On a Sunbeam
By Tillie Walden
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
We talked a bit about this book back when we were doing our 2018 in Review thing. And it seemed like a few people had a few things to say about it (including myself) and seeing how it’s such a popular book I thought that it would be fun and interesting to devote some time to going into it with a bit more depth…But yeah I’m going to take the easy option and lightly edit thoughts from before and let you guys take it from there… (hope that’s ok).
Being a vaguely comics-book-style-person I’d heard about Tillie Walden and her prodigious talent etc etc. She’s like really young and has already written a bunch of masterpieces and stuff right? I think I read a thing towards the start of the year that made me want to read something of hers – but not enough to actually go out and buy it. But you know: I was curious to see if all of the amazing things people were saying were accurate or not. But then yeah – she kinda slipped from my mind and got buried under everything else in the world.
And then I saw a copy of On a Sunbeam on the shelves of my library and I was like: “oh ok – maybe I’ll have a looksie.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. I mean obviously the first thing that grabs you when you first pick it up is: oh wow – this is a thick fucking book. Bastard thing is seriously hefty. 530+ pages. And it feels like it’d be good to whack on a burglar’s head. I guess that’s one of the benefits of being a minor-indie-comics-legend or whatever? (I wonder how much time it took her to write…?) but then when I started reading it – it all just felt kinda slightly free-form and loose? Not just the story that seemed to be coming from everywhere all at once (ok: so it’s like a Hogwarts in space kinda thing? But also this people who go around fixing these little space islands?). Please believe me that I don’t mean this pejoratively – but it kinda felt a bit like an outsider-art kinda thing? (I haven’t actually read it – but it kinda reminded me of what I imagine Henry Darger’s work would be like – you know: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion kinda thing – maybe crossed with The Little Prince?) Encumbered by what a comic is supposed to be about or how it’s supposed to look…. But just this kinda free-wheeling expression so that it kinda feels like water or air – just going wherever it feels like and going with whatever idea comes to mind… Altho – of course obviously that’s not quite right – because as stuff kinda builds up it becomes quite obvious that this is obviously a very carefully planned and structured book. I mean it’s so long that of course you have to plan this stuff otherwise it just turns into a mess (compare and contrast with another comic I read this year called Expansion by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward where they proudly boast in the introduction that they just made up as they went along and well yeah… you can tell. And erm I don’t really think it’s something you should boast about? And it’s also probably one of the worstcomics I’ve read this year so erm yeah).
So here’s the thing: I kinda read On a Sunbeam in two big chucks (like I said – it’s a big book!) and they were both kinda different in how they felt. The first chuck when I just started reading it and wasn’t really expecting to get that far (the benefits of Library books – no pressure right?) and yeah the whole thing just hit me really really hard. The story just enveloped me and I totally lost myself and the relationship between Mia and Grace just broke my tiny little black Grinch heart into tiny pieces.It’s all just so perfectly done – seeing how they get to know each other. Finding out what Mia is like – finding what Grace is like. And seeing the first faltering steps. I mean seeing how we did Sex Criminals – it’s interesting comparing Mia and Grace with Jon and Susie… Jon and Susie’s relationship and how they first get together it kinda feels more like watching a romantic comedy or whatever. It’s about the cleverness of the lines and the crazy stuff they do… Which obviously yeah is a certain style and a thing. But Mia and Grace the way that stuff unravels and spills out – and they fact that the book is already set in this semi-unrealistic place anyway kinda makes you feel like you’re inside their love. Like you can feel it. And well yeah – it’s really really beautiful. And made me feel like oh wow – this is one of the most powerful things I’ve read all year. And everything Tillie Walden does kinda adds to that – the fact that her artwork is (like her story) really loose and delicate and almost weightless just makes the book feel like it’s own special space. Like you’re reading a sktechbook or notebook or a diary somehow. Even the word balloons in their scribbly non-typical-comics-caps-lock kinda way makes you feel like you’re reading something that’s being whispered to you rather than shouted. Which is nice. It’s really nice in fact.
And yeah – and then I think I made the mistake of putting it down (it was late and I was tired and like I said – it’s a long book) and then when I came back and read the second half I must admit that the spell wasn’t nearly as strong.
Maybe it’s because I was loving it so much before? And there’s a difference between reading something with no expectations and reading something thinking that it’s going to properly transport you? Maybe it’s because I saw it mentioned on some End of Year Comics List thing where the only thing they really said about it was something about how “It’s great that there’s this comic without any men in it” which – urg – yawn – ok whatever. I mean yes – the patriarchy is real. Yes – All the Marvel films with all the white guys called Chris. Yes – everyone should be free from discrimination and being identified from their gender/race/sexuality/etc etc – yes of course. It just (sigh) strikes me as being a little reductive when talking about this book that that’s the thing that you want to make a big deal about. Although – I guess the simplistic narratives are the strongest ones and it’s easier to say “Make America Great Again” or “#MeToo” rather than trying to take a long hard considered look at things (blah blah blah).
