Tillie Walden is a young Texas-based cartoonist who has three graphic novellas from UK’s Avery Hill Publishing to her name (The End of Summer in 2015 and I Love This Part and A City Inside in 2016), as well as her upcoming graphic memoir about synchronized skating for First Second, Spinning (fall 2017). Tillie wields a high degree of technical polish with her clean inks and dreamy watercolor tones, always in service of challenging emotional storytelling, often centering around teenage queer relationships. I spoke to Tillie by Skype from her apartment in Austin.
Interview transcribed and edited by AM.
ANNIE MOK: So The End of Summer is getting re-released?
TILLIE WALDEN: It went out of print and it’s getting a bigger edition.
MOK: With extra material?
WALDEN: There’s gonna be a little prequel strip. We’re gonna redo the design of the book, redo the covers. I can see the prequel strip on my desk right there.
MOK: What’s it like to revisit this story, which is this fairy tale, Little Nemo-esque story—there’s a big cat in it named “Nemo.” What’s it like to come back to this world?
WALDEN: It’s surprisingly enjoyable! I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to re-engage with the story because once you finish something, you tend to put it away and lock it up. I thought that it would be gone from me. But sitting down and re-drawing the backgrounds and the characters, I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s why I did this book, it’s really fun!” It makes me want to draw old characters and look back at other things. I can only do it to a certain extent. I can do this short prequel strip, but I don’t have a sequel in me.
MOK: I always wonder about that stuff, I’ve never done that, except for my memoir comics which are sequel-y. Thinking of stuff like Hellboy and Peanuts, I wonder about a connection to characters over a long period of time.
WALDEN: I always wonder about people who work on something for like, ten years. I haven’t even done comics long enough for that to be a thing for me yet. It seems like a crazy ride.
MOK: How long have you been making comics?
WALDEN: I’ve been making comics for three, four years. Three years seriously, there was an extra year for my senior year of high school where I was just kind of learning.
MOK: But you transitioned from fine art?
WALDEN: I did. And it was a very extreme cut-off for me. It was like, one day I was painting, and the next day, “I will never pick up a paintbrush again! I will only draw comics!”
MOK: I feel like that’s one of the quintessential teen feelings or experiences.
WALDEN: You have to go full-force into it. I told my art teachers, I know you’re gonna give me assignments, “Make a linoleum print.” And I was like, “I’ll make a linoleum print, of a comic. But I won’t do not-comics. And my teachers were cool with it ‘cause it was my last year of high school, so they were kind of, “Okay, whatever. Do whatever you want.” I’m glad I did fine art ‘cause it taught me a lot, but it’s not something I’d wanna do ever again.
MOK: Coming back to The End of Summer, in which fine art influences are very apparent, one of the main things that strikes me about that book is the architecture of the book. And by that I mean the literal architecture in the book [Tillie laughs]. There are high ceilings of the kind you’d see in Little Nemo, and I think of fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen seeing this stuff. Do you have any connection to fairy tales?
WALDEN: I don’t think I have a very solid connection, but a lot of media I liked as a kid were magical or sort of tales. I liked all the stuff from Studio Ghibli. I got attached to that style of storytelling, which is why that comes out in The End of Summer. I like not being in the real world [laughs] most of the time, and the architecture was my way to create that. I knew when I was drawing it that with every panel I would make the place a little bit bigger and I would make the people a little bit smaller and it would make it more dizzying.
MOK: Have you seen Citizen Kane?
MOK: That makes me think of the shot where he’s lost everything and he walks back to the window and he seems tiny and he seems giant all of a sudden… What was your favorite Ghibli film?
WALDEN: I’m always embarrassed to tell people, but my favorite is Whisper of the Heart.
MOK: Why would you be embarrassed about that? That movie is amazing.
WALDEN: When I was younger, I loved the ones like Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, that are super magical. And they still have a place in my heart. But I ended up as I got older really attaching to Whisper of the Heart in part because of how they portray the main character and her struggle of finding what she wants to do. That connected with me so deeply. She finds a story to tell, and she starts working on it! I can watch that movie over and over because that’s a narrative I will always relate to.
MOK: So speaking of the journey of making a book, looking back on any of the projects that you would want to talk about in more detail, I’m curious about your process. Especially now that you’ve done three books, the process of planning a book, and planning pages, and editing. How does the process start for you? How does the idea germinate?
