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Tillie Walden


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Keenly observed, discerning and wise, this eloquent autobiography comes with a mind-bogglingly well balanced sense of perspective which understandably eludes almost all of us aged a mere 21.

Or 31 or 41 or 51.

Even more remarkable for someone in her earliest twenties, it is Walden's fifth published graphic novel so far.

Shall I let that sink in?

In addition to Walden's exceptionally precocious talent, compulsive creative drive and evidently ferocious work ethic, the most enormous credit must go to Avery Hill Publishing who saw in Walden something so spectacular that they snapped her up in her mid-teens, took a courageous but astute editorial punt and nurtured Walden through her first four graphic novels.

They are, in reverse order, ON A SUNBEAM which for the moment you can read for free online here (please don't tell me that web-comics aren't "published" - they are self-published and a massive chunk of the greatest comics ever created are and have been self-published), the dreamy and so slyly structured A CITY INSIDE, then the both epic and intimate I LOVE THIS PART with its Winsor McCay sense of scale which almost two years ago we made Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month, and finally (or firstly) THE END OF SUMMER.

We have reached the point of referring to creators like Tillie Walden and Mike Medaglia as Avery Hill Alumnae or Alumni. I urge you to pay rapt attention to all things Avery Hill, for there will be so many more stellar rises from there to come.

"A first love is important to anyone..."

It's a beautiful page: Tillie's first tender, tentative kiss with beautiful Rae, her one sunshine-saviour whilst trapped under the inescapable, savage shadow of school bully, Grace.

Rae has come for a sleepover in the room above Tillie's garage. They've locked the door and together learned the secrets behind the common childhood mystery known as 'How To Kiss A Girl" by watching a filmed, top-tip demonstration on a laptop. Their wide-eyed faces glow in its balmy light.

They are fourteen years old and, during their kiss, the purple darkness of the room bursts with an incandescent canary yellow behind them. But it is overwhelmingly a tranquil scene with Tillie quietly smiling with a blush afterwards, Rae looking a little unsure; wrapping her arms around Tillie's neck, hugging her hard and burying her head behind Tillie's shoulder.

"But when you're both young and gay and in the closet, it's something else entirely.
"It wasn't the thrill of freedom I felt that I remember...
"It was the fear."

And that is another page entirely.

The tiny, vulnerable couple recede into the back of the room, surrounded by so much darkness, the light now beaming through a curtainless window, exposing them in its spotlight.

Do you want to know what really happened towards the end of Tillie Walden's I LOVE THIS PART? To the two seemingly inseparable, confidence-swapping best friends so cosily cocooned in shared and sublime romantic affection?

It is here, it is terrible, and it will break your heart clean in two.

I've been relatively lucky, but I would so humbly submit that if you haven't experienced growing up gay in an overwhelmingly hostile environment (almost anywhere in the world still but Austin, Texas, seems particularly homophobic both when it comes to Walden's young peers and their parents), then you really have no idea.

A straight, white, Liverpudlian male once attempted to express to me a deep understanding of those of us who've endured homophobia - the slurs, the bullying, the beatings, the social ostracism and pack-animal persecution; the legal discouragement and discrimination when the age of consent was unequal, the criminalisation when we were completely illegal, the death-threats and the death sentences in countries where being gay is punishable by execution - by casually comparing all of that to an anti-Scouse sentiment he'd occasionally encountered.

I'm not sure that this evidenced a particularly profound understanding.

Growing up gay can be terrifying, and Walden does an exceptional job of conveying the remove which maintaining such a secret puts one at: something that cannot be shared is endured alone, and Tillie had been travelling with this knowledge solo since she was five. Here she is watching her peers from the sidelines, her shoulders hunched, breath as ever freezing in the ice-rink air:

"The other girls always seemed so much more confident, so much more grown-up.
"I never ignored the fact that I was attracted to them, I had known I was gay since I was 5. Now I was almost 12.
"A teacher's aide had shown me how to hold your sleeve when you put your jacket on. I still remember her hands on my shoulders. I didn't have a word to describe it yet, but in that moment I knew."

It's very telling that this knowledge was imparted from a teacher's aide rather than her ever-absent mother. She was the only one disinclined to attend the huge national championships which Tillie competed in - more often than not successfully - both as individual performances and as part of a synchronised team, for which she trained separately, travelling in the dark at 6am and after school.