What do you think?
Barbican Comic Forum
At last! I had time on my hands last week so I finished this book early.
First of all, definitely not enough explosions.But seriously, I came into this completely blind. I knew nothing about who Tillie Walden was or what the book was about when I opened the cover and began reading page one which was kind of liberating, but I’ll admit it, I really struggled with OAS at first. When I finished reading this book I pretty much just wanted this thread to start so that somebody here could help me understand the book better. You see, I really wanted to like it more than I did. Everything I knew about the book told me that it should be great: Eisner Award winning author; a glowing review from one of my favourite writers on the cover (BKV). But after finishing it I was just left feeling unsatisfied. I wouldn’t say that I disliked it. There were loads of things in there that I thought were pretty cool: like the artwork, in particular the landscapes, and there was something just a little unusual about the style in general which I’ve not seen before and that I found appealing.
But as a story it was just a bit ambiguous, rambly and disjointed. In short, it was hard work to follow the thread. I often found myself flicking back through the pages to check if there was some vital piece of information that I’d missed and then I was typically disappointed to find that there wasn’t. Too many things just didn’t make sense and I was left with too many unanswered questions: there wasn’t enough explanation for my taste as to why the world was the way it was and I was constantly waiting for the big reveal where it would all start to make a ton of sense, but nope.
Another thing I found challenging was a combination of the non-linear timelines coupled with Tillie’s cartoonish style of drawing people. Neither one is bad in itself but together they cause me a bit of a headache. It’s a very cartoony style, a bit like reading a sweary Sci-fi Peanuts with a soupçon of Harry Potter (I’m sure I’ve seen that rage face on Lucy) which means that everyone looks similar and so it was hard for me personally to tell when the timeline shifted. I later picked up that the timelines seemed to be colour coded by the general hue of the page (please tell me that’s true, because it was a real penny drop moment for me when it clicked) but if that was the case I was already too far through the book at that stage to want to go back to the beginning and start again. Maybe that’s more my fault than Tillie’s but one niggle I still have even now: if that was what she was doing, it might have been nice to get an explanation on that early on for dummies like me to follow.
The imagery is so abstract that it feels as though there should be hidden depth and I’ve an awful habit of looking for symbolism and deeper meaning with things (I can’t give my degree back now sadly). But with this book I was just left scratching my head. I mean: fish spaceships? Really? What the heck is all that about? Come on! I need to crack the hidden code! And why are they repairing structures? Is that something to do with her repairing structures in conventions of writing or something? Not one clue.
And then I read Spinning.
Spinning was utterly brilliant. I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting which is really unusual for me. I found the story more fluid and well-rounded than OAS. It has more direct introspective and internal dialogue which made it easier for me to follow. As a reader I felt much more engaged with the characters and I found Tillie’s heartfelt story fascinating and warming. Plus using skating as an overriding theme to plot her changing thoughts and emotions was really, really clever.
More importantly, I think that reading Spinning taught me to appreciate OAS better and on reflection I actually wish that I’d read that first. I started to realise that Walden is more about the beauty of moments-in-time and an exploration of relationships, and less so about having a strong narrative thread. I think with both books she’s writing in a very autobiographical style, giving you a very personal insight into little snippets of her life (I have a huge amount of respect for her ability to open-up her soul so honestly like that to the world by the way). There direct parallels with some of the names and events, both books seem to have the same autobiographical tone, focusing on spanshot moments rather than plot development. Perhaps that also has something to do with it being published as a web comic originally.
Another lightbulb moment: at one point she started talking about the meanings of colours in Spinning which made me start to realise the importance of her use of colour and how it conveys emotion, which I then took back to OAS and was like “oh, yeah”.
I think that the final big reveal I’d been waiting for the whole way through reading OAS actually came on the final page of Spinning with a note from the author that read:
“I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers. It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every movement. And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident. I think I’m that author.”
I finally realised that perhaps there probably is no intentional depth or hidden meaning behind what she writes. And why should there be? She’s just creating the world she wants to see one moment at a time. I expect I’d been reading it all wrong and my expectations were maybe unfair: the narrative probably isn’t the point. And you know what? That’s pretty cool. I’m glad I read it. Of the two Spinning is definitely a better book for me, which is odd because if you described both to me without having read them I would definitely have been looking forward to reading OAS more.
