Maybe it’s the sunset colors. Maybe it’s the Ghibli-esque artwork. Or maybe it’s the enduring story of young love. Whatever it is, ON A SUNBEAM is the most devastatingly beautiful comic I have ever read. The protective instinct in me wants to say, read this over the course of a week or two.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. But that’s not possible. Like the first time I read ON A SUNBEAM, my reread of the comic was straight through. I sat and stared at the luscious colors on my computer, the beautiful characters, and their universe filling my heart to burst. It is no overstatement to say Tillie Walden’s 20 chapter masterpiece is nothing short of sublime.

Walden, whose graphic memoir SPINNING debuted in September of 2017, is an exceptionally talented artist whose work is similar to artists like Jillian Tamaki. Recently, Walden’s short comic MINUTES featured on the International Women’s Day Google Doodle. Like Walden’s other works, ON A SUNBEAM combines Walden’s poetic writing with dream-like artwork.

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A Breathtaking Story

The narrative structure winds thoughtfully like a mobius strip. ON A SUNBEAM starts with Mia’s introduction to the fish-shaped spaceship, the Aktis. Her job, and that of the crew, is to stabilize old buildings on long-abandoned planets. In Walden’s universe, there are no men, only women, and nonbinary people. The queer element emphasizes a refreshingly non-heteropatriarchal dynamic.

On board the Atkis, Mia meets Char, Char’s partner Alma, Alma’s rambunctious niece Jules, and their mysterious friend Elliot. As the comic progresses, Mia’s background story emerges. At her boarding school, Mia fell in love with Grace. The comic articulates the joy of young love and the gut-wrenching history of their separation. The two storylines quietly progress until eventually meeting again, when Mia joins the Aktis, and when the crew helps her reconnect with Grace.

Image courtesy of Tillie Walden.

Why have I become so emotional over such a relatively happy story of young love and space adventure? While on the surface, the comic is happy, the quality of the narrative, the artwork, and the bittersweet moments between lovers old and young, is overwhelmingly lovely. Walden’s work reminds readers that comics — elusive as the medium may be — is a striking art form that can capture the depth and power of human emotion. Additionally, Walden’s dedication to telling stories about young queer people should not be undervalued.

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Journey Into the Sublime

As a term of art, the Sublime is a slippery name for something that inspires awe to a point of terror mixed with profound pleasure. In literary fields, Longinus usually gets the credit for early definitions. However, later works by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, also creatives during the romantic period modified the aesthetic mood’s definition. For the sake of generalization, the Sublime attempts to describe an aesthetic, moral, or metaphysical experience that goes beyond description. It is immeasurable, and the drastic incalculability of the experience is what produces the awe and fear.

Image courtesy of Tillie Walden.

But, skeptics will ask, how can a comic be Sublime? Walden’s webcomic can be read within the Sublime mood as a result of both the artwork and writing. However, the best example of the Sublime at work is in Walden’s land- and skyscapes. For instance, in the gymnasium, Mia plays a space-age Quidditch-like game. The small fish-shaped ships chase “planets” — small specs of stardust — around the huge rooms. These bright sunset-shaded specs fill the void of black like the night sky. This motif is often reflected in backdrops to Mia’s scenes with Grace as well as her friends on the Aktis.

Other landscapes are the buildings the Aktis crew restores, as well as the striking mountain landscape of Grace’s home planet, The Staircase. The Staircase in particular defies description. The planet’s terrain contains towering red rock pillars and unique magical creatures. Although it is beautiful, it is also dangerous and somewhat desolate. The magical animals are both beautiful and very threatening. Due to human interference, the colonizers of the planet isolated themselves from all outside contact for generations. As a result, the people there are both rugged and mysterious. Taken together, The Staircase embodies the Sublime.

Image courtesy of Tillie Walden.

The Colors of Emotions

In each landscape, there is a sense of endlessness, as well as a mild threat of the unknown. However, the reassuring sunset colors make the spaces almost comforting. The time spent on the ship is laced with purples and yellows that transition into the blue of Mia’s teenage years.

Walden’s artwork uses a lot of negative space to convey meaning. The figures appear to rise out of the darkness in fiery colors fitting the mood of the characters and the moment. While Mia and Grace are together, the blues and yellows suspend them in the feeling of timelessness. As Mia grows up, the bright sunshine yellow is there to draw her back into the present. Orange is a powerful color on The Staircase, both as part of the natural landscape and the subtle warning of possible danger.

Walden’s talent for color and movement puts the poetry of her narrative into graceful form. As the comic moves forward, readers can almost feel the wind on the crew’s faces as they journey on the Staircase. At other times, the warm sunlight gives readers a chance to bask in the comic alongside the characters. The artwork invites the readers to have a physical relationship with the comic, making the emotions feel all the more powerful.

Image courtesy of Tillie Walden.

ON A SUNBEAM: The Universes of Love and Loss

The vast spaces through which Mia travels alongside her ragtag crew of friends mirror the emotional spaces with which Walden grapples in ON A SUNBEAM. With stunning attention, Walden captures what it feels like to look at another person and see a whole universe of possibilities.

Moreover, she shows how painful it is when opportunities are lost. That is what ON A SUNBEAM does exceptionally well: the comic masterfully depicts that feeling of loving someone so much it hurts. It’s not just between Mia and Grace, whose young love is sweet, naive, and very nearly lost. It is also the romantic love between Alma and Char, as well as the filial affection between Alma and Jules. Finally, Walden emphasizes the love between friends.

I promise it’s not as trite as it sounds. In fact, Walden’s writing is sincere, but not without humor and joy. While most of the characters are soft-spoken, Jules speaks with a contemporary vernacular, somewhat breaking the spell of Walden’s scenes and providing much-needed breaks from the enchantment. However, Walden carefully acknowledges the importance of characters like Jules, pointing out her internal strength and endurance on several occasions.

Much of Walden’s work is reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Like the French children’s book, figures alone on floating islands called “planets” fill the pages of ON A SUNBEAM. The little prince also left his planet to explore the world and experience love and loss. A bittersweet story of friendship and love is at the heart of both works.

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No Man’s Land: Queering Space

Outside of the aesthetic mood, ON A SUNBEAM is a fascinating science-fiction piece. Walden’s exclusion of men in the plot allows her to focus on homosocial bonds between women. However, Walden is very protective of queer identities in general. Elliot, the only nonbinary character, uses they/them pronouns. In a very heartwarming scene, Jules comes to Elliot’s defense by correcting their temporary boss who refuses to acknowledge Elliot’s identity. Other than this scene, the comic understates gender identity and homosexuality.

For queer readers, ON A SUNBEAM creates a space that prioritizes respect for queer identities. Moreover, Walden’s universe erases socially-assigned gender roles. For example, Alma is both engineer, pirate, and mother figure. Mia is an imperfect student who loves sports and caring for her friends. ON A SUNBEAM is refreshingly post-gender in many ways, yet nevertheless refuses to essentialize identity or dismiss diversity.

Image courtesy of Tillie Walden.

Feeling Catharsis

ON A SUNBEAM taps into an emotional space that words alone cannot capture. Towards the end of the comic, readers, like me, may feel bereft that the story ends. However, the comic stays with you once it’s over. And it is not for lack of catharsis. Indeed, Walden’s comic follows the arc of Mia’s character as she explores love and loss, providing enchanting universes of adventure and mystery. Readers will be swept along with the crew of the Atkis as they sail through space.

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ON A SUNBEAM will be available in book form from First Second Books October 2, 2018.

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