To these she would journey with Lindsay, the girl who rescued her from pre-teen hell by inviting her up to the older girls' table, at last replacing her earlier childhood companion Molly whom she squabbled with but missed terribly upon moving to Texas. Lindsay's Mom came too, of course, driving them such long distances and offering to record Tillie's performance for her parents to watch later.

"Nah, it's cool... No really, it's fine."

But she'd be the only one there without a proud parent, almost all of them mothers.

Just as Ribon and Fish conveyed so thrillingly the edge-of-your-seat competitive challenges of Roller Derby in SLAM!, so Walden here will have you gripped as the glitter-glam, heavily made-up, hair-scrunched, sequin-strewn synchronised skating team threatens to be torn apart by their own momentum, the close-up of those tiny, pressured fingers a hair's breadth from becoming unlocked and so undone.

The solitary level-testing outside of competitions was another matter entirely.

"I tested about once a year and always passed.
"But it was a perpetually nerve-wracking experience.
"No music was allowed. The only sound in the whole rink was my blades sweeping the ice.
"I'd perform five-six moves, pausing between each one.
"The pauses killed me. Silence would fill the rink.
"The judges would have their heads down, scribbling their comments.
"My coach, blurry and far away...
"I'd feel my lungs swallowing frigid air, trying to keep up, and my face and arms would prickle with cold sweat."

Walden's tiny, fragile form, however graceful, is shown red-hot-cheek-blushing away with self-consciousness even as her puffed-out breath escapes to freeze as cold clouds in the empty environment. In training she would understandably wear a thermally insulating track suit, but while tested she was squeezed into a tight, skimpy costume with so much skin on show and it all looks thoroughly uncomfortable.

She then takes us through the intricacies of the moves in curling, sweeping, reversing diagrammatical detail, her glasses fogging up.

"Skating presented a strange debacle. I disliked the femininity of it all, yet was attracted to it nonetheless. I always tried not to stare too much, but - "

There are signs early on that Austin, Texas, was going to be a far from friendly environment for anyone different - and especially gay - particularly among the pre-teens for whom conformity was a pre-requisite, prize-winning element of synchronised skating. It's right there in Tillie's early induction to the jejune game of 'Never Have I Ever...'

"Never have I ever..."
"Met a homo!"
"good one"
"haha WHAT EVEN"
"No - Tillie, don't put a finger down yet."
"That means you have met one."
"Oh -"

It made me feel queasy, so lord knows how Tillie felt right there when put on the spot.

But I really began to worry for Tillie's well-being when the mothers started to grow silent and give her oblique, funny looks about something unspoken - at least to Tillie - particularly when communing around a closed, tight-knit single table which Walden dubs "Mom Island".

I was right to be worried.

But you wait until you finally learn the full extent of Grace's bullying (not unrelated), witness the attempted sexual assault by her male tutor and then get hit like brick by the car accident outside her cello teacher's house while waiting to be picked up.

"I didn't see it coming.
"I just felt my body fly
"and then I felt my face on the ground."

What has any of this to do with competitive ice skating? It has everything to do with it. From the Author's Note at the end:

"I charged into this story armed with memories of hair gel and screaming mothers, ready to do my tell-all of the seedy world of glittering young ice skaters. But with each memory that I started to put on the page, a new narrative emerged. I realised that more than just ability goes into being an ice skater.

"Your life outside the rink shapes how you skate. Landing a jump was never about whether or not I knew how to do it - I did. It was about whether I was ready to, whether I felt like I had enough control to land it. And what was going on in my life shaped the answers to those questions...

"When you perform you have to put a version of yourself forward for the audience to see. And that becomes a hard task when your idea of yourself is constantly changing and being made anew."

At a whopping 400 pages you'll understand that there is far more ground I could cover - I haven't even touched on her twin brother, with whom she has a close relationship. That story comes with an unexpected twist, and it is ever so sad.

Walden's development as a visual artist comes later than you'd imagine and, if I'm not much mistaken, you'll be treated to actual early squiggles in a very fine line, developing into the giants at one with their cityscape environment which made such an impact in I LOVE THIS PART.

The body language throughout is beautiful - even the way two girls will stand and crouch in relationship to each other - and she's an expert in conveying confidence, or lack of it, through shoulders and arms.

And if I were to attempt a summary of the book's heart then it would be about the growth in confidence of a young individual from one who consistently kept their own counsel and repressed desires to their own disadvantage - to quit ice-skating, above all - to someone who finally begins to speak up quite dramatically, and who clears out their cluttered cupboard, metaphorically or otherwise.

"This is an unhealthy amount of medals."