Writer/Artist: Tillie Walden
Release Date: September 2017
While Spinning, the latest offering from the critically acclaimed Tillie Walden, is ostensibly a graphic memoir about the tumultuous world of teen and pre-teen figure skating, it shouldn’t take too long for any reader picking this one up to realise that it’s actually so, so much more.
We are quickly introduced to a bleary-eyed Walden as she goes through her morning routine in New Jersey, waking before dawn for morning skating lessons, attending school before heading off to group practice as soon as the hometime bell rings.
It’s an eye-opening account of the grueling schedule these youngsters willingly put themselves through in the pursuit of perfection, but Walden’s clear affection for what she’s doing instantly has us invested in her story as she rushes out onto the ice to enjoy a few moments alone with her thoughts before the lessons begin.However, it doesn’t take long for the book to shift noticeably. After a while, we’re no longer particularly focused on the events themselves, but more in how Walden reacts to them. She becomes the story, and her anxious yet confident internal monologue spurs the book forwards as she faces more difficult obstacles than someone her age ever should: A move to Austin, Texas at the end of fifth grade; the pressures of fitting into a new skating fraternity that bears little resemblance to the one she left behind in New Jersey; the struggles of concealing her sexuality for fear of people’s reactions; the constant bullying from one particular classmate, the true horror of which is only revealed late in the book. It’s all compelling stuff, and it all helps to draw us deeper and deeper into Tillie’s life as the book unfolds.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Spinning is just how utterly engrossing it is. Before I really knew what had happened, I was already two hundred pages deep into this memoir, and had found myself utterly invested in Tillie’s life. There’s something truly captivating about her level of honesty, with an unflinchingly open account of her life during this time, from her insecurities and anxieties to her brief moments of elation and love. It can sometimes be difficult for creators, particularly younger creators, to handle this kind of autobiographical storytelling without things feeling self-indulgent or overly melodramatic, but Walden strikes the balance beautifully here, letting the remarkable – yet also frequently unremarkable – aspects of her life story do the heavy lifting.
Visually, Walden’s abilities should need no introduction, and she opts for a familiar two-colour approach here. There’s a stripped-down simplicity to her linework that really helps to keep the story flowing smoothly, but this simplicity belies an impressive mastery of comicbook structure, with cleverly laid out panels and a wonderful sense of storyline momentum as we shift from smaller to larger panels and back again.
There’s a particularly powerful sequence which comes following one of the more traumatic moments in young Tillie’s life, where she shifts from the familiar multi-panel pages to a series of splash pages. The effect is startling, beautifully illustrating her ‘stepping back; and ‘switching off’ from her day-to-day life in the wake of what happened, adjusting her role from active participant to disinterested passenger. It’s an effect that only the medium of comics can truly replicate, and Walden utilises it beautifully.
If you’re familiar with Walden’s previous work on the likes of ‘I Love This Part’, or ‘The End of Summer’, this should be viewed as an automatic purchase. Twenty years from now, we’ll all be looking back and smiling as we remember the first time we read one of Tillie Walden’s books, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of that experience yet, well, Spinning is the perfect place to start. Moving, thought-provoking, and unflinchingly honest throughout, this powerful coming of age story comes highly recommended.