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Tillie Walden:

That In-Between State

It is hard to write anything about comics’ ‘Future Great’ Tillie Walden without mentioning her age, or rather her youth, a liminal nineteen years. Her first two graphic novels came out last year from Avery Hill Press in London and show that she is still close enough to her childhood and adolescence to genuinely recapture their intensity, yet with a craft and maturity that belie her youth. This bright American has her father to thank for that. “When I was a kid,” she recalls, “my dad got me one of those huge collections of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland [1905–26]. It was so big (and I was so little) that I could sit on top of the pages and read the comics.” What better way for Walden to immerse herself in the popular surrealism, years before the surrealists, of McCay’s early-twentieth-century Sunday newspaper pages about a boy-dreamer, and soak up his refined art-nouveau draughtsmanship, fantastical architecture and distortions of scale. Equally formative was Japanese culture, whether the manga of Osamu Tezuka or the anime of Hayao Miyazaki.

Siblings Lars and Maja, Walden’s main characters in her unsettling fable The End of Summer, are “basically a mishmash” of her and her twin brother, John. A looming three-year winter locks away sickly boy Lars and his family, sealed tight inside their castle’s vast, vacuous splendour, as tensions and tempers rise. This reflects Walden’s contradictory relationship with the natural world, which she at once fears and finds beautiful and relaxing. “Part of me envies the family trapped inside, but another part wants nothing more than to open the door and breathe in the real air.” Walden finds that drifting close to sleep or wakefulness produces the perfect in-between state for ideas and drawings to flow. “Some of the most important moments in The End of Summer originated from mornings waking from a vivid dream.”

Walden applies McCay’s playful shifting in protagonists’ sizes in I Love This Part, tender interludes in whole-page vignettes of the all-obscuring love between two girls-turned-giants, reclining over mountains or skyscrapers, until self-doubt and external pressures bring them literally down to earth. “Young and unaware, the girls feel displaced from the environment around them. Their size changes as their lives change, and their love makes everything around them smaller. But this also shows how, when kids are in love, they often ignore everything else, often to a negative effect.”

Children who are not quite still children are becoming a theme in her stories. “I am interested in the dynamic of being a kid and dealing with issues that force you to grow up. That’s how I felt as a kid, and by drawing characters dealing with that I’m working through my own issues.” These will also come through in her two next projects, which she is working on simultaneously, one about her 12 years as a competitive synchronised skater, the other about a girl on a spaceship, related to ‘Alive’, her new two-page strip for ArtReview magazine [below]. While very different in setting, both let her explore young lives on the cusp of adulthood. Like Walden herself, who is the youngest artist represented in the UK’s largest exhibition of women cartoonists, Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics, at House of Illustration, London until May 15th 2016.

‘Alive’ for ArtReview Magazine
Click images to enlarge.

Web-Exclusive Interview with Tillie Walden:
Tillie generously took time to answer all my questions to prepare this profile. Here’s the full text of my questions and her responses….

Paul Gravett:
Would you paint me a picture of your studio or workplace please?

Tillie Walden:
My studio is actually where my bedroom is supposed to be. I live in a small one bedroom apartment, but there is a funny side room that you can’t even stand up in that I made my bedroom, so I could use the real bedroom as my studio. I have a desk pushed up against a window (I need a view, and I especially crave natural light). My walls are covered with drawings that I’ve done and drawings from people I love. I try and hang up things I’ve made that I’m proud of so I can remind myself that I know what I’m doing. My desk is covered in little things and is quite organised. I can’t work with clutter. There are some little toys lined up along one edge, and books stacked on the other side that I like to reference. There’s a little coaster that my grandmother made me where I put my tea or coffee, and then a whole side is dedicated to my many pens. Right in the middle, around all these things, is where I draw.

When did you start making comics and what sparked this interest in visual storytelling? Did you keep it to yourself or show friends and family?

I think my interest in comics lay dormant inside me for a very long time. I felt so much love for the medium, mostly from manga I read as a kid. But it wasn’t until late in High School when a few things came together to make me start drawing comics. I had gone to a workshop with Scott McCloud that got me really inspired to draw some comics, and around this time I was also becoming increasingly bored with fine art. I think I was also at an age (16, 17ish) where I was dying to find something that could define me. Once I started drawing, everything seemed to fit, and I didn’t stop. I initially kept my comics very private, but my Dad forced me to put them online. I was pretty angry and embarassed at the time, but it was totally worth it.

I see you dedicated The End of Summer to your twin brother - is any character in the book based on him - or you maybe?