So overall I’ve been through a bit of a journey with my appreciation of Tillie Walden over the last week but as of now I’m a confirmed fan and I feel in a much better place with OAS; I’m actually half-tempted to read it again but so many others on the list that might not happen for a while. My advice to anyone completely new to her style like I was is to read Spinning first then read OAS after.
I’ve already gone ahead and ordered The End of Summer and I Love This Part. Her stuff’s OK. Could definitely use a few more explosions though.
Interested to hear what other people think about whether this works as a story and if anyone else had the same challenges as I did.
In space, no one can hear you slit your wrists.
My biggest disappointment with this book is that it won’t smash the patriarchy. My second was that there were many others that followed. This was the first I’d heard of Tillie Walden and as soon as I closed the book I was keen to know more. Quite the young trailblazer and I salute you, she’s certainly established herself and done so incredibly quickly and solidly, but sadly I don’t find myself a fan. I notice aswell from a quick Google and the emails that have been pinging around already that this is her first step into space. Usually that’s a bad idea. Usually it’s the final frontier because it means the writer’s run out of ideas, and often certain styles don’t always travel well through the ozone layer. A favourite author of mine did a one off book in space and I found the pace interrupted every so often by a page or two about an airlock or some other plot hurdle which after a while did begin to grate. So for all I know, the precocious Ms Walden may well live up to her fine reputation but we’re reviewing this murder she wrote.
I bought my copy and it’s wonderfully presented, I had high hopes. And I was aware it was available free online which I find admirable indeed (already writing this feels like kicking a puppy) even if it is online which is a dirty way to read comics, but once I’d got past the glowing review on the back from Brian K Vaughan (!) and talk of a ‘masterpiece of space fantasy,’ and with the weight of the book itself holding a lot of promise, the light quickly began to fade. My first impressions were that it looked like a hipster take on a lesbian (I have entered the minefield) coming of age love story set in an ideal future in the style of Manga, but Manga drawn left handed by someone who isn’t left handed. I found the use of colours fantastic which is ironic as I also found large portions of the book to be like watching paint dry. Nothing happens. It was like emo melodrama.
There was a massive story arc on someone getting suspended for three months and when it finally happened and was revealed as a big moment I just thought ‘so what?’ Nobody’s going to die and in three months we’ll have about four pages of them getting closer and then maybe embracing as a pay off. The tragedy, if you can call it that, is that these two special lovers will be temporarily away from each other which is the major theme of the book. The internet has it that this is based on a point in the author’s life where someone she was close to disappeared without explanation or closure which is a great premise for a story but this one here is about temporary absence. I’ve never watched Dawson’s Creek but for some reason that sprang to mind when reading this. I had hoped for a few insights being open minded and having never been a lesbian myself but again, nothing. When they were at school, was it like Mia and Grace were the only people interested in sex at all? In the absence of any men entirely, potentially every person you meet has the potential to become your partner but there was still a sort of air of secrecy and forbidden love to it, which I just didn’t get. Maybe this is one of Walden’s often biographical plot points that doesn’t quite make it out of the atmosphere and into lesbian space utopia. If there are no men and everyone’s gay anyway, what’s the big deal? Why is it awkward? Why is it special?
What was it Elliot did that meant she couldn’t return to that planet? I’d like to say I’d stopped caring but I think it was revealed right at the end and I’d been pinning my hopes on something interesting happening with her, she was my last hope. It was great trotting about the planets because I kept on thinking that something might happen on the next trip but nothing really did.
One tease of drama was when Grace’s three sisters were on their way to get her unbeknownst to them they were actually tracking Mia via the magic pendant. And fair play, I thought giving it to Grace under the instruction it was magic was a nice touch. Given her age and circumstance it’s quite believable that she’d just accept it and hold it dear and thoughtful that her sisters would do that. Anyway, Grace has gone off to take a leak and Mia’s sat there, with the sisters enroute. And they’ve still got to get through the window because they’re in space and they’ve got to do it without letting the whole school or whatever know. So what happens with this great plot device and built up tension? Well, the sisters just open the window and roll in. But wait! They’re confronted with a sassy little Mia, surely she’ll keep them chatting, Grace will return and hear them from the other side of the door, leg it and they’ll rendezvous later and find love is the answer? Queue the music. Nope, Grace just opens the door and rolls right in too, like her sisters. So Grace agrees to go back with them and they both get on with their lives except Mia isn’t out sports fucking at every opportunity and as it happens, Grace is having a great time and clearly hasn’t thought about Mia in years. But anyway, Mia’s risked her and her buddies lives on an almost suicide mission so Mia can ‘just talk,’ to Grace. Again, a chance of a bit of excitement, what’s she going to say? How’s she going to win her round? I can’t remember it delivering but apparently it sparked something in Grace who decided to leave being an actual princess to get back with Mia and form a pseudo family so they could all fuck off into space together and be poor.
