Tillie Walden’s explores space, relationships, trauma, and time in her 2018 graphic novel On A Sunbeam.
Split in time, main character Mia has no sense of belonging. Out of place at boarding school and lost at her new job surrounded by people who have already formed connections to each other. Linking the past and the present, Mia draws her loss of her high school girlfriend into her new life as a member of a crew who value her and see her as part of the team. The symbolic link between the crew repairing old and beautiful structures, and Mia trying to repair her relationship with her lost girlfriend sets the tone for the novel and brings up the importance of family and belonging.
On A Sunbeam follows the story of Mia at two pivotal moments in her life, we see her in the present moment, and her backstory as a teen at high school. Set in space, high school aged Mia struggles with bullies and reasons to try at her boarding school. This is until she meets Grace, a new student with a mysterious past who is as much an outsider as Mia. Their relationship thrives as they become each other’s safe place away from the troubles of school and home lives, until Grace is suddenly summoned home and won’t be returning, leaving Mia back where she began. This story appears sporadically whilst Mia is now a member of a crew of individuals who travel around space, restoring ancient and dilapidated structures. In the present timeline, Mia learns to find her place with her crewmates and begins to open up to them about her history. After learning her story, the crew decides to help Mia as they journey to find Grace so that Mia can finally say the good-bye she missed the first time.
Tillie Walden does not stick to the status quo. At the age of 23, Walden has six graphic novels published, many of which have won awards, with her newest novel, are you listening?, and memoir Spinning both winning Eisner Awards. This impressive collection of works makes Walden an author more prominent than most authors at that age. Notably, Walden had her first graphic novel, The End of Summer, not only published at the young age of 18, but it also earned an Ignatz Award. An impressive feat for a young and inexperienced author.
Walden writes and draws about issues and topics that are important to her. When asked in an interview about what influenced her to create On A Sunbeam, she says, “The initial idea came from the interest in space, my love of architecture, my interest in young gay relationships”. Experiences and interests of the author clearly play a role on the content of their work, therefore we can come to understand better the intentions of the author through the author themselves. Yet Walden actively attempts to distance herself from her works so as her readers can project themselves onto the texts as they progress, allowing them the freedom of change and second chances, without being overwhelmed by authorial intent.
This distancing of author from physical work is similar to the concept of the Death of the Author introduced by Roland Barthes, in which the author of the text is ignored in favour of individual analysis of the text. Whilst an unconventional stance for an author, it reflects Walden’s desire to create a text that her readers can interpret in any way that is beneficial to them. But completely removing Walden from her work is counterproductive. Lambert argues that the comparison of author and text is beneficial to reading a text to further the critical interpretations, but does not require an in-depth dissection of the author’s past.
In a 2017 interview with The Austin Chronicle , Walden states the reason that she connects with the medium of comics is because: “I can do them just for myself”. This idea that Walden’s content is fulfilling her own wants, leads us to question the role of her identity and past on her works. If her comics are intended for herself, then this can mean that the texts relate specifically to herself and as such identify the need to understand Walden’s history and motivations. Her own sexuality and experiences as queer young adult quite clearly have an impact on her writing. Walden made it known that that although she has known since she was a young child that she was a lesbian, she didn’t feel that she could represent characters of that identity until she was totally open and had come to terms with her own sexuality. The timeline of her coming out controlled the content for her graphic novels and influenced many of the concerns she has as a queer author.
Jaffe’s ‘Alternative to Adulting’ discusses the effect of queer time on queer youth, something that is inherently important to On A Sunbeam and to Walden as an author. Walden’s creative works relied heavily on her own relationship to her identity, as her graphic novels acted as a motivator for her to accept her identity. Walden’s experience with time is reflected in the content of her works, as her characters have complex relationships with the passage of time and the goals that are expected of young individuals.
The fractal nature of time in On A Sunbeam encapsulates the fluidity of queer temporality.
Time is not linear, and nor are the experiences that make up a person. Jumping back in time to a high school Mia, we witness key events that would traditionally make up her coming-of-age if this were a conventual version of the genre. But, of course, it isn’t. Mia doesn’t ‘come of age’ in her high school years. These years still have a role in her development, as key events occur; she meets Grace, the individual that spurs the overarching adventure of the novel. But much of Mia’s growth and maturity occurs after school, not in tertiary education, but in a restoration job aboard the spaceship ‘Aktis’ which translates to ‘Sunbeam’. The crew aboard the ‘Sunbeam’ understand Mia’s problems as they all have their own complex and often troubled pasts, making it the perfect place for a young Mia to begin to grow in her new family.
Mia’s coming of age is disrupted by the sudden departure of her girlfriend Grace. Mia shut herself off from the world, and gave up on the hopes she had cultivated with Grace, stunting her development as a young woman. The conventional milestones of growing up and adulthood do not apply to Mia, graduating high school, beginning tertiary education, and starting a traditional family aren’t as important as society traditionally depicts them as.
