The scene took place last spring. Four middle-aged male humanities professors were sitting together in a pub in Vancouver, BC, sipping beer, sharing their impressions of a just-concluded conference. This was a Comics Studies shindig, so here and there they also touched on such matters as the superhero artist Jack Kirby and Swamp Thing.
Then the oldest and most sage among them, stroking his goatee, opened a new line of inquiry. “What’s the best graphic novel of the last 10 years?” he asked.
When my turn came to speak (for I was one of the four), I confidently said, “ ‘On a Sunbeam’ by Tillie Walden.” Everybody nodded, agreeing.
Despite our unanimity, though, there was a bit of an irony — a paradox, even — in this choice. Walden did not make her celebrated 2018 young adult space opera/melodrama for any of us at that table. Not only that, she consciously excluded people like me and my colleagues (straight males) from her 535-page cosmos-spanning opus.
As Walden herself puts it on her website: “My initial goal with ‘Sunbeam’ was to create a version of outer space that I would want to live in. So, of course, that includes tons of queer people, no men (did you notice?), trees, old buildings and endless constellations.”
That’s a pretty good summation of the novel’s contents, rendered in Walden’s elegant art, which combines linework somehow both minimalist and lush with a three-color scheme of remarkable subtlety. It’s beautiful. As for the title, it comes from a Belle and Sebastian song, “Asleep on a Sunbeam.”
The plot proceeds along two timelines. In the present (i.e., the far future), her young protagonist Mia joins the crew of the Aktis, a fish-shaped spaceship that plies the stars, restoring ancient architectural sites on various planets and asteroids. The crew consists entirely of women (of all races and gender orientations) and the “mechanical genius” Elliot, who is nonbinary, neurodivergent, and nonspeaking.
In the second timeline, set five years earlier, Mia falls in love with another girl, Grace, at a spacy boarding school. This love plot unfolds against a milieu equal parts “Star Wars” and Hogwarts, where kids dress in uniforms, learn life lessons, and bond both in and out of class. (Tim Burton’s Netflix series “Wednesday” pulls off a similar formula.)
The lovers’ affair ends sadly: Grace returns to the Staircase, her dauntingly remote and barren home world in a part of the galaxy beyond the bounds of civilization. We come to learn that the lovelorn Mia has joined the Aktis in a bid to reach the Staircase and rescue Grace from her “captivity” — though her grasp of the situation may be flawed.
But the chief virtue of “On a Sunbeam” — what made me nominate it for best graphic novel of the last decade — is Walden’s resolutely positive, nigh utopian, vision of queerness. The abyss of space has never seemed friendlier. This is no “Alien” ("In space, no one can hear you scream”), no “2001: A Space Odyssey” with monoliths and terrifyingly mysterious extraterrestrials. It’s not even “Star Trek” off to “where no one has gone before.”
It’s simply a place where you cruise in your fish ship, from one job to the next, communing with your chosen queer family. I feel awkward even applying the “utopia” label, any label. Walden’s characters just live their lives, help each other, work it out, whatever it might be. Loyalty is a given. Love is a given. All conflict comes from outside.
I was enthralled with the givenness, the normality of all this. Here was a universe created by younger people (Walden is still only 27), for younger people living in a world that Gen X me frankly couldn’t have imagined at their age. Sure, I had gay friends whom I loved and still love today, but their lives were never as universally accepted, as carefree, as matter-of-factly validated as those of the characters in “On a Sunbeam.”
That I am not Walden’s demographic and presumed audience, and yet was still so taken in by this glorious graphic novel, is a testament to her enormous talent as a cartoonist. As Stephanie Burt wrote in her New Yorker review: “Walden can make one pen stroke on one character’s face equal two pages of dialogue.”
That said, “On a Sunbeam” is not perfect. Is there a hint of ageism in this all-young people all-the-time work? I also did find the resolution a bit rushed and pat; it’s always hard to stick the landing. And I do tend to like my material darker, more tragic. That’s not the vibe Walden is on. While not Pollyanna, her notion of life is dazzlingly hopeful; problems can be worked out as long as we all band together, support each other, love each other, draw on each other’s multifarious gifts.
This is something I’ve observed among some of my students at the University of Washington. They can’t conceive of a world where we don’t all already live on a spectrum (mental, sexual), where our identities are not all intersectional, where queerness is not just the way things are.
The world is theirs now; over time it will grow increasingly more so. And thank goodness. Walden’s vision is the leading edge of a new egalitarian era of interpersonal relations, as exciting and mundane and everyday as riding your fish starship to another planet with your dearest, closest friends.
Even if I literally couldn’t see myself in this novel, this middle-aged married straight cisgender male is happy to see such a vision coming together before his eyes. It’s a better universe than the one he was born into.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tillie Walden’s award-winning graphic memoir, “Spinning,” about her career as an ice skater, was published in 2017 and banned shortly thereafter in some school districts. Walden said at the same time “it’s surreal” to have people read a book about her life and deem it inappropriate content. Partly in response to these book bans, she made her 2018 sci-fi graphic novel “On a Sunbeam” available online for free here: www. onasunbeam.com.
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