Why Tillie Walden’s ‘On a Sunbeam’ Makes Outer Space A Warm Place [Webcomic Q&A]
When many people see outer space, they envision something cold, apathetic, maybe sterile or unforgiving. If there's civilization out there, it definitely looks like the Apple Store, or the interior of a tin can. When Tillie Walden sees space, she envisions something warm, inviting, and definitely dotted with trees.
ComicsAlliance spoke with Walden about her webcomic On a Sunbeam; why she embraces space, but feels at odds with conventional science-fiction; and the use of fish as space travel.
ComicsAlliance: What was the genesis for On a Sunbeam? And what genres and inspirations does it build from?
Tillie Walden: Well I think the genesis came from the fact that I was interested in doing a comic set in space. But despite that, I wasn’t particularly inspired by the sci-fi genre; in fact I avoided it all together because I didn’t want to make a space comic that felt like one that had already been done before. The initial idea came from the interest in space, my love of architecture, my interest in young gay relationships, and a desire to do some fun world building.
Outside of that the comic was definitely inspired by every Ghibli movie ever. There aren’t any cartoonists or comics that inspired this story specifically. I’ve been much more engaged with prose over comics, and I definitely see aspects of The Secret Place by Tana French in this story, as well as a lot of the surrealism from the Murakami books I like.
CA: What’s it about?
TW: I’m terrible at this question, but let’s see if I can come up with a coherent answer. On its surface, On A Sunbeam is about a girl named Mia and two different times in her life --- one in her younger years as she embarks on a relationship with a mysterious girl at her boarding school (which is in space), the other following her when she’s older and working with a crew that flies around space and restores old buildings.
But really it’s a story about Mia’s own journey --- who she becomes, who she meets along the way, who she loses, and who she can try and find again.
CA: Who is the intended audience, and do you suggest any age restrictions or content warnings?
TW: I suppose the intended audience is teens, but that being said I don’t like to limit it or really label it as a "teen" comic. I’d love for anyone to read it.
As far as content warnings, there is some strong language and some mild violence, so it’s not all-ages. But as far as what age a kid would have to be to be able to read it is entirely up to their parents.
CA: Your comment about wanting to set a comic in space without it necessarily being inspired by the science-fiction genre is a fascinating one, because I think some folks automatically assume the space part guarantees the genre part. Could you elaborate more on why you distance the two? Does it come from not wanting to bog down the story in jargon and expected genre trappings? Because On a Sunbeam very much utilizes space without making it "about space," so to speak.
TW: Yeah it is interesting --- when I mention my comic is in space, I think people assumes that means there won’t be any trees. This comic is full of space, and it’s also full of nature. I don’t know why, but that’s always what I think of first.
But to answer your question: the sci-fi stuff I had seen before I made OAS always really repulsed me. Outer space always seemed like such an inviting, fascinating idea, yet everyone always paired space with this sterile, bright white light futuristic dead architecture. It was all so cold! And to me, space seemed like it had the potential to be so warm. So I really wanted to push back against that.
I didn’t want to feel any limitations from the genre of sci-fi, and I really wanted to explore the potential of the warmth of space. Of the homey-ness, if that makes sense. I think that people assume that because space is so vast that makes it impersonal, somehow. But that’s never been how my mind works. The bigger something is, to me, the more close I can feel to it. So I wanted to make a comic that made space into a visual home, and one that also had plenty of trees. But, all the while, making the comic not about space at all. It’s a funny mix, because I’ve thought a lot about space in this comic yet it isn’t even remotely about space.
CA: That desire to break the sterile status quo is definitely evident in On a Sunbeam, even beyond the trees! The classic Apple Store lacquer isn't present in OAS, even where it could be. Mia and her team preserve old buildings, in a way celebrating the rough edges, the history. And then there are the betta fish-shaped ships which are showy and eye-catching, not minimalist.
Could you talk about why you included those elements (the building restoration, the fish ships) in the story, and was that part of it?
TW: Apple Store lacquer, what a great way to describe it, hah! So with the building restoration I had a very sort of specific intention. On the surface it was a good excuse to draw some interesting architecture set against the backdrop of space, but it was really more about this basic idea of fixing something. The crew works on these buildings full of history and charm and restores them to something more solid while also preserving their history. And I think that’s very much what Mia’s story is, at it’s core.
She’s a person with a rich and interesting history but she isn’t really whole yet. None of the members of the crew really are. And I wanted to include the building restoration because it seemed like it really represented this core emotion in the story --- this idea that these are people who are working on themselves, working on who they are with each other and who they are in the context of their world. And they’re all striving to become solid and new again but without losing the parts of their past that helped shape them.
As far as the fish ships go, that was a much less formed idea haha. In my last book, A City Inside, I drew some flying fish and that sort of got me interested in this idea of flying machines that were based on living creatures. I always think about how I talk to my car like it’s a living creature when it is actually just a sad hunk of metal. So it seemed interesting to be able to give this world machinery that actually felt/looked alive.
Also, just in a practical sense, I had no clue how to go about designing space ships when I started this comic. But I can draw fish, so it seemed like a much better path to just run with the fish instead of attempting to design some hardcore looking space machine. Also something I realized recently while drawing --- I like that the fish ships imply that space has a texture somewhat like water. I often draw light that spills and moves around like water, and the fish seem to echo that. I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere of the story.