Queer temporality suggests that queer individuals experience time differently, and one of the reasons that this is suggested is because they have, traditionally, been unable of completing the milestones that represent growing up or becoming an adult. These milestones include getting married and having children, both which have been unavailable up until recent years. Yet what these markers represent is the growing of a family, something that queer people have always done, if not in the traditional sense. The found family is a trope well known to queer fiction, and is clearly evident in On A Sunbeam, as Mia becomes a part of the close-knit crew aboard the Sunbeam. More than merely co-workers, the characters Alma, Jules, Char, and Ell form a different kind of family, one that is found and chosen. Whilst Alma and Char are in a romantic relationship, and Alma and Jules are aunt and niece, these traditional types of relationships do not have a greater weight in the overall group, just existing as different dynamics with the whole family.
In spite of the absence of men in her texts, Walden still manages to encapsulate the struggles of being a queer teen, whilst addressing the lack of representation in the overarching coming-of-age genre. On A Sunbeam identifies the alienation of a queer young woman, not for her sexuality, but for generic high school drama reasons. Reasons that are typically reserved for heterosexual texts.
Grace is bullied for being different to her peers at school, and as a result Mia is targeted for being in a relationship with ‘the weird girl’. The bullying has nothing to do with sexuality, as the issue of sexuality is not one that is discussed in On A Sunbeam. The absence of any male character removes the need to specify or label the relationships beyond romantic, platonic, familial etc. This allows for a deeper dive into the experiences of a queer young woman, something that Tillie Walden has first-hand experience surrounding.
Walden creates an imagery in her illustrations that is identifiable queer. The instability of her lines and shapes reflects the non-linear relation to time she and her characters share, as well as the fluidity of growth and identity for queer young adults. Walden does not rely on tradition in her illustrations, nor does she follow the rules for graphic novel construction. The gutters of Walden’s comics are as fluid as the landscapes and people she draws. The free-form nature of the gutters interrupt the story being told, representing the impact of queer time and fluctuation of growth for queer individuals.
The physical appearance of her characters reflected this fluidity as they combine masculine and feminine features, with many of them having shorter hair and less defined feminine bodies despite majority identifying as female. The character of Ell is one of the few non-female characters in the graphic novel, identifying as gender neutral. In spite of their differences, Ell does not stand apart from the women of the novel as all the characters feature the same androgynous characteristics. Tillie Walden denies societal conventions for gender appearance, allowing for more space to explore the importance of emotional growth, rather than an emphasis on physical appearance.
(In order, left to right: Char, Jules, Alma, Ell, Mia)
Genre is something that Walden opts not to worry too much about with her writing. In a 2017 interview, Walden says, “I was interested in doing a comic set in space” but also states “I wasn’t particularly interested in the sci-fi genre, in fact I avoided it all together”, and yet On A Sunbeam follows many of the conventions typical to the genre. Whilst most minds would go directly to science fiction when considering any text set in space, Walden instead desired to create something that subverted the genre from within. In a review of the graphic novel, Buchanan argues that, “On a Sunbeam hews close to one of science fiction’s most archetypal story arcs,” referring to the idea of the ‘monomyth’ a basic storyline of an individual who “leaves home, receives a call to adventure, encounters a mentor, undergoes trials, confronts an evil, and returns rewarded and transformed”. Walden’s On A Sunbeam sticks with this familiar plot but does anything but write a typical story. Disregarding the historically male-centric, heterosexual tropes of the genre and story arcs, Walden breaks down the stereotypes of the genre, creating a fresh angle on an otherwise overdone genre.
Space is just the backdrop for the story of On A Sunbeam, not the focus. Science fiction as a genre relies on the concept of ‘Estrangement’ as discussed by Simon Spiegel. This framework of this concept is that, “sf [science fiction] does not estrange the familiar, but rather make the strange familiar,”. A tale of fantastical planets and landscapes and futuristic fish spaceships fits into the genre of science fiction, and the familiarity of these strange images adheres to the concept of estrangement. But these space age features are not the only elements of the text that fall into the idea of strange made familiar, as the depiction of a man free world in which queer relationships are the only ones that can be founded can also be viewed through the lens of Estrangement. This portrayal of queer relationships as the norm, appears ‘strange’ in the sense that it differs from traditional fictional representation, especially in the mostly male-dominated genre of science fiction.
Science Fiction is about possibilities. Obviously there are tropes that are crucial to the genre, but the outrageous and futuristic elements differ to the traditionally fantastical features of fantasy, as it is a world that relies on the cultivation of what ifs. The hope for a different, better world is one that most people harbour, but for the queer community it is one that often seems less attainable, and that is what Tillie Walden attempts to disprove in On A Sunbeam. The queerness of science fiction allows Walden to explore the importance of the passage of time for Mia, and to allow Mia to progress as a person at her own pace without the pressures of societal norms.
Once Mia learned to let go of the expectations of what she should do and where she should be in life, she was able to experience life for herself, rather than forcing herself to fit the wrong mould. The freedom and possibility of space and time lends itself to the complexities of gender and sexual identity, letting the characters and the audience experience life on their own terms. Walden’s queer time allowed Mia to grow into a better version of herself, and gave her the second chance she needed as a kid.
“Shit doesn’t always work. You can try again. It may not have worked when you were a kid, but you’re not a kid anymore.”