difficult to identify in Walden’s work. Her perspective is distinctly queer. Characters are often drawn in a way that blends feminine and masculine features, rebelling against clear gender binaries. Many of Walden’s female characters are drawn with short hair and dressed in traditionally male clothing. This is also how Walden chooses to present herself in real life, supporting the idea that these visual sensibilities reflect her personal outlook on gender binaries. The concept of blending extends beyond how she depicts characters. Traditionally, comic panels are separated by white space called The Gutter. In Walden’s works The Gutter is often incorporated into the image, or absent entirely, making it difficult to tell where one panel ends and another begins — her imagery rejecting rigidity and separation, it is fundamentally queer.
Her visual tells, combined sheer quantity of output, makes her particular authorial concerns easy to identify. Themes of trauma, gender, sexuality, combating social norms, and struggles associated with coming-of-age appear throughout all six of her works. Moreover, the few facts about Walden’s personal life she has made publicly available — for example, the fact that she knew she was a lesbian from age five, but had difficulty portraying them in her work until she felt comfortable being open in her sexuality — support a reading where these themes are the most important to understanding the text.
Like most authors who return to thematic wells, Walden tends to change the level attention given to a single theme on a text-to-text basis. Even her most expansive work, On A Sunbeam, and most personal work, Spinning, do not deal with all her concerns at once. The former is about combating social norms and coming-of-age while the latter, a graphic memoir, fixates on the web of trauma associated with gender and sexuality.
Are You Listening? is unusual as the conflicts facing the two protagonists, Bea and Lou, encompass all of Walden’s pet themes. Bea, the younger of the two, struggles with coming-of-age and sexuality. Lou, older, struggles with social norms and expectations associated with gender. They are united by trauma.
Equally noteworthy is Are You Listening?’s genre — magical realism. While all of Walden’s prior works (Spinning excluded) have made use of surreal or fantastical imagery as storytelling device, Are You Listening? is her first text to explicitly place itself within the framework of a specific genre. Magical realism can be understood as the opposite of High Fantasy. It centres dense, lyrical systems of magic but unlike High Fantasy, refuses to explain the rules of said systems to readers . There is inevitably thematic significance to the magic, but that significance has to be uncovered by the reader. As veteran of the genre, Haruki Murikami, puts it, magical realism tells story through riddles. Meaning comes from said riddles’ “interaction and possibility”.
In this way, magical realism is comparable to impressionist art. Unfinished looking and sketch-like in appearance, impressionist works are not concerned with capturing every concrete detail of a scene. They seek to evoke the idea and mood of a moment, heightening emotion by capturing an impression of reality rather than reality itself. Magical realism operates in a similar way — translating complex magical system into metaphor, symbolism, and riddles. By denying a clear explanation of how the magical systems function, said systems become impressionistic. Bandwidth usually saved for understanding the rules and limits of the magical system is instead given its imagery and mood, emotion replacing explanation.
Walden’s use of the magical realism genre in Are You Listening? can be seen as a tactic to shift attention away from how personal the work is. However, if we return to Gallop’s theory, Walden’s attempt to obscure her place in the text draws attention to how present she is. Bea and Lou, for instance, can easily be read as stand-ins for Walden herself. Bea is eighteen; Lou is twenty-seven. The former five-years younger than Walden at the time of writing; the latter four-years older. It is as if Walden is looking back at the young girl she was when she started writing, while also looking ahead at the woman she may become if she continues on her career current path.
Bea and Lou have complex relationships to cars.
