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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

One of my personal highlights of 2018 was becoming comics editor of Shenandoah under the new and amazing editor-in-chief Beth Staples. That means I get to contact new and amazing artists and ask them to appear in the journal. Tillie Walden was the first.

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Tillie was on campus last spring visiting my and Leigh Ann Beavers’ comics class. After giving a lecture and running an exercise or two, she sat with our students, working on her own comics pages–including ones I now recognize from her just-released graphic novel On a Sunbeam (an early Christmas present to myself). Meanwhile, projected pages from her sketchbooks were on rotation in the gallery down the hall. Those were the ones I asked about. Clover Archer, who among many others things runs the gallery, curated Tillie’s exhibition, which is why I suggested she write an intro for her in Shenandoah. It’s below. And those amazing pages from her sketchbooks are rigth here.



A New Valence by Clover Archer

 I won’t draw in a sketchbook for maybe six months, but then feel the wave coming over me again and I’ll spend a few weeks reacquainting myself with the process. And I try and always make something that I would be comfortable sharing.

—Tillie Walden

As a space for experimenting with compositions, elucidating new thoughts, and working through elements of a project outside of the physical studio space, the sketchbook can be a useful tool in support of an artist’s creative practice. Traditionally, sketchbooks have been private affairs granting artists the freedom of an inner dialogue with their own imagination. In this sense, sketchbooks were not considered finished artworks but, rather, the reification of the process leading to the artworks, a kind of mind-mapping, and thus not intended for public gaze. Like a personal diary, then, the exploratory pages of a sketchbook offer a similar promise of revelatory insight into the otherwise-secret realms of the creator’s mind. In the contemporary art world, as the context for consuming artworks has expanded beyond the physical gallery space to include digital platforms, the creative process has become more transparent. New media and technological advancements have coincided with the postmodern turn away from privileging the creator as the authority who determines when a work of art is finished. Accordingly, as the process of creation has become more visible, the artist sketchbook has gained new valence as a contender for critical attention in its own right.

Though twenty-two-year-old graphic novelist and comics artist Tillie Walden came of age after these developments had been absorbed into our cultural ethos, the young artist maintains a practice that moves back and forth along a continuum between traditional and contemporary creative practices. She publishes some of her work online, making it widely available free of charge, and has also published four books available only in print. Often, she will mix hand-drawn and digitally created elements in a single work. As Walden explains in an interview with Multiversity Comics, her catholic approach is pragmatic: “I mainly work traditionally because I like papers and pens and computers are stupid…In a perfect world, I would do everything traditionally, but I do not have time. When I am old and rich I will never touch a computer again.”

This fluid approach translates to Walden’s sketchbooks, which reflect her distinct style but differ in many ways from her published work. The compositions in Walden’s graphic novels and comics, both in individual panels and on the pages as a whole, are orderly and balanced. Her use of color is minimal, often relying on one or two tones that wash around a consistent black line used to define the subject matter. This formal restraint is a departure from the drawings in her sketchbooks, which tend to be colorful, dream-like spaces with densely packed, meandering lines. Many sketches appear to be unplanned doodles with objects and figures melting into one another, never crystalizing into a single moment or realistic environment. In these spontaneous drawings, it feels like Walden is working through her thoughts in the moment, departing from the economy of line and color found in her graphic novels and comics. The confident drawing style we see in her published work is present but expressed with a psychedelic exuberance, rather than restraint. In many sketches, it feels like Walden is allowing herself some well-deserved freedom.

Unlike other artists’ sketchbooks, Walden’s pages feel resolved, exhibiting little indication of erasure, errors, or failed experimentations. The fluid, stream-of-conscious line and dense patterning can absorb “mistakes,” turning the line into something else as it moves across the page. Instances of speculative mark-making or unfinished compositions do occur occasionally, but they become less revelatory of Walden’s process as they don’t seem to reflect the artist’s prevailing creative consciousness. Rather, the overall absence of hesitancy evidences Walden’s ability as a draftsperson and assuredness as an artist.

It is no surprise to learn that Walden is acutely aware of her viewer, even when her drawings are not intended for inclusion in a narrative publication for which she is known. Indeed, Walden has shared pages from her sketchbooks on Twitter and her website, and selected drawings can be purchased online as prints. This blurring of the line between public and private is entirely in keeping with themes in Walden’s work, emotional storytelling that draws on her own life experience with the direct honesty of a visual diarist. Yet, like her relationship to traditional and contemporary modes of mark-making, Walden’s relationship to the vulnerability of self-exposure is not straightforward. “I have a professional self, you know,” she said in a recent interview with Forbes, “a version of myself that I’m willing to share and speak on. But outside of that, I need some privacy. Memoir tears down barriers and walls in your world, which is a positive and a negative. And I’m still in the process of understanding that.”

How does a latent idea in an artist’s mind evolve into something that has the power to astonish, devastate, and delight? Even if we pull back the curtain on the creative process, there is no formula to explain the potency of art—every artist follows a unique trajectory to the realization of their work. These pages from Walden’s sketchbook may be another version of her public self rather than a lifting of any barriers to her privacy. But though she maintains these boundaries, Walden expands our appreciation of her published work by offering a glimpse of the breadth and scope of her artistic dexterity. Rather than an intimate translation of an artist’s imagination, it is this added dimension of understanding that compels us to explore the pages of Tillie Walden’s sketchbooks.

[And seriously, if you read all that and still haven’t looked at the images, you gotta go look at them right here. Here’s one of my many favorites:




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