Yes, it’s dedicated to John (my twin). He’s read the book a few times now, I think. No character was specifically based off of him, but I definitely think that Lars and Maja, the main characters, are basically a mishmash of both of us. A lot of what frustrates me about Lars is based on what frustrates me about my brother. Most characters in the book are pretty much made out of pieces of people I know. The only blatant one is that Hector, Lars’ caretaker, is directly based off of my Dad. They even look the same!

Which artists or writers, from comics or any other media, have been the most formative for you as you’ve developed your craft?
I think the manga artist Yoshihiro Togashi is one of my biggest and most lasting influences. He made the manga Hunter x Hunter which I read as a kid (and continue to re-read today). He created such engaging places in such a convincing way, and I’ve only noticed now how much that idea has really seeped into my own work. I also think Roal Dahl really deeply affected me. I loved his stories as a kid, but what I really loved was the darkness in them. I think both Togashi and Dahl have something in their stories that I really enjoy, which is a combination of such real and believable characters and relationships against a backdrop of a totally unique world.

I couldn’t help thinking of Csar Nicolas of Russia and his family hiding away and getting killed. Was this a reference - and what were the others?

That’s very interesting! The Csar of Russia wasn’t really an influence for The End of Summer, but I can definitely see the connection. I didn’t have any specific historical influences, but I’ve always been fascinated by families in history. I like seeing the dynamics and the lifestyles. This is a good reminder though, I should probably study some more history.

Winsor McCay strikes me as one reference in your two first books - the Slumberland-like architecture in Summer (and Nemo the cat) and the giant girls clambering over skyscrapers like Little Nemo and Flip. Am I right? What strikes you most about McCay’s comics?

Winsor McCay is a huge influence on all my work, especially The End of Summer. When I was a kid, my Dad got me one of the huge collections of his work. It was so big (and I was so little) I could sit on top of the pages and read the comics. The name of the cat, Nemo, is a direct homage to McCay. What strikes me about his work is just its sheer beauty. When you actually sit down and read Nemo, I find it kind of dry. The plot moves slowly, and doesn’t go very far. But that never mattered to me because as a kid I never once actually read the comics. I just looked at them. And that’s what strikes me about his work, that I just enjoy looking at them. The detail and the playing with scale never ceases to inspire me. I think McCay also made me believe that making things the right size doesn’t have to matter. I never really thought about my decision to make many of my characters giants because it just felt like something I could do.

In what ways do manga and anime feed into your art and writing too? I detected Miyazaki for one.

Manga and anime have played a huge role for me. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is a big influence. I’m happy that I got to grow up with movies like My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. And while I was watching those as a kid, I was reading everything by Tezuka. My childhood was really chock full of this stuff, and I have my Dad to thank for that. It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly all this media affected me as a creator. I think in general it just instilled in me a certain sensibility, both in storytelling and art. I also think Miyazaki especially does emotion really well, and I picked up on that and went on to search for emotion in my own work.

What is it like to study at the http://www.cartoonstudies.orgCentre for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, Vermont? What have been the most surprising lessons you’ve learnt?

Studying at CCS has been wonderful. I’m just living a life that’s full of comics all the time. It can be hard at times because you’re living and studying in a space that is so full of creative work, but I think ultimately it’s very rewarding. I think the most surprising lesson I learned was just how vast the history of comics is. I went into my class with Steve Bissette knowing basically nothing about the history of the medium, and Steve changed all that. It was a great thing to learn about because it made me feel like I was apart of a longer history, rather then just being a nonexistent entity drawing comics in a timeless vacuum.

What did you want to convey through the gigantism of the two girls in I Love This Part? They become normal size when their lives become ‘normal’ and they seem to be out of love… it’s as if being love makes everything else seem small.

I get this question a lot, haha. I think on the surface you’re correct - the girls are young and unaware, and feel displaced from the environment around them. Their size changes as their own lives change, and you’re right, their love makes everything around them smaller. But I think that the way these girls live in their world is special but also very immature. I think it shows another side as to how, when kids are in love, they often ignore everything else around them, often to a negative affect. That isn’t really covered in the book, but was something I thought about. When I started the book I didn’t think about any of this thematically, I drew them as giants compared to a small landscape because I think the imagery of it is just quite beautiful. And on a very simple level, I just find two girls being in love a beautiful thing as well. So, I combined them. It’s actually pretty basic.

“Drifting in, and drifting out” - “Dreams and morning dripping together” -  both books have this reverie quality, between waking and sleeping, living and dreaming.  What draws you to conveying this mood? How do comics suggest this especially well?

I absolutely love playing around with being awake and dreaming. For a lot of my life it always felt like I was slipping in between these two states, so I think I will keep putting that in my comics for a long time. It was really just a coping method when I was growing up. It was easier to be dreamy than it was to be real and awake. And though that sensation makes me a little sad now, I’m very nostalgic for that time when I lived like that, so now I love having characters live in that same way. Comics are perfect for conveying this idea, in my opinion. You read a comic just by simply moving forward and you have to basically accept whatever the artist lays out for you. So it’s so simple for me to just lead the reader through whatever state I need them to be in.