Bea dislikes driving, she struggles with the nuances — too quick on the clutch, not quick enough with gear changes. Her difficulty comes from fear. Fear of the responsibility that comes with driving. Responsibility for her life, for the lives of other drivers, but most of all the presumed responsibility of growing up. For Bea, driving represents maturity, an expectation that now she is able to do something with herself she must. This fear is underpinned by personal trauma. At a young age Bea was sexually assaulted by a neighbour, that fear has emotionally immobilised her. Guilt about the assault has festered inside her — Bea, like many victims, believes it is her fault it happened, which has led to a fear of change. With change comes acceptance, the necessity of embracing the trauma as a part of herself, something she, naturally, is reluctant to do. If she doesn’t drive, her life will never start; if she does drive, she feels she gives power to the part of herself she loathes most.
Lou is an automotive prodigy. At age fifteen she built a car by herself. What started out as a passion grew into a successful business, one which Lou threw herself into. But the urban legend of her prowess spread, and her business succeeded beyond expectations. For some years she’s looked to her work for fulfilment and meaning, but recently her work has stopped fulfilling her:
“Usually when I’m really busy I can just swallow everything down… It’s all so strange. I spent my early twenties working so hard and fast… and I never once asked myself how I was doing at all. And now I’m fucking paralyzed but I don’t know how to deal with it because I’ve never let myself slow down before.”
In Bea, Lou sees a reflection of her youth, or rather, lack of youth. Perhaps it just because they are both lesbian women with complex relationships to their gender, perhaps it is because Bea is as lost as Lou feels. Or perhaps it is that Lou recognises her fear in Bea and worries that she will waste away her young years trying to assert an unrealistic level of control over her life — attempting to fit her lived experience into the structure of others’ expectations.
Bea and Lou’s struggles can be read as analogous for Walden’s own relationship to her creative practice, their relationship to cars representing creative work and expression. Are You Listening? paints a portrait of an artist struggling with how the act of creating shaped her development and relationship to living. In a 2019 interview with The Irregular Report Walden said the freedom of creation doesn’t exactly daunt her, but it does have the potential to overwhelm. Doubly so when coupled with the expectations of audiences, critics, publishers, and book sellers, all of whom want to narrativise her life. The publishing industry, by nature, attempts to neatly categorise authors and works. This directly opposes Walden’s creative process. From style to narrative, Walden’s resists neat categorisation — it’s all about blending, about queerness.
In her article ‘Alternative to Adulting’, Sara Jaffe discusses how conventional markers of aging have been kept unavailable to queer persons. As a result, queer people create their own temporality, one where they dictate their markers for development and success. Jodie Taylor expands upon this idea of queer temporality in her essay ‘Queer Temporalities and the Significance of ‘Music Scene’ Participation in the Social Identities of Middle-Aged Queers’. While the article concerns itself with the music scene, it explores the idea that any form of creative or personal expression can replace traditional development markers for a queer person. As the music scene is to middle aged queers, so can writing and drawing be to young queers.
Walden, who used art as motivation to accept her sexuality, is a poster child for the relationship between creativity and queer temporality.
An attempt by others to infringe on that practice, then, represents a loss of control over her own development, a de-queering of her queer experience. Here Walden’s desire to kill herself as an author is contextualised — as a non-entity, it becomes impossible for others to dictate the value of her work, or how it reflects her life. But, as Gallop mentions, an author can never truly be killed. Doing so draws attention to their importance, the shadow remains. In trying to kill herself Walden only highlights how much of herself is in her work.
Walden’s desire to sever herself from her audience leaves her beholden to them. With Bea Walden gives body to the idea that she must create to have value — Bea’s fear of driving, which competes with her underlying fear of what will happen if she doesn’t drive, serving as metaphor. Lou, meanwhile, is Walden looking ahead, projecting a future where, if her current work ethic is maintained, she will burn out, losing any enthusiasm for the thing that brings her joy.
When the magical realism arrives, it does so with force.
Bea and Lou are driving over the Pecos River when the bridge suddenly crumbles beneath them. For a moment it looks as if they are going to plunge into the river, where the car will become their watery tomb. They somehow make it to the other side. By all logic they should have drowned — it’s a miracle. As they travel further Bea and Lou realise that while, yes, they did strictly speaking make it to the other side, in a broader sense they might not have. The land becomes amorphous. Roads writhe, snakelike, difficult to drive along and impossible to navigate. The women are, in a word, lost.