It didn’t smash up gender roles for me or introduce an alternative or new way of living. And is it me, or is The Stair Case’s role in all the conflict a bit bitchy given their obscene wealth? The trouble in paradise is that they don’t know how to share. So there’s conflict. And isn’t that what a big problem with the patriarchy is? At one point one of the characters questions someone’s bravery by asking about the size of their balls (I’m not looking it up) and again it’s not really showing a massive difference or benefit with the absence of men in society. Apart from the fact everyone is completely oblivious to the idea of sex except for Mia and Grace of course.
The spaceship which is like a fish I thought was cool because when there was an actual fish amongst reeds shown while someone was carping on, I thought, ah right, so the fish spaceship moves through space like a fish! Which I thought is a great idea as it sorts of adds texture to a vacuum. So with this in mind I kept an eye out for how the fish spaceship was drawn from then on but found them pretty static. Maybe I’d been daydreaming while reading it and just imagined it having a bit of depth, which doesn’t say much for the plot, the characters or anything else in it. One of the characters was proudly introduced as being or identifying as non binary. And? Be nice if something happened with that. There were a couple of parts in the book that I did quite like. For example page 287 (see pic), but that’s like one page in 500 and I think maybe more should have been done with that instead of cramming it into one page or similar kind of ideas in addition. But even that came off as smug rather than anything else. Pro tip: don’t use the phrase: ‘pro tip,’ because you sound like an arse which makes it difficult to listen to the message. Again, when Christine had Mia locked up they could of had a really interesting conversation where the characters had a chance to shine but it just felt like going through the motions. Perhaps I’m a bit old and cynical but the lack of depth of the characters and story gives it all a bit of a smug sort of hipster vibe for me. Style over substance, or rather, style instead of substance. At one point someone actually says, ‘No. That’s what’s strange. I am happy. But that doesn’t mean things should stay the same.’ Jesus Christ in a Nando’s…
The future is boring, there’s still a bit of conflict in lesbian space utopia but it’s mostly incredibly dull or a just a bit bitchy. Or maybe this is in fact the zeitgeist of the times and the future of comics? In real life the established patriarchy are really past the point of caring or even pretending at this point, and madness abounds as our glorious leaders continue to stoke the dumpster fires of their administrations. Laissez Fare has developed into plain unfair. Perhaps this is the escapism people want. Floating in a bubble of self-absorbtion with nothing actually happening except a bit of moaning because in space no one can hear you slit your wrists.
I didn’t enjoy reading it but having had it settle I kind of remember it fondly as it was a nice story and everything, quite sweet and imaginatively, or rather, poetically done. There was certainly a lot of poetic license. Flicking back through it to write this, it is quite charming and has a nice feel to it which makes it difficult to take much umbrage with it. I don’t think it’s intended to be taken too seriously because there’s nothing to get excited or upset about. Own very own dear Owen quoted the author in his review as saying something along the lines of not wanting to join up all the dots. Whereas I thought the plot holes in V for Vendetta were a result of lazy writing, in this case I don’t think the same applies here as On A Sunbeam is meant to have a dreamy and ethereal feel to it and with it’s, setting, lengthy page count and slow style often bereft of dialogue it has the space to achieve this. But with those ingredients, how can you not? I found that when there was dialogue it was disappointing as the characters just seemed to be going through the motions of the plot and not really bringing much to it, like page 52 (see pic) as a shining example. I suppose you get what you pay for and this was intended to be for free, so if it’s just the artist doodling and daydreaming in the infinity of space on the back of an apparently pretty strong and quickly established reputation between great works, then fair fucks but it’s not my cup of tea.
To infinity and down the shops.
I watched Ad Astra last week. You know – The Brad Pitt in Space film. Lots of very serious looking at things and plenty of music saying that something important is happening.
For those of you who know me and have some idea of what my tastes are like: it kinda seems like a film that’s tailor made for me. I very much like films about space. Especially when they have a philosophical bent. And Bradley Pitts is always good value for money in how he does all that acting with the moving of his head and the moving of his hands (shout out to Twelve Monkeys!).
