Junior High. By Tegan Quin and Sara Quin (scripting) and Tillie Walden (art). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978-0374313029, 2023. US$14.99. 304 pages, softcover.
Tillie Walden strikes again!
As ever, I'm excited to see a new book by Walden, one of America's most gifted comics artists and a particular favorite of KinderComics. I realize that this blend of fiction and autobiography (as the publisher calls it) is more likely to be billed as a true-to-life personal story by indie-pop stars and identical twins Tegan and Sara. Of course. Yet I have to admit that, for me, it began as a Tillie Walden book. It was Walden's name that got me to perk up and pay attention, and for that I'm glad. Turns out it's very well-written by Tegan and Sara, and yet another interesting departure for Walden.
By now, Walden is hopefully no longer burdened with the wunderkind reputation that seemed to stick to her for her first several books. I mean, that rep was understandable — she was amazingly young for a graphic novelist, it seemed, and fearsomely prolific and good — but Walden has been productive and versatile for years, and is now a teacher at her old school, the Center for Cartoon Studies, so she's a veteran. And it does seem a bit foolish to keep marveling at how very much she has done in a short time. I'm still guilty of doing that, of course! What interests me now is the way she is departing from indy-comics expectations, branching out into different kinds of work. Since her last creator-owned graphic novel, Are You Listening? (2019), she has collected many of her early short works, co-created (with Emma Hunsinger) a collaborative picture book, undertaken a work-for-hire Walking Dead franchise series called Clementine, and now this, another collaborative work. Clementine is a trilogy in progress (the second volume is expected this fall), and Junior High promises to be the first half of a duology, so it looks as if Walden is dividing her work between different serial projects over a fairly long span. Huh. I would not have predicted these things a few years ago, but what do I know?
Junior High is, we're told, a "lightly fictionalized" riff on the true story of Tegan and Sara Quin's first year in middle school, which in reality happened in 1991 but here is depicted in the present day, with all the cultural differences that that updating entails. For instance, cell phone use is near-constant here, and word balloons that represent texting are an important storytelling device. At one point (45), Taylor Swift fandom comes up in a conversation, but Swift was born when Tegan and Sara were nine! The Quins are upfront about the fact that the Tegan and Sara depicted here are "fictional" (an afterword explains some of the changes they made to their story). In essence, Junior High conveys the gist of junior-high experience circa 1991 in terms easily relatable to readers of that age in 2023. It's an interesting, if perhaps opportunistic, strategy. What matters is that the Quins write themselves and their schoolmates well, and Walden responds with graceful cartooning and beautiful pages.
Briefly, the story follows the formerly inseparable twins into junior high, where their different desires and anxieties pull them apart, until their mutual discovery of music (via their stepdad's guitar, surreptitiously borrowed) brings them back together as a singing and songwriting team. Tegan and Sara are indeed hard to tell apart at a glance, and this becomes a running gag (even they sometimes confuse themselves with each other!). The two are pulled this way and that by budding social and romantic longings, with Sara crushing on one classmate, Roshini, and Tegan trying to win the approval of another, Noa, despite Noa's friendship with a bully who makes everyone feel lousy. Different forms of queer longing are gently explored, and milestones of puberty, such as the onset of periods and shopping for bras, complicate the social pressures the twins already feel. Much of the book concerns social maneuvering, the challenges of shuttling between different peer groups, the betrayal of confidences, and the awakening of desire. The writing is confident, the characterization observant and sensitive.
What I love about Junior High is the delicacy that Walden brings to the story through her designs and drawing. The book is distinct from her earlier work, dispensing with framed panels and neat borders in favor of a more open, fluid aesthetic. The panels are separated by, not borderlines, but the deft use of negative space and patches of shading and color. This takes a little getting used to — the pages are still dense and busy — but only a little. Most of the story is colored only in shades of purple, recalling Walden's Spinning, but brief interludes — interchapters or pauses that punctuate the story — depict Tegan in blue and Sara in red, and drop the usual density of detail in favor of open layouts full of uncluttered white. These intervals allow the two sisters to reflect and unload in a symbolic space, underscoring their complex feelings. After Tegan and Sara discover songwriting together, Walden adds a vivid gold to the book's palette, bringing out the joys of music.
I can't help but contrast Junior High with Walden's current project, Clementine, a survival horror series toned entirely in greys (by Cliff Rathburn of Walking Dead fame). The pages of Clementine, Book One, consist of tightly packed, sharply bordered panels, with layouts that grow increasingly jagged and dynamic as the story builds, leading to some manga-esque diagonals. The work is fittingly claustrophobic, combining Walden's familiar paneling with thick, atmospheric greyscales that match the story's muted horror, laconic storytelling, and emotionally stunned characters. With Junior High, Walden seems to be exercising different muscles, almost reinventing herself artistically. It's interesting to think about these two very different projects being on the boards at nearly the same time (especially coming after such disparate projects as Are You Listening? and My Parents Won't Stop Talking!, her collaboration with Hunsinger). I note that Junior High was drawn in pencil on watercolor paper, then colored digitally in Procreate, whereas Clementine was penciled in Procreate, then printed out and inked in pen on cardstock, so it appears that Walden is deliberately tacking back and forth between different methods. The penciled shading in Junior High opens up something new in Walden's art — and, as ever, I'm amazed at her hunger for growth and experimentation.