WALDEN: Usually it starts with images. I come up with one scene in a story, and I have that scene in my mind, and it starts to build. If we’re talking about my first three little books, each time the process has become more loose. For End of Summer, I did a lot of planning, and at the end there was a lot of editing. For all my books, me and my editor at Avery Hill, we always look at it harshly and try to find everything we can to fix. With A City Inside I stopped thumbnailing because I realized that’s a part of the process I don’t really need, but I was doing it before because I thought, “That’s how cartoonists do it!” I write down in a notebook—when I’m planning a story, I can’t type for some reason, I wish I could because it would save my hand, but I can’t. So I get a notebook and I just put down plot points. From there I just go for it. For I Love This Part, I wrote down a couple plot points, then I sat down with a marker and a stack of paper and loosely drew the entire book, and I sent that to my editor. And I said, how does this look, can we do this as a book? And he was like, it’s great! Draw it! And I have all those pages still, so it’s funny to compare the marker drawings to the final pages, some are very similar.
MOK: How did that spontaneity change the storytelling?
WALDEN: I think it let the flow work a lot better. Drawing it all in one go let me… It let the tempo of my drawing decide the tempo of my book. As my drawing got faster, the tempo of the story and the images… I also think when I started I Love This Part, I decided I’m only gonna do a single image on every page, that’s a format that I won’t break. So I have to find a way to build a tempo with just one drawing on every page. Having both a limitation and freedom is a really great way to work.
MOK: Were these marker drawings drawn at size [of the final printing]?
WALDEN: Yes! I think 8 ½ x 11” pages. A Tombow marker or something.
MOK: What kind of paper?
WALDEN: It was paper I had never used before—I got it from JetPens, that manga paper? It worked well for this because it’s smooth and the pages are light so I could sort of [makes fast paper flipping motion]… ‘Cause Bristol board’s very thick, so when I’m holding it and I’m drawing on it, it feels like a THING that I have to really focus on. But using the lighter paper, I could just draw quickly.
MOK: What about the finals? What did you draw those on?
WALDEN: I had to use a thicker paper because I do watercolors directly on my inks. I used a recycled Bristol from [Canson], 9×12”. I drew it with the Faber-Castell pens. I have a weird thing where I have to use a different paper with every project, so the paper lives forever with that project [laughs]! I think it’s because I associate the cover color of the paper with the project. So I Love This Part will always be dark green to me. And The End of Summer will always be brown. My skating book will always be light green.
MOK: You’re gonna run out of papers mid-career.
WALDEN: I know [laughs]! I’m gonna have to figure something out, it’s a very weird quirk.
MOK: In 20 years, you’re gonna be in trouble… I’m impressed, it seems like these [books] came out in a short time [within two years]. [The ice skating graphic memoir] Spinning with First Second is coming out when?
WALDEN: Next fall, but it is already done, because it has to be done… That’s how the big publishers work!
MOK: What did you learn with each project, and in-between projects?
WALDEN: I’m gonna go down the list. Doing End of Summer taught me that I can do things. When I started it, I didn’t know if I could really draw. I knew I could hold a pen, but I didn’t know if I could translate what was in my mind to paper, and that book proved to me that I could. I Love This Part was my first book with gay characters. I’ve been out for a long time, but I was hesitant to draw gay characters, ‘cause I was like, “It’s gonna make me a gay artist, I don’t want to be that!” But that book taught me that I do want to draw gay characters. That kind of narrative is really important to me, and I realize that as the book made the rounds on Tumblr, and I get so many sweet letters from sweet teens… I do events at LGBT youth places with the book, that book just sort of opened up that whole world for me. And A City Inside, showed me that I can do projects for fun, or serve a purpose for me and they don’t have to be big and important. ‘Cause my First Second book, I felt like I have to make this my memoir, it has to be good, solid, important. A City Inside, I was like, I want to do this poetic little thing, I don’t really know what it is, but y’know […] I think Spinning is gonna be a very accessible book, because it’s YA and I want younger people to read it.
MOK: Can you tell me about the monologue format [in A City Inside]?
WALDEN: That’s sort of how the story came to me, as I was talking to myself in that voice. Telling myself a story. I liked how that sounded. Something in it sounded different from how I’d done stories in the past. Or different from how I’d done narration. That’s where the images, story, and style followed along.
MOK: Who is that narrator?
WALDEN: I don’t know, I don’t feel like it’s me, but I felt the whole time like someone was sitting next to me telling me that story. And obviously whoever’s sitting next to me is me really, because it’s all coming from me, but it felt like I was sharing the space. In a lot of other stories, it feels like it’s me projecting onto the page. This felt like I was strangely collaborative with all my ideas and my internal voice.
MOK: You were talking a bit about getting letters for teens. I write for teens also, for Rookie.
MOK: I’m wondering what your relationship with your readers or fans is like.