Does this mood mirror the in-between, liminal state which you ideally want to be in when you are creating your comics? 

Definitely. I need to be close to asleep when I make comics. It’s the perfect state for me. Ideas flow so easily for me in those times. When I’ve just woken up from a vivid dream and then immediately start drawing, that’s where my best ideas have come from. Some of the most important moments in The End of Summer originated out of those mornings. I also just find it a very comforting state to make work in. I need to be very warm and wrapped up and in a safe space to make my comics. I look forward to going to bed at night and dreaming just as much as I look forward to waking up and drawing comics, because most of the time they feel like the exact same thing.

Children who are not quite still children - what draws you to telling stories of such characters? 

I really enjoy writing stories about kids, and I think that’s mostly because I still feel very close to that time. I think as I age there’s a bit of a lag, and even though I’m19, a big part of me still feels 16. And then when I feel 16, it throws me back to 11, and that’s the age most of my characters are. I think the age of 11 is forever burned inside of me because that was when I moved from New Jersey to Texas, and a lot in my life took place in the year after that. I’m also really interested in the dynamic of being a kid and dealing with issues that force you to grow up. That’s how I felt as a kid, and by drawing characters dealing with that, I’m basically just working through my own issues. It’s definitely a theme I’ll keep playing with for awhile.

I detected an ecological subtext, in that the family is hiding indoors for a long period and panic when there is a ‘leak’?

The entirety of that idea, the idea of staying indoors and fearing a ‘leak’ from the outside world comes from my own fears. I’ve always had this contradictory relationship with the natural world. I am really afraid of plants (yeah, I know) and basically anything alive (animals, bugs, etc.) really sends a deep fear inside me. But at the same time, I find the natural world unbelievably beautiful and relaxing, more so than any manmade space. I think the themes and subtext in The End of Summer was me searching for answer about how I feel about these two spaces coexisting. Part of me envies the family trapped inside, but another part of me wants nothing more then to open the door and breathe in the real air.

In The Eternaut, an amazing SF allegory from Argentina out from Fantagraphics, there is lethal snow and people have to shut themselves indoors to survive.

I haven’t heard of this! But that doesn’t surprise me, a lethal snow trapping people inside is a pretty used-up idea. But I had fun with it all the same. I’m never too concerned about originality because I know that everything I make is just a combination of all my influences and experiences. I don’t try to make my comics original, because I don’t know if that’s even possible. I just try to make them interesting.

Why are the gaps between what you write and what you draw so intriguing in your comics?

I don’t know if I really know the answer to that! Maybe it’s that sometimes I feel the need to separate the art and the writing because a moment just calls for it. Reading something that is both a visual and a block of text can be overwhelming, and separating those elements I think can create a sense of ease.

You have a great eye for props, decor, objects, furnishings - as part of your world-building in Summer.  Do you keep sketchbooks? What do you collect?

Thank you! No, I don’t keep a sketchbook. I actually really hate sketching. I kind of hate it more than anything. I forced myself to sketch for awhile but I found that it made me feel fake. I was convincing myself I was at ease and making some loose cool drawing, but actually I was just worrying the whole time about how good the drawing was. I just draw comics when I feel the need to draw. When I need inspiration, I have some other avenues. I’m really obsessed with looking at real estate listings, and that’s where I get a lot of ideas for architectural spaces and props. The New York Times has these slideshows of images from house that are listed for like millions of dollars. I literally look at this realty section every day, and it never gets boring.

What are you working on next? Does working in colour appeal? Would you consider returning to your astronaut character in your ArtReview strip?

I’m working on two things right now! Both will be in black and white, most likely. I really enjoy working in colour, but I always let the story dictate whether or not something needs to be in colour. At the moment the two things I’m working on seem to call for black and white, so that’s what I’ll do. The first project I’m busy on is a big big big book about ice skating. I was a competitive and synchronised skater for 12 years and I’m drawing comics about that experience. Where that will go, I have no idea. It’s very draining to work on. On the other end, I’m working on a space-like book for Avery Hill. This comic for ArtReview was me testing the waters to see if I liked the whole space thing, and I decided that I did. I don’t think I’ll revisit this exact character, but she may inspire the creation of a future character. It will be a really fun book (well, maybe not fun for the characters, but fun for me.) I’m excited to draw some nonsensical space ships. It’s just what I need when I’ve spent too long drawing tiny ice skater girls.

Posted: March 6, 2016

The profile originally appeared in ArtReview magazine, January/February 2016.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

The End Of Summer

I Love This Part