Throughout pages tinted in distant, icy and chilly blues, Tillie Walden holds our hands and takes us through a journey on adolescence and all the difficult tasks and choices that it entails. This is an autobiographical book, and it adheres to the consolidated rules of the genre within comics. While it does not rewrite the expectations we may have on graphic memoirs, it accomplishes a moving, skilled and engrossing narrative, that perfectly mirrors the feelings of a young girl growing up.
Tillie just moved from New Jersey to Austin, Texas. Figure skating practice is one of the things that impose a routine in her new life, and in some way preserve a continuity in her existence, while everything else seems to change. Each chapter is, in fact, titled with a singular figure skating move – “jump,” “slide,” “spread eagle” – and a very small short note by Tillie about her ability, or lack thereof, to perform it. Moreover, it is very difficult not to see how clearly these moves act also as a gloss about the episodes that follow. Having said this, Walden is quite careful not to turn figure skating into a blatant metaphor of her coming-of-age story, stretching the possibilities of exploring it expressively. Things are thought of carefully and, surely, the whole book is calm and serene. Even in the most dramatic moments, which are concentrated, as of course, towards the final acts, they are not turned into histrionic, explosive sections, and feel almost like momentary hiccups or bumps on the more or less smooth road.
The other factor that is brought to the fore, thematically, in Spinning, his young Tillie’s budding queerness. Its ontological treatment, however, if we can call it that, is very different from more classical approaches, in which its political dimensions are explicitly stated. There’s nothing wrong with thematizing politically queerness in comics (non-French speakers who have not read Fabrice Neaud’s Journal don’t know the masterpiece they’re missing), but being born in the mid-1990s, and amidst a frankly reassuring number of lesbian characters in fun and positive roles within this medium (from Batwoman to The One Hundred Nights of Hero, from Sunstone to Lumberjanes) it should come as no surprise that Tillie Walden has no wish to turn that part of her life into a farce, or even into the burning, painful heart of the book. Walden seems more interested to reveal this as rather a stage of her life. Nonetheless, the author does not flinch from showing most people’s difficulty in coming to terms with other people’s sexuality (unfortunately still considered by them as “deviant”).
Walden presents this issue rather matter-of-factly, as something that would make her stronger later, but you can feel that while she holds no real rancour towards the people in her life, she is not going to hide the pain they brought either. Her partner’s mother discovers emails and forbids them to ever meet again, and then there’s the cascade of dealings with her mother, father, brother and school colleagues. Mostly, she is met with ignorance, discombobulated feelings, and cluelessness (“I don’t like you that way,” say her female friends). But above all, it seems to be Tillie’s mother overall indifference that is more painful.
The only seemingly sympathetic ear comes from her cello instructor (who, with such a simple, yet reassuring question, brings hope to people coming out). Slowly but surely, ice skating is no longer a source of solace. Finally, her SAT tutor harasses her sexually (or even assaults her). All of these things pile up as a recurring pressure that bring a serious peril to her life’s balance, and at one point she seems to lose it. But ultimately, Tillie finds her balance again and opens up a new, decisive path before her.
It will probably be inevitable to read Spinning without being reminded of the Tamakis’ Skim, yet another coming-of-age story about a teenager dealing with the growing pains of life, burdened further by a sexuality still seen as in need of justification, careful communication and an unhealthy dose of self-check and management. Spinning is calmer, however, and closer to the simpler perceptions of its teenage protagonist.
Walden’s figures are somewhat more ethereal here than in her previous works. Not only the backgrounds are more sparse and minimal (long gone are the beautiful intricate patterns of End of Summer and Walden’s obsession with specific architecture styles) and the choice of angles and perspectives put the characters in almost empty spaces (more often than not, interiors), as her figures are composed of open contours. Her sparse yet rigorous use of crisp yellows here and there against the blue tones of the pages bring effects of solidity, texture and brightness to the cool, serene narrative. The management of rhythm, through an adroit choice between pages with multiple panels, depending on the needs of the events and emotions, and generous splash pages in larger ellipses reveal Walden as a sophisticated storyteller. If more classic manga and anime references are a constant in her work, Spinning seems to lean closer to the poetics of a Shini’ichi Abe or the Tsuge brothers.
If Walden’s previous books (published through Avery Hill) were not presented as autobiographies, thanks to this book we can reread them as such, or at least as autofictive variations of some of the experiences of her life. I love this part, for instance, could almost be grafted, narratively-wise, to Spinning, as it zeroes in on the secretive and painful love affair between the protagonist and a school colleague, as well as the heartbreaking split between them, not because something went wrong in the relationship itself, or because love had dissipated, but, we feel, because societal pressure still exerted skewed notions of “right and wrong.” A City Inside, on the other hand, while pushing the limits of such experiences, seems to be from a more mature and happy point of view. The End of Summer, while much more elaborate in terms of world-building, design and even page composition, and delving into a rather convoluted fantasy-tinted plot, could also be seen as mirroring some of Walden’s child’s fantasies from her real life autobiography, from twin brothers’ dynamics to snow and cats.
Spinning then, can be either the discovery of a new voice in graphic life-writing or the re-acquaintance of an author, who has reinvented herself through this ultimately poignant, introspective, yet poised book.
A thank you note to the publisher for the pdf review copy. The book is also available in the UK and the Commonwealth through SelfMadehero.