CA: How has both your creative approach and the webcomic itself changed since inception?
TW: I don’t think my creative approach has really changed much as I’ve made the comic. I approach each chapter in pretty much the same way every time. I ask myself what I need to accomplish in this section, and think about how I can best do that. The webcomic itself has changed some along the way, which is pretty much the natural way things go when you stick around with the same world and characters for a while.
Everything has gotten more solid, and I’ve been learning more and more about color as the project has gone on. This is the first project I’ve ever done full digital color on so that’s definitely been a learning experience.
CA: What drew you to webcomics and the platform you currently use?
TW: I had a pretty simple desire --- to reach people. Webcomics are free. Anyone with an internet connection and a device can read it. That was it, that was why I wanted it to be a webcomic. So people could find it. When designing the site with my Dad (he’s a programmer) I tried to make it in the simplest way possible. I didn’t want it to feel like you’re on some website and there’s all this stuff to do. I wanted to just make a site that simply had a comic on it, and it being on the web wasn’t really a part of the story but instead was simply a method for you to find it.
CA: What’s your process like?
TW: My process sometimes feels like running down a hill. Like your legs are moving as fast as they can, but you know you could be going faster, and everything is just a blur around you. Basically, with each chapter I know what needs to happen, so it usually starts with me making a few incoherent thumbnails of the first few pages of the chapter. Once I’ve planned the first few pages, I’ll stop thumbnailing and just go straight to the art.
I find that I don’t really need thumbnails of the whole thing anymore, because it’s much easier for me to write the dialogue and nail out the story as I’m drawing the final art. I don’t really pencil, so I usually just grab a pen and jump in. Then I’ll resurface after a dizzying few days. It usually takes two or three days to draw the art for a 30-50 page chapter. Then I come up for air and scan and color and the world comes back into focus.
After I’m done I send the chapter to Ricky, my editor and On A Sunbeam bestie, who will shoot back spelling errors, any pacing fixes, and sometimes Ricky will have ideas for new pages that could help the chapter, so I’ll sometimes draw a couple more pages after I’ve finished and pop those in. Then when it’s all done I send the pages to my Dad, who uploads them to our little handmade site. Then I start the next chapter!
CA: Your color palettes are way potent in their emotional effectiveness. What's your approach when it comes to tackling an individual page, chapter, or story when it comes to color?
TW: That’s lovely to hear, I find color to be so baffling, generally. Well to me, every chapter has a core color. Usually my core colors are blue, orange, or pink. And then, as I color each scene, I pick some highlight colors for the scene. So, say, a three page spread where the core color is blue and the highlights are yellow, orange, and pink. But it can get a lot more complicated then that in certain scenes.
When the emotion is high, or there’s a really significant moment, I tend to agonize over what colors to pick and where to apply them. But the colors I agonize over aren’t the base colors, it’s usually the one top color that just skims across the scene, like a thin light. And that color to me is so important, because it just gives it all a certain flavor. But I trust myself, and usually once I pick the colors for a scene and look at them laid out I feel good and stick with it. I have no interest in recoloring.
CA: Do you think self-publishing this story granted you freedom that you might not have had elsewhere?
TW: Of course! It’s all mine, I can do anything. It’s very freeing. I can use any images in promotion which is one of my favorite parts of self publishing. When you go through a publisher, big or small, there are limitations on what you can show your audience from the book itself. But with OAS I can just post all my favorite pages from the comic on Tumblr and it’s no big deal.
Also it’s very satisfying to be able to show people the site and say, "hey, it’s all here for free, go ahead and read anytime." When you make graphic novels there’s a lot of push and pull --- it’s more like, hey I made this nice thing, but it costs money and you probably have to order it but you should get it blah blah etc. But with a webcomic it’s so simple --- hey dude click this link and enjoy.
CA: How have you approached On a Sunbeam differently than your other works?
TW: Well, OAS is the only serialized work I’ve ever done, so it’s definitely been different. My other works feel like these neat little packages, and OAS feels like a road where I still can’t see the end. It’s often very exciting, because it feels like this project has had limitless potential. But it’s exhausting. The weekly deadlines are tough as hell.
But I feel like my approach to OAS has been very raw, and that’s been very interesting. I feel the story more vividly than I’ve felt any of my other work. I really react to the pages in a way I never have before, and I think that helps me mold the story. Though to be fair it’s all been written out to the end so the only molding I really get to do at the moment is visual, not plot molding.
CA: Which other webcomics would you recommend to readers who like yours?
TW: I would recommend Mildred Louis’ Agents of the Realm, which is a college/magical girl/fantasy comic that will satisfy any reader. I would also recommend Sledgehammer by Sam Alden, which just started --- it seems to be a family drama, but it’s still in its early days, so now is a good chance to jump in.
And I would just like to generally recommend two resources --- the LGBT webcomics Tumblr and the LGBTQ creators database run by Marinaomi. If you’re looking for webcomics made by queer creators then those are fantastic places to discover some gems.
If you have a webcomic you’d like to suggest for an upcoming Webcomic Q&A, send a tip to jonerikchristianson[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line “Webcomic Q&A.”