But yeah I basically ended up booing all the way through and had to be escorted out by cinema security because apparently we don’t even live in a free country anymore. Hmph. I could get into detail into all the reasons why and end up spoiling a film that maybe you want to go and see one day but that seems like a bit of a dick move so instead let me just give you the general shape of my complaint: James Gray (who wrote and directed it) is basically an idiot who doesn’t know anything about science-fiction. I mean – if I had to sum up the entire film in one word then that word would be: silly. It’s a very silly film. That feels like it was written by an 8 year old with delusions of grandeur. I mean yeah there’s lots of father issue stuff which is kinda ok I guess? (A bit yawn worthy but whatever). But most of the science-fiction stuff is so laughable that it’s like watching a film where there’s a bunch of people on a space walk and then they get tired and take off their helmets to eat some sandwiches. (That sound you can hear is me booing).
And it’s funny – but I also recently watched High Life by Claire Denis and it had exactly the same problem. (I’m pretty sure that if you drop someone out of an airlock they don’t just drop down (something something gravity something something) but hell – what do I know?
This is all a very long winded way of saying that yes I’m into my sci-fi and I do get annoyed when I don’t think it’s done properly. (I basically sound like Annie Wilkes right now I know: “But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!” etc etc). But I didn’t get that twitchy feeling reading On a Sunbeam because (and I think this should be applauded and done a lot more often by a lot more people) Tillie Walden obviously doesn’t give a fuck about whether or not it’s “real” “proper” sci-fi or not and instead it’s just – here’s a whole bunch of cool crazy shit like flying fish spaceships and all the rest and while yeah I do have some misgivings about the book – there’s a part of me that hopes it points the way forward to more stories where the authors do stuff just because they feel like it – without trying to stick to acting like they’re sci-fi and just making a tit of themselves.
Also. Talking about the fish spaceships – and just to recycle another thing I said in the 2018 in Review thing (yeah I know I know): can I repost what I think might just be the single best piece of comics criticism / analysis that I think I’ve ever managed (yeah I know that I probably shouldn’t be so proud of myself but makes me feel like I’m frigging Freud or something: finding hidden symbols and stuff).
Because yeah obviously one of the selling point of On a Sunbeam is how there’s no men in it (which does make me feel slightly unclothe even talking about it – like maybe this comic isn’t meant for us? Altho that’s obviously a whole thing in itself). But yeah – am I the only one that looked at all the fishes flying around and being like: wait a second… what does that remind me of?
Like – is it just me – or do they look a lot like….
Well ok – maybe it’s just me?
Kinda makes me see that quote that Owen posted in a new light too:
“I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers. It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every movement. And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident. I think I’m that author.”
Does this mean that the meaning is there? Finding it’s way in by accident? Or maybe it’s something else?
Fish is also a lesbian slang term. I’m unsure of the exact definition but it may be a lesbian woman who doesn’t appear to be so.
Barbican Comic Forum
So I got this out a few days ago and read it. Like many others above, I think it’s a work that has very real problems. As somebody who is making a foray into writing, let me say this: it is hard to make something. But the quote that Tillie Walden has stated, and bounced around, sort of misses the point.
For those who haven’t read above, the quote she says of her own work is,”I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers. It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every movement. And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident. I think I’m that author.”
Which, yes, OK. You write about characters and make them do things (or even better, force them to do the things themselves) but you also choose what you show and when you show it. But you are always, ALWAYS writing for an audience. And it felt like Tillie was her own target audience here. Which is absolutely fine – except that she didn’t want to get bogged down in explaining why certain things are important, and she already knew, so why should she explain it. There are lots of logical non sequiturs that really do need expansion or removal from the story. There are lots of logical dead ends or set ups with unsatisfying payoffs.
The entire second half, while more exciting and kind of buying into the action film / rescue mission trope…makes very little sense. There are pieces of intrigue that are teased and paid off, but because the other half of the equation hasn’t been seeded earlier in (see Elliot’s entire backstory or their sin), it sort of falls flat when it delivers. I’m left feeling that, given the number of interruptions for seemingly banal pieces of information, we could have had yet another one for key emotional payoffs when they arrive.
People have talked about 530 pages – yes, that’s how long it is. But a decent chunk of those are wordless, meaning that there are sections of the book where you go through 20 pages in a minute, gleaning the relevant information. For its size, it doesn’t drag.. .when people aren’t talking. Ironically, this is the opposite of what most writing faces as a problem – this is a slow first act and payoff to the third act, but a very quick second act leading to the final conflict.
Additionally, the point of no men featuring in this work at all…it’s fine. A big problem, as mentioned above, is that there are many characters to keep track of, and I would argue that they aren’t different enough or rich enough to justify all of them being there.
Finally, the biggest problem I’ve got is that this work, overall, doesn’t really know what it’s about. It’s sort of about penis-shaped fish as spaceships, it’s sort of about there being no men, it’s sort of about respect, it’s sort of about nothing. I would say that it takes around 350 pages to get to the point where I have some idea as to what the central theme is (the love that two people share, I think?) and then, all of a sudden, the relevant information needs to be filled in.
