Young Austin comics artist offers authenticity, outsider perspective

Tillie Walden is an artist who’s clearly on the move in more ways than one. Just 21, Walden is on the verge of publishing her fourth and most ambitious book to date, a 400-page graphic novel that she calls an autobiographical memoir.

“Spinning” details Walden’s childhood, inextricably intertwined with the world of competitive youth figure skating and synchronized skating, starting when she lived in Montclair, N.J., and continuing when her family moved to Austin after she finished fifth grade. It details her struggles, quarrels and friendships with her coaches and peers in the rink and, not least, her internal struggles, up to her decision to hang up her skates just before senior year in high school. Published by Macmillan’s First Second imprint, it comes out Sept. 12.

Hers is a definite outsider perspective: Being a girl from an uprooted Jewish family in North Jersey, and gay to boot, doesn’t exactly mesh with a typical Texan upbringing.

“I came to Texas, and I was just very shocked at the lack of people like me, it seemed,” she says. “People said different words, and it was a lot hotter, but I got used to it and now I kind of feel like a Texan, which is the weirdest part of it.”

Some might associate her with the “South Austin artist” stereotype, but, Walden says, cheekily, “I’m ready to stop that trend.” She describes herself as “North Austin all the way”; she graduated from McCallum High and skated at the Chaparral Ice rink in Northcross Mall.

Walden has been written about in The Washington Post, Mental Floss, Vulture and the A.V. Club, among other places, and last June had a six-page spread in the New York Times Magazine’s “New York Stories” all-cartoon issue. She’s a natural storyteller comfortable with both reality and fantasy, which in her first three books (“A City Inside,” “I Love This Part” and “The End of Summer”) she mixed often, seamlessly and enigmatically, on the pages; it’s the territory of waking dreams. “Spinning,” which leaves fantasy behind in favor of closely observed memoir, should further raise her profile.

Walden dates her interest in comics at least to when her dad brought home a copy of “Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!” (2005), a huge book that accurately reproduced how Winsor McCay’s classic comic strips looked when originally published in the Sunday broadsheet newspapers of the early 1900s. “It was so big that I could sit on it while I read it,” she says. “It was a literal representation of the possibilities of comics. I could see how big the scope could go.

“I don’t think my style is particularly in tune with what’s popular right now,” she says. “If you want to see the trend in comics, you can just look at Cartoon Network, and my style is a little more realistic. (It) has kind of become this mishmash of influences from manga and North American comics. The modern memoirists like Alison Bechdel (“Dykes to Watch Out For,” “Fun Home”), David Small, Craig Thompson, a lot of these poetic, realistic creators who do long-form graphic novels, have all influenced my style.”

At an age when most people are still trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do, Walden already has that pretty well covered. Skating gave way to cartooning with hardly a pause.

“I started making comics seriously in my senior year (of high school) around the time when I stopped skating because suddenly I had time to focus on something else,” she says. “I think I was lucky in that I knew what I wanted to do in that instant, and I haven’t really had any doubt so far. I was putting (comics) on Twitter, and my dad helped me make a website. This guy Ricky Miller, who co-runs Avery Hill Publishing, saw my tweets, which led him to my website and led him to email me about doing something together. I politely turned him down because I was in high school, and I thought it was weird, and maybe a scam. But then a year later, we got back in touch … and we did three books together in quick succession, and it was great. They’re based in London. It was interesting to actually get my start in the U.K. scene.”

After high school, she says, “I was lucky to find a program that really suited me and helped me figure this out. And that program was full of adults, so in a way it really forced me to rise to the occasion.” That was the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., which she attended for two years, graduating in 2016; last August, she returned there to teach a class. “It’s a master’s program, and I went into it without a bachelor’s (degree), so all I got was a certificate,” she says, “but I still had a great experience.”

Part of Walden’s work, notably in “Spinning,” relates to her own self-discovery as a gay woman, but it would be wrong to consign her to a comics subgenre; her sexuality is a detail, if an important one. “It’s like a part of the universe,” she says. “I talk about it a lot outside of my own work, in interviews and with people at book festivals, but as far as the work itself, I try not to make it feel preachy. I don’t really have anything to preach about, I just want to talk about these authentic LGBT stories.”

Is the world of cartooning as cutthroat as skating? “It can be if you let it,” she says. “It’s a very difficult career to succeed in, and especially to make a lot of money in to the point where you can support yourself; I think that’s really the biggest barrier for most people. I have managed to do it — yeah, it’s plenty competitive, but also it’s not really nearly as competitive as skating. Skating, in my mind, just thrives off of competitiveness, and comics thrive off of creativity. Those are very different.”

Another reason Walden likes the form is that there’s no barrier to entry. “‘Game of Thrones’ is so expensive,” she says. “It’s like, it should all be comics, it’s just so much cheaper for everyone. It’s a very easy craft to start doing; you just really need paper. Honestly, even today maybe you just need an iPad. You can start doing it with anything.”

Walden enjoys the freedom her have-pen-will-travel lifestyle allows; earlier this year she spent several months living in Tokyo, then in Berlin. After she finishes the “Spinning” book tour, she says, “I’m planning on moving somewhere in America; I don’t really know where, but honestly, probably not Austin. Since I went to middle school and high school here it still feels very much like a place of my youth, and I’m trying to find a place that feels a little newer.”

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