If there was one name that came up again and again at the end of 2015 on the traditional annual ‘Best of’ lists and end-of-year reviews it was that of Tillie Walden. Indeed, the teenage phenomenon’s impact was recognised here at Broken Frontier by its staff and readers when she won the Breakout Talent category in this year’s BF Awards in one of the strongest fields we’ve had for years. And, while Walden hails from Texas, I also named her debut graphic novel – the dark fantasy The End of Summer – as one of my 2015 ‘Ten UK Small Press Comics You Need to Own’ given its publication by lauded London micropublisher Avery Hill.
Debuting at Thought Bubble last year I Love this Part is a very different book in tone and approach, emphasising Walden’s incredible versatility as a practitioner. A stylised slice-of-lifer, it focuses on the burgeoning relationship between two girls in a small US town. Lazy afternoons of shared youthful pursuits and mutual teenage anxieties slowly evolve into a far more intimate union as initial friendship becomes something far closer and more complex.
Whereas The End of Summer was presented with a tight-panelled potency that underlined its stiflingly claustrophobic atmosphere I Love this Part has an open style, inviting its audience to linger on its initial array of individual full-page images and feel more closely involved in the lives of the two girls as a result. Here Walden’s ability to generate reader empathy and control her audience’s responses to events once again displays a storytelling maturity that is quite exceptional for someone at such an early stage of their creative journey.
To this end our protagonists’ existences are presented as revolving entirely around each other rather than their external environment. This is achieved by their often comparatively disproportionate realisation on the page which is juxtaposed with the backdrop of the wider world; streets, landscapes, mountain ranges and buildings are all dwarfed by their presence. It’s a visual incongruity that emphasises the insularity of their joint actuality; a bubble of pooled experience that overshadows everything outside its confines as the girls’ relationship becomes the ultimate expression of their being. As such, the vastness of reality becomes insignificant when placed against the emotional enormity of their connection but, as the story progresses, it’s a perspective that we will gradually draw back from…
These one-page panels capture isolated moments in time – snippets of conversations, snapshots of a familiar rite of passage – that nevertheless build up into a complete and recognisable whole. What Walden creates here is a sequence of events that is fractured yet flowing; one that embraces the oft-mentioned unique tricks that comics can play with the passage of time to present a narrative that is both fragmentary in terms of chronology and yet seamless in dramatic motion. It’s a quintessential exemplar of the integral interactivity of the form in terms of reader participation and the symbiotic between-the-panels comprehension that is such a vital part of the medium.
But putting aside technique and structure, memorable and impressive as they assuredly are, it’s the brittle humanity of I Love this Part that makes the deepest impression. As something of value slowly begins to ebb away, Walden reveals the fragility of first love in all its painful, crushing immediacy. It’s so subtly underplayed in presentation and yet simultaneously so overwhelmingly profound in delivery. Here we have 60-ish pages of storytelling where we actually learn very little about our subjects and yet we come away feeling we know everything about them, so invested are we in them by book’s end.
One of the great privileges of ‘Small Pressganged’ is the opportunity it affords to write about tomorrow’s comics giants today. I can think of no better example of that in this column during the course of the years than Tillie Walden’s work over the past several months. Touching, poignant, occasionally funny, and quietly devastating… I Love this Part is a comic of rare, raw and precious beauty.
For more on the work of Tillie Walden visit her website here and follow her on Twitter here. And visit Avery Hill Publishing’s site here. You can buy The End of Summer from Avery Hill’s online store here.
For regular updates on all things small press follow Andy Oliver on Twitter here.