WALDEN: It’s really lovely. I feel like I spend an excessive amount of time responding to a lot of these kids who reach out to me. I’m really touched because it’s hard to reach out to people who you like, or whose work you like. It’s something I was scared to do as a kid. These are teens who don’t get a lot of representation, who don’t get a lot of stories about themselves, and a lot of them say that. It feels like this great connection! I’m amazed how many have found me.
MOK: What have visits to LGBTQ youth spots have been like for you?
WALDEN: They’re wonderful. There’s actually one in Austin that I was scared to go to when I was [laughs] an LGBT youth in Austin! A teacher was telling me to go there, and I was like, “I just can’t!” To be able to be with them when they read the comics and see their reactions, it’s so wonderful. I don’t know if you’ve seen the the comic I did about Steven Universe? I read that one to teens and we get to share this moment where we’re relating to, y’know, being in love and you can’t tell anyone about it, and also being fangirls together! They’re cute [laughs].
MOK: […] What artists who are making work currently are you over the moon about?
WALDEN: I am really in love with Jillian Tamaki, not a surprise. Especially the stuff she writes and draws herself. I adore her writing and her art, and when they’re merged together it’s just, it’s beautiful. I love her stuff. I love Eleanor Davis. She was in Austin recently and I really wanted to like, search the city for her [laughs]! I love her style, the openness of her art, it’s something I would love to experiment with in my own work. Everything she does. I also really like Emily Carroll. All three of these people are very different, but they’re very present creators right now, and I also love about all three of them, like Jillian Tamaki and Eleanor Davis, they share a lot about themselves, in both their work and their presence online, and I like that, because I feel like I can read their work, kind of get to know them, interact with them if I want to.
MOK: Yeah, they’re all top #1 twitter-ers.
WALDEN: Totally [laughs]!
MOK: […] I’m curious about how you process relationships and breakups in your work [Tillie laughs]. That’s something I’m very interested in, I Love This Part being both a “love song” and a “breakup song” at the same time. A City Inside being kind of a love song as well. I write a lot of love songs and draw a lot of love comics [laughs] or romance comics, a lot of which are memoir-based. Can I ask you about that?
WALDEN: Yeah! Recently I interacted with the girl who I Love This Part is based off of, and it was bizarre and lovely. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. But I feel a little guilty when I do romances, because what I’m putting on the page is very much my own dream/memory of how it went. It all feels very much my side, from myself. That always feels a bit dishonest, because a relationship is between two people, but at the same time I can’t really stop myself. When I made I Love This Part, I felt like when I was doing the breakup, it has to look to like this. It felt like this, I have to draw it like this. And then I think, “Well, it was kind of like that! But in real life, there was other stuff.” It feels complicated to me to depict relationships. I also worry about the other person seeing it or experiencing it, because it feels so heavy in my perspective. It feels very biased. But at the same time, because I’m depicting these relationships and breakups heavily from one side, I think it becomes intimate. The reader can get down and deep in it. I also don’t know [laughs] if I had enough relationships in my life to accurately portray a relationship between two people! Because I haven’t had many long-term relationships, and the few I’ve had have now been immortalized in comics.
MOK: It seems evidence shows that you only need to have a relationship to write about a relationship! And you’ve written several, so you’re succeeding in that goal.
WALDEN: Thank you.
MOK: I once hooked up with someone, and the next morning I ran into someone I hadn’t met, but who—this is confusing, maybe, without saying any names [Tillie laughs]—but who was the ex of someone I was friends with who had written a story [based on their relationship and breakup]. I was like, “Yeah, I read that story,” and she was like, “Yeah, I read it and I was like, it’s such a bummer! She sees everything so melancholy!”
WALDEN: [Laughs] That’s so funny.
MOK: Yeah, and it’s a sad story. I certainly understand where she’s coming from. Proof that one person’s perspective is never both people’s perspectives.
WALDEN: Yeah. And it’s funny how in my life, there are certain relationships I’m totally okay drawing on, and taking aspects of and turning it into a narrative. But there are a couple where I’m like, I will never touch that with comics. Some relationships, maybe it’s like, it’s too much, or it meant too much or hurt too much. Some things, I have a very clear line. “That girl? Nope, never gonna be in a comic!”
MOK: I wonder if that will change over time.
WALDEN: I was thinking about it. It could be that over time, that line breaks down. I don’t know.
MOK: Do you know about Dickens with David Copperfield?
MOK: He had a traumatic incident in his childhood where his family went into debt […] and he was put to work in a shoe blacking factory for a couple months. And he never wrote about it until David Copperfield, and he’d never told anyone about it really, never told his family […] Then him sharing that ended up being this giant thing that helped change history, because [the book] helped change child labor laws.
WALDEN: Wow [laughs] maybe I’ll change laws!
MOK: I hope so!