Maybe, as a cis-het male (scum, I know), I’m just not the target audience for this author’s work. I accept that, and that’s fine. Plurality of views is good.
That said, I wouldn’t re-read this; there are things here that work but the overall work is a bit of a mess. It feels like a second or third draft that desperately needed polishing and reducing; ultimately, I can’t get past that despite the real fun that is packed in here.
I understand that Spinning and her other works are much better regarded, so maybe I’ll try one of those in the near future.
I’ve actually started reading Spinning based on what Owen said about it (“utterly brilliant” apparently) and yeah at the risk of turning this into a Tillie Walden pile-on (and obviously the optics for that isn’t good lol seeing how everyone who’s commented so far isn’t really in the – ahem – target demographic it seems) – it’s really not doing anything for me.
Actually – more than that: it’s just a bit of a boring struggle to read. I mean: am I being an evil tool of the patriarchy if I say that I like reading comic books that are fun and have cool and interesting ideas? Over this weekend in terms of comics I read The Leaning Girl by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten which felt a little bit undercooked but was totally exquisite in terms of the artwork in the way that only European comics can seem to be and I finished the final gooddamn volume of The Walking Dead (now there’s a sentence I never expected to type) which yeah was… actually kinda good and meaningful and basically turned into a critique of Capitalism and a call for socialism which wasn’t really what I was expecting from my trashy little zombie comic at all lol.
And in comparison to that Spinning is just – someone narrating the details of their childhood? Oh my god. Yawn. Yawn. And thrice I say yawn. I mean just because you’ve given your diary pictures why does this mean that you think anyone would be bothered to read it? Or in fact – seeing how Owen (and presumably other people too?) are such big fans – what exactly are people getting from this stuff?
I mean it’s 400 pages long (gah) and I’m only halfway through it (like I said – it’s a bit of a struggle) so maybe there’s a point where everything clicks into place and it becomes this cool other thing (I think reading From Hell was a bit like that) but so far all I can think is how completely narcissistic it is: This is My Life. Everyone Read it. And worse than that – it’s a narcissism that our culture seems to encourage.
Owen made a good comment in the V for Vendetta discussion that’s kinda been bouncing around my head ever since about how comics never really get political anymore. Instead it’s all stuff like Spinning it seems – people who live pretty privileged lives writing autobiographical comics where they seem all their time incessantly gazing into their navels and then everyone else hails it as a major breakthrough or something. I mean: obviously it’s different strokes for different folks and some people like hearing the stories of other people’s lives and find it really interesting and thought-provoking and then there’s me trying to play along but sitting there with tears of boredom streaming down my face and my brain buzzing like a fridge.
And at the risk of sounding super harsh it is funny how of the stuff I’ve read of hers so far – it’s not really about anything. I mean autobiographies never really are. But science-fiction is pretty good for exploring ideas now and again (what if horses had rockets for legs? etc). But then I’m guessing that maybe this a feature and not a bug?
Barbican Comic Forum
Hello everyone! Last weekend I tried to read OAS for a second time. I failed, so it’s back on my nope list (never thought I’d have one of those, thanks Alexandre). So, I thought I’d have another go at kicking this proverbial puppy one more time before we close.
Joel, I don’t know if your question was rhetorical (cool word) but I’ll have a stab at mansplaining this shit. First of all let’s consider for a moment why any of us like sci-fi. I think this is an important distinction to recognise before explaining why Spinning works and why OAS doesn’t. Well? Is it just that you like the cool spaceships, ray-guns, aliens and shit, or is it deeper? Something to do with that philosophical bent you mention? The reason any good sci-fi is good is because it allows us to recontextualise real world events to gain a deeper insight; more than we would if we just spoke about the facts. Think about the good sci-fi films you’ve seen. Betcha they do that. Think about the bad ones. Betcha they don’t. It’s modern day mythology… a bit like superhero stories.
I hate to tell you this (I’m kidding, I love it) but our brains are a lot more easily persuaded than any of us would like to believe, no matter how alternative you think your tastes may be. Like Guatam said, writing is hard, but there are recognised formulas for making readers buy into stories on an emotional level dating back thousands of years. When you look at them, they’re actually quite simple. So simple in fact that most people think: that can’t be true, storytelling is far more complex than this! But it ain’t. There’s a shared human experience buried deep in our collective unconscious and it only takes a few tried and tested formulas to pull at those emotional strings. Now, if you choose not to give a fuck about whether or not it’s “real” “proper” sci-fi and throw all those basics of storytelling out the window then you might achieve a new and ground-breaking style but inevitably your story will not resonate with a wide audience. Like James said: it becomes style over substance, or rather, style instead of substance. And where’s the fucking payout?
