Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Spinning. Written and illustrated by Tillie Walden (Asleep On A Sunbeam, The End Of Summer), this graphic memoir showcases the skill of one of the industry’s most promising young voices as it explores her competitive figure skater past. This review reveals major plot points.
It’s 4 a.m. and preteen Tillie Walden has to get up for figure skating practice. She puts her tracksuit on over her practice dress in a groggy haze, and when she pulls her hair back into the required ponytail, her head drops and she sinks into herself. She’s dedicated her young life to ice skating, but a change is occurring as she enters adolescence. She still enjoys her time on the ice, but the culture around competitive figure skating is taking a toll on her spirit as it forces her into a mold she doesn’t fit. That hair tie confines her entire being, but she breaks free over the course of Spinning, Walden’s new graphic memoir from First Second.
Walden has developed an astounding collection of work given that she’s only 21 years old, and it’s clear that she made the right choice in giving up ice skating to devote her time to cartooning. She’s one of the many creators who carved a space for herself in the industry by publishing her comics online, working on her ongoing webcomic, On A Sunbeam, while creating shorter stories that allowed her to pursue other creative impulses. Spinning is her first long-form autobiographical work, and she’s created it at an age when the memories of the past are still raw. She’s also at a point in her artistic development where she can fully evoke the emotions of that turbulent time, and telling intimate stories in more fantastic situations with her previous work sharpened her ability to use panel compositions and page layouts to reinforce what her characters are feeling.
Spinning is a book that washes over the reader, and it’s easy to plow through its nearly 400 pages in one sitting. That’s because Walden gives moments room to breathe, like the aforementioned morning routine that begins with a 24-panel page breaking down each step of the lethargic process. She slows down time as she introduces readers to her younger self, putting them in her lonely, tired headspace as she makes her way to the rink. There’s no sense of joy or excitement in these early pages, and skating is immediately associated with melancholy, casting a shadow on the sport that gets heavier as Walden becomes more disenchanted. And yet, there are still moments when Walden shows what she loved about skating. Her first steps on the empty rink are depicted with a full splash page, introducing an openness that is a stark contrast to those cramped panels of her waking up. As much as she feels restrained by skating culture, she’s free and happy when she’s alone on the ice.
Walden drifts further away from skating as she discovers her talent as an artist, which coincides with her intensifying attraction to other women. She’s known she was gay since she was 5 years old, but as she enters adolescence, it becomes difficult to keep these feelings contained. Her homosexuality is at odds with the heteronormative world of ice skating, making her alienation all the more severe. When she does engage in her first romance with another girl, her feelings of elation are immediately undercut by fear, and she can’t fully appreciate this relationship because she feels so much pressure from the world around her to be a different person. (You can check out this exclusive Spinning excerpt for more thoughts on how Walden uses contrast and layouts to inform personal connections during a key moment in Walden’s relationship with her first girlfriend, Rae.)
Walden understands the value of the page turn in comic-book storytelling, and there are multiple moments where page turns amplify emotional impact. One of these is when Walden is talking about one of her first crushes, an older girl who was one of the few people who showed her kindness at the rink. Before showing the girl, Walden recounts their past interactions in a page that is six panels of text, building anticipation for the full-page reveal of her crush waving at her as she walks toward the rink. Walden uses a similar layout when talking about her first coach, but in this instance, one of those text panels is replaced by a small fragment of the image on the next page, showing Walden asleep in her coach’s arms. This is a definitive moment for Walden, who never got the affection she desired from her mother, and putting that snapshot in the page before emphasizes how this moment lingers in her mind.
Spinning’s design work makes it stand out on the shelf. Danielle Ceccolini’s cover design and Walden’s front cover illustration evoke delicate femininity with a bright pink palette and cursive typography, and the image says a lot about the narrative content of the book as it shows a young Walden with her synchronized skating group, looking toward the empty space to her left while everyone else looks to their right. Spinning’s cover design is especially convenient for bookstores and libraries thanks to the evocative spine art, which features shots of Walden skating on top of winding diagrams that break down specific moves. It can be shelved with either the cover or the spine facing the reader and still grab attention, and publishing the book as a hardcover gives it extra weight and an air of prestige. Walden and Jonathan Bennett worked together on the overall book design, and the care put into how this story is packaged shows how committed First Second is to getting Walden’s work in readers’ hands.
Tillie Walden won two Ignatz Awards last year: outstanding artist for her debut graphic novel, The End Of Summer, and most promising talent for I Love This Part. More people should be paying attention to the Ignatz Awards because they have been incredibly reliable when it comes to recognizing a wide range of exceptional cartoonist talent. This year’s Ignatz Awards ceremony was held at Small Press Expo last weekend, and once again the list of nominees and winners is a great list for readers who want to discover skilled, unique creators who aren’t getting mainstream attention. (With the exception of Emil Ferris’ double-winner My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which is rightfully one of the most talked-about comics of the year.) This year’s winners also highlight the growing diversity of the comic-book medium, and the majority are either women, queer, or people of color. There’s significant progress being made with representation outside of the major comics publishers, and the Ignatz Awards are boosting the profiles of marginalized creators and helping them reach more people.
Spinning is bookended by scenes of Walden as a young adult returning to the rink two years after she quit skating, and her first interaction with another person is being asked if she needs a hair tie. She refuses. She might be stepping back onto the ice, but she’ll never step back into her old life. She’ll skate with her hair down, and she’ll walk away when she wants to because she can. It takes a long time for Walden to reach the point where she follows her heart instead of her routine, but once she escapes the bind of skating, she blossoms into a brilliant artist who can share her struggle and her triumph with others longing for a similar release.