Usually, magic is synonymous with queer possibility in Walden’s work. The magical pushes against the structures of storytelling, creating avenues for characters to make self-discoveries. This happens narratively, with the magic interrupting otherwise standard narrative beats, but also visually, Walden’s blended visuals at their most pronounced when magic is at play. The decision to categorise them as a part of the magical realist genre in Are You Listening? is a first for Walden. By categorising them she puts a framework around what is usually boundless. Her magical systems have always functioned in a way akin to magical realism, but this is the first text in which the rules of the genre have explicit bearing. She is playing by another person’s rulebook, othering herself from the defining element of her works.
Thomas Crisp, in his essay for Children’s Literature in Education, notes how in fiction the magical is an avenue for queer expression. Queer romance and relationships are prominent in the genre because the magical landscape, in resisting regularity, resists the heteronormative passage of time. But, as he also notes, despite this prominent queerness, the benchmarks of character development, which he argues are analogous with a queer person’s personal development, remain heteronormative. Queer magical realism stories still end with characters in monogamous relationships which, aside from the gender and sexuality of the participants, are heterosexual in function. To fully escape heteronormative qualifies then, a text must resist interaction with clear genre markers altogether.
Bea and Lou’s getting lost in the magical realist elements of Are You Listening? then, is not indicative of their finding peace in the fundamental queerness of magic, but a reflection of their struggles with, and by extension Walden’s struggles with, the heteronormative qualifier’s others are putting on their lives. Throughout the early magical sections Walden’s trademark flowy, blended style gives way to a more jagged aggressive style. While the break-down of the traditional panel structure is still present, reflecting the magical elements, the absence of her personal style reflects the heteronormativity’s encroachment onto the queer. The further Bea and Lou push into the magical realm, and the harder they work to re-establish control, the more Walden’s style disappears. In a climactic moment, as the women and the magical fight for dominance, the car (with Bea and Lou inside) goes hurtling off a cliff and into a ravine, the entire page swallowed in darkness.
To gain control Bea and Lou first have to relinquish it.
Lost without a hope of finding their way out, talk. Or more importantly, they listen. They listen to each other, and they listen to themselves. They talk, pulling on the thread of their complicated relationships to cars, until it unravels. As it does, emotion spilling out, the frames break down completely. Walden’s style regresses back to sketches before evolving back into full-bodied drawing again. Once fullness is restored slight changes are visible. The lines are softer, the colours warmer, more inviting — in short, the queerness has returned to the frame. Only with the embracement of the traits to define Walden’s work, and her persona as an author, does resolution come in Are You Listening?.
Control is never fully regained. As a character remarks to Bea, “The land, the sky … it’s got its own mind, its own heart.” The way audience interacts with Walden, and shapes her practice, is only as great as her decision to react. Whether she continues to kill herself as an author, or perhaps let herself live a little more, remains to be seen. But if Bea and Lou’s openness with each other suggest anything, it is that whatever route Walden chooses, it will be of her own volition, rather than out of reaction.
Bea and Lou enter the magical realm driving a car. That car is destroyed when they plummet off the cliff. They exit it riding a motorbike. One they found after their conversation, after transformation. They ride out of the magical realism and into a Texas rife with Walden’s style. Warm colours, subversive use of panels —subtle in pronouncement, but undeniably present. The magic, the queerness inherent to Walden’s output, is returning. While the heteronormative pressures placed on her work may not have lifted, Walden’s interest in them, and their bearing on her, have, and the queer linearity of her life is restoring itself. Or, as Walden puts it:
“Everyone, everything has the potential for magic. You just have to be standing somewhere in the world and in the body that lets you see it.”
*Unless otherwise stated, all images are screenshots taken from Are You Listening?