So, why does Spinning work as a story then? Well, not all stories have to have allegorical worth. But I’d suggest that sci-fi does, or at least good sci-fi does, and as James rightly pointed out certain styles just don’t travel well through the ozone layer. Spinning doesn’t need to recontextualise real world events because it is real world events. Yeah, I know it’s not cool to be essentialist these days, we all want people to think we love postmodern shit: staring at an unmade bed wearing a beret and clicking your fingers to alternative jazz music. So, go ahead and try to make your art avant-garde, but if you throw rhetoric (there’s that word again) out of the window in favour of an alternative agenda then you’ll just make a shit story. Your work might have a cool outsider art type of feel but at the end of the day if it takes too much explaining then it’s a failed attempt at storytelling. OAS takes too much explaining. At least for me.
But I can still read a good biography and enjoy it. My unconscious expectations are different. And do you know what makes Spinning a brilliant biography? It successfully dramatizes real world events, it has symbolism that doesn’t need explaining, it has internal dialogue that makes it easier for readers to follow and it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. More than that it’s just a very, very strong voice… heartfelt… emotional. I can buy into it. Even though that’s not me. I can’t put my finger on how she does that but it’s exceptional. I wish I could.
There’s a counter to this argument to say that the archetypal formulas I’m describing are just constructs of a patriarchal society, and they only speak to the collective unconscious of one particular group. Yeah, maybe. Maybe she is speaking to a different collective unconscious: it’s just James, Guatam and I don’t understand the codex. I’ve really no place commenting on that, but if anyone else thinks so I’d love to hear about it.
I’m gonna to beg everyone’s indulgence and recycle yet another bit from something I wrote for the 2018 in Review thing (yeah yeah yeah).
Thinking it kinda relates to what we’ve been talking about so far. Maybe. Ha.
For those of you who managed to get through most of the book – there’s this whole bit in Chapter 9. Which is. Well – read it for yourself:
And then in Chapter 13 there’s this bit here which goes like this:
I’m trying to work out exactly how I should say stuff here because obviously this is sensitive ground and I don’t want to hurt or upset anyone (and I can hear my lawyer in my ear going: “shut up. shut up already.“) but yeah this whole bit about the importance of pronouns really really reminded me that bit in Fables when Bigby Wolf starts going on about the importance of Israel…
For me it just feels a bit (a lot) clunky when writers start preaching their ideas so nakedly in the middle of something… I mean: I’m a big big fan of using stories to make points and spread around positive ideology and ideas (is it too predictable if I say “Alan Moore knows the score”?) but also in terms of how this is done it just feels totally… unconvincing? Like if you already agree with this being a major issue of our time then obviously you’re going to nod your head along with it. But as someone who I guess is a lot more (how should I say this?)… agnostic? It just feels like a bum note. I mean – I have corrected other people using the wrong pronoun to describe someone because I believe that it’s important to respect people and address them in the way that they like to be addressed (because of course). But I also suffer from a lot of anxiety when it comes to getting people’s names wrong (I actually accidentally mixed up a child’s name the other in the Library and the kid didn’t care but the Dad obviously did and I basically made a vow right then and there to never say anyone’s name ever again because it’s just not worth the hassle). So yeah – I could easily imagine myself mixing up someone’s pronouns and getting it wrong (I don’t think I’ve ever even met someone that wanted to be referred to as “them/they”) and at the risk of making myself sound like a bigot or whatever – I’m not completely sure that makes me a bad person? And at the risk of being even more unpopular – my personal politics involves being forgiving and showing empathy to everyone. Even if someone makes mistakes and messes up. Even if someone is bad and has different ideas to me etc etc I think everyone is redeemable. And I think the best way to covert people is to try to bring them onboard. And well yeah that final page where all the friends are hugging in the light and Jo is by herself in the dark – just makes me feel bad for Jo…. Which I’m not sure was the point? (Or I don’t know – maybe it was?).
And yeah I realise that this isn’t a fashionable thing to say – but erm yeah: I don’t think isolating people is a good idea. For anyone. So…
But maybe all of this stuff is by-the-by in terms of why the second half didn’t win me over as much as the first… Because I think it’s mostly because of how the book is structured – the first half is mainly Mia and Grace and it’s really good and totally spot on and the second half is Mia’s search for Grace and well… it’s just not as gripping. Partly because Tillie Walden decides to amp up the presence of the crew and give them all a chance to shine in a way that just kinda… left me cold? To put it in typical comic book terms – it’s like reading somewhere the first half is about the romance between Superman and Lois Lane and the second half shows you Jimmy Olsen going off and having his own adventures with a giant cat or whatever. (I guess that’s how most people on the LGNN felt like reading Promethea – LOL). I have a contention in my head that one of the things that comics aren’t really that good at doing is ensemble pieces – narrow focus and a few characters is where it tends to work best… And yeah On a Sunbeam has this whole gang and everyone being the hero of their own story and well… I think maybe I just wanted less? (Which is a strange thing to say I know).
