“On a Sunbeam,” the Sci-Fi Comic That Reimagines Utopia
Tillie Walden is an almost shockingly young (born in 1996) comics creator who received wide attention last year for “Spinning,” a beautiful, melancholy graphic memoir about her years as a pre-teen and then teen figure skater. That book excelled in its tactful line work and use of white space; it looked neither superhero-ish nor ugly-on-purpose nor nearly realist but utterly sympathetic, with vast cold rinks and faces whose expressions you could share. “Spinning” was also a coming-out story, and a school story, and what scholars call a Künstlerroman, the story of how a young person becomes an artist—although, like most Künstlerromanen, it left unresolved the question of what she’d make next.
“On a Sunbeam” is the magnificent, sweeping, science-fictional answer. The big, densely plotted volume has all the virtues of “Spinning,” plus the scale, the sense of wonder, and the optimism intrinsic to what’s called space opera or science fantasy. (Think “Star Trek” and Starfleet Academy.) As with “Spinning,” it can be hard to equal in prose the comic’s inviting, spare line work, use of black-and-white, and expressive qualities. (Walden can make one pen stroke on one character’s face equal two pages of dialogue.) “On a Sunbeam” is at once a queer coming-of-age story, a story about how to salvage lost love and youth, and a multigenerational story about how to thrive in a society that does not understand who you are or what you can do. It is the kind of story that adults can and should give to queer teens, and to autistic teens, and to teens who care for space exploration, or civil engineering, or cross-cultural communication. It is also a story for adults who were once like those teens, and the kind of story (like the Aeneid, but happier) whose devotees might occasionally return to it, hoping for divine advice from a randomly chosen line, or panel, or page.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “On a Sunbeam”—whose five hundred and thirty-eight pages, rendered in three colors, first appeared serially, online, where it can still be read for free—begins, like some Victorian novels, with two separate plots and settings, years apart. In the A plot, we meet three adult engineers and construction workers who fly their own fish-shaped spaceship from job to job, rebuilding and restoring architecture from their past (which is our distant future). The charismatic, impulsive Alma reports to Charlotte, their cautious commander; Elliot, “our very own mechanical genius,” is nonbinary (taking they/them pronouns) and non-speaking, like many autistic adults in our day. Formerly a trio “together for ages,” the team now has two younger employees: Jules, Alma’s voluble niece, and the anxious newbie Mia, fresh out of her space-based boarding school.
We see through Mia’s eyes, and through Walden’s pen, the comforting intimacy of their sleeping quarters, with its Teddy bears and bunk beds; the sublime ruined space cathedral and the other flying buildings they restore; and the realistic tasks that Mia and Jules slog through—hauling rubble, sharing sandwiches, and trying to “get through a whole day without turning into jelly” from overwork. We worry when Mia worries, and we have fun when she has fun. Jules puts into words the way Mia feels: “We don’t actually do this job to fix things,” she says. “We do it ’cause we get to climb and jump off stuff.”
Before she joined this close-knit crew, Mia attended an élite boarding school. This is where Walden sets her B plot, a place of crushes, mean girls, shifting rivalries, vast halls, anti-gravity stations, and a school-wide, slightly Quidditch-like sport called Lux, whose fish-shaped flight craft race and dodge through tunnels and in midair. Almost as soon as we meet Mia, she falls hard for a new and far more academically talented student named Grace, who reciprocates. Grace convinces a forbidding coach to let Mia chase her dream of playing Lux. The sport is normally off limits to first-years, but our couple won’t let that rule stop them. “We may be freshmen,” Grace declares, “but you can’t put an age limit on passion and dedication.”
“On a Sunbeam” is less like any other American comic, page by page, than it is like a film by Hayao Miyazaki. For Walden, faces and bodies are not types or dummies for action scenes but ways to convey emotion and expression, even as the backdrops—speleological, astronomical, aquatic, or forested—flourish and