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, but for me it is 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.