Barbican Comic Forum
“There’s a counter to this argument to say that the archetypal formulas I’m describing are just constructs of a patriarchal society, and they only speak to the collective unconscious of one particular group. Yeah, maybe. Maybe she is speaking to a different collective unconscious: it’s just James, Guatam and I don’t understand the codex. I’ve really no place commenting on that, but if anyone else thinks so I’d love to hear about it.”
Owen, a lot of your last post was pretty interesting, but this is one thing that really hit home. Combine that with the way that the author writes, by her own admission (seemingly without thought of analysis afterwards) and you have an interesting contrast to the formula for genius in the modern world. Tillie Walden appears to be an artist who is writing against the patriarchy and patriarchal structures, including those found within narrative.
A couple of months ago, I spoke with someone at the comic book forum in Barbican. Afterwards, I recognised that a lot of storytelling took on this white, and particularly male, gaze. My point was that I understand why archetypal stereotypes exist, and why they’re used. Is it right? Probably not. But in trying to adhere to show, don’t tell, I can see why they are used to economise the storytelling process.
In contrast, OAS has, in no particular order: a total absence of male characters, a large conflict about respect based on the acceptance or non-acceptance that pronouns are important (as mentioned above by Joel), a largely meandering plot, a missing or wilfully absent central conflict and theme… You could argue that none of the characters really want anything. That, in itself, is a significant deviation from the monomyth and from what centuries of storytelling has been based upon.
My question is this: how do we know if it’s actually just bad? I think Owen’s point is a really interesting one, which is that we may just not be plugged in. And I also accept something else: that I found this book really compelling in sections, but ultimately felt like any attempt to sketch the characters was absolutely dull.
Robert McKee puts it this way, “Story is about principles. not rules. A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works … and has through all remembered time.” ” For me, Walden deviates from not just the rules but the principles, and finds something compelling regardless. It’s partial and compromised and could, definitely, be a lot better. It would benefit from being edited down by an unbiased pair of eyes. But, for all that…
PS – Joel, I agree that authors need to actually work their crackpot theories into the story in some way. And having one character just monologue about it is not enough.
Ha. Tillie Walden is the future liberals want.
I read A City Inside and judging from that and the one and a half books of hers I’ve read I’ve kinda realised that maybe she’s not the author for me. Like: just to be clear: I did really like the first half of On Sunbeam when it setting everything up and the world is surreal and strange and new and cool. And yeah I think that there should be lots more books and films and art which are like that: which laugh at the idea of normal reality and strike off in their own direction where they basically do whatever the hell they want to and damn the consequences and people who say that it doesn’t make sense or whatever. Ha.
A City Inside (which is only like about 10 pages long or something) kinda starts like that. I mean: there’s this cool bit at the start where she drinks a cup of tea and then puts it on the side and then all of this crazy surreal stuff happens which yeah I thought was pretty nifty actually – but then things started to come apart towards the end…
Sorry. I guess I should just and make my “liberal” comment make a little more sense right? I mean: most good people think of themselves as being liberals right? And yeah aren’t the liberals are the good guys? Well yeah and no. My view of politics is that there’s basically three main areas – you’ve got the right wing on the right (boo) and the left wing on the left (yay) and in the middle you have the mainstream liberals whose basic idea of politics is that everything in society is fine – we just need to make things more diverse and whose idea of the pinnacle of entertainment is Black Panther, Captain Marvel or that bit in Endgame where all the female superheroes did some walking together and it was really uplifting and stuff. “Uplifting” is actually the operative word I think. Liberals think that all art should be uplifting and have a positive message and be good in terms of representation and etc. And yeah seeing how A City Inside and On a Sunbeam both end on this kinda note of happy positive vibes I’m a little… skeptical. Personally I prefer stuff that leaves me feeling a little bit more unsettled and unsure. I like things that make the world feeling more complicated and difficult. The end of Give Me Liberty is a good example. I still don’t really know what I think about it. And that’s what I mostly tend to look for in terms of the things I read and enjoy. And seems like Tilly Walden (so far at least) is coming from the opposite end: where art is there to reassure you and make things simple and good. I mean of course that kinda stuff is understandable. I just worry what kind of effect it had on people over a longterm. Oh. Wait. I guess we’re already seeing the answer to that huh?
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