On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden, 546 pp, RL TEEN
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Review Copy from :01 Books
In an interview from 2018, Tillie Walden described On a Sunbeam, which first appeared as a free webcomic, as a "gay space comic that follows a large cast of characters. It deals with lost love, bullying, found family - I'm honestly trying to remember what it's about! It's been a while since I drew that book, and I'm a little rusty. I promise you, it's fantastic, and you can read it all online for free!" Walden's description, and her humor, give you a good idea of what a seeming dichotomy she is. Her books, including the Eisner-Award Winning Spinning, are emotionally raw, real and sometimes intense, On a Sunbeam included. They are also stories you fall into and stay immersed in, even when the book is closed. This was especially true for me as I read On a Sunbeam, which I went into knowing almost nothing about. Initially, I read in fits and starts, struggling to make sense of the world of the graphic novel and the past (shades of blue) and present (oranges, reds and purples) timelines. Of the occasional use of yellow in On a Sunbeam, Walden said in an interview, "I feel like the yellow represents the reality for Mia (the main character). The moments that are hard, that are wonderful, any moment that blazes with an emotion so strong that it pulls Mia and the cast down to the ground, to themselves, has yellow." This is a fantastic insight from an author who also says, "It's always strange to me when I hear people describe the themes they see in my work because I'm usually unaware of it." I totally appreciate that honesty and it's a testament to Walden's gift as an artist that themes arise for every reader.
For me, while I absolutely loved the confusion and discomfort I felt as I read. It allowed me to let go of my brain's need to READ EVERY WORD and UNDERSTAND THE THEMES and PREDICT WHAT WAS COMING NEXT. I floated through the cool corridors of the boarding school where Mia first met Grace (the lost love) and through the tumultuous present, five years later, where Mia has graduated from school and has taken a job as part of a crew that travels through deep space rebuilding beautiful broken down structures. Then I started to realize that there were no male characters in this graphic novel, save Elliott, who is nonbinary. As Rowan Hisayo Buchanan notes in her review of On a Sunbeam for The Atlantic, Walden shared that she had always "intended the book to feature women and queer people." As she worked, she thought, "Wait, why would I even add any men in the background? Why not just gals and genderless pals?" Of Paul, the male cat in the story, Walden said, "If people are sad that there aren't any guys, I can say, 'Hey, at least I gave you the cat.'"
In the same interview, Walden said, "I don't really like sci-fi," specifically because "a lot of it is full of dudes and cold white spaces and capitalism." On a Sunbeam counters this with the (almost) all female cast, the colors and landscape that evokes a magic mushroom trip and - really - no capitalism! There is zero commerce in this book - and don't forget, it debuted as a FREE webcomic, something Walden always points out when talking about the book, even on the blurb for it on her website. At one point, a character gives up her ship and her livelihood to stay on land with her wife and reconnect. At another point, characters reject the crew leader who is an insensitive task master who refuses to learn the proper pronouns for her crew. And, the big, dangerous mission that the crew undertakes, breaking laws and heading into disputed territory, is a personal, not work related one.
I realize I've spent this who review pointing out all the themes of On a Sunbeam, while also pointing out that Walden doesn't think about themes when she creates. As I said, I read, loved, and felt completely wrapped up in this book without knowing any of this and loved it. Now that you know all this, when you read it you will probably love it even more!