In all, Junior High is a quiet joy: a smart, meticulously crafted adaptation, and another fascinating step for a wonderful cartoonist.
Are You Listening? By Tillie Walden. First Second. ISBN 978-1250207562 (softcover), $17.99; ISBN 978-1626727731 (hardcover), $24.99. 320 pages.
Are You Listening? boasts colors unlike any I’ve seen in other comics. It blends and dapples contrasting colors in rapturous ways I literally haven’t seen before. And that heady palette is crucial to the transporting effect of the story: a dreamlike road trip, or wayward, puttering anti-quest, which eventually turns into something more intent and directed.
On this odd, minimally detailed trip, the two protagonists, Bea and Lou, both young women with things to get away from, motor through a color-drenched mystic vision of west Texas landscape. They are pursued by indistinct and merely functional antagonists (less men than shadows). En route they find a cat, a perhaps-magical one, whose mysterious nature provides some shape and urgency to the trip. Logic is not the story’s strong point — but, oh, is this an easy book to love. Tillie Walden strikes again.
One of Walden’s strengths is dialogue among women, especially young women. From prickly defensiveness to guarded care to unguarded tenderness, she traces the growing relationship between Bea(trice) and Lou, two queer fugitives whose friendship and love may remind readers of other tender pairings in Walden’s work. They are funny together, and sharp-edged enough that their growing bond feels earned rather than programmed. Just watching Lou teach Bea to drive is a pleasure. The dynamic between these two is the heart and soul of Are You Listening?. On the other hand, the book’s ventures into Miyazaki-esque fantasy are not worked out as thoroughly, or really worked out at all, on anything other than a symbolic level — which is to say that the story feels great but sort of collapses when you try to summarize it. Okay. Why do I still dig the book so much?
It’s solidly in Walden territory, recalling the romantic dyads and love-motored plots of several of her earlier books, though without the rich social surroundings evoked in Spinning or On a Sunbeam. It’s perhaps a Thelma and Louise homage, crossed with the more elusive Miyazaki of films like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, where a felt sense of symbolic fitness matters more than the literal working-out of plot-logic. At its heart are half-hidden losses and traumas that eventually come into the open, via revelations handled with a thankfully discreet touch: the terror that Bea is running from, the bereavement that has propelled Lou out onto the highways. Re-reading the book, you can see these things signaled early on, with moments of barely-quelled panic, ragged intakes of breath, creepy and confining interiors, and enigmatic, triggering exchanges. Walden has a gift for gnawing suspense as well as bruised tenderness, and Are You Listening? is a straight-up master class in how to pull readers into the minds of brave but anxious protagonists. The book invites trembling.
That said, Are You Listening? isn’t Walden’s best-plotted book. Truth to tell, it’s the first one by her that has nudged me toward ambivalence — that is, toward some delicate balancing of swooning gratitude against the sense that something hasn’t quite worked. But, okay, I’ve grown fairly besotted with Walden's comics — meaning that I’ve fallen head over heels, in such a way that I doubt that I can render a dispassionate judgment. Who can blame me? Walden draws like anything: beneath the fragility of her line lies an unassuming confidence in form, an ability to draw just whatever she needs and ditch the rest. You’ll find here nary a trace of underdrawing, tentativeness, or fuss. My guess would be that she works as hard as hell to make her comics look like no work at all — that behind these beautiful pages is plenty of the usual agonizing effort of the comics artist. If that’s so, Walden hides it superbly; the images seem to have arisen spontaneously from some lovely Other Place. And her use of color? Damn. The coloring here, pressing on from what was already delicious in On a Sunbeam, makes a world.
Most of all, though, what matters is the writing of character. Bea and Lou, like so many of Walden’s heroines, balance sweetness with strength and rawness with principle, revealing reserves of determination and agency when the story pushes them hard. They are worth rooting for. At the same time, Walden has the wisdom not to insist on affirmation and closure on every front — here, as in other books, she leaves you with a live wire of ache, even to the end.
Walden has a gift for intimacy in the face of big things: quiet spaces amidst the panorama of unfurling landscape (west Texas, or, as in Sunbeam, deep space). This is her stock in trade: moments of reunion, reconciliation, and self-discovery against the backdrop of a huge, obscurely glimpsed world. On that score, Are You Listening? delivers in spades. Hell, I’ll read anything this artist does — she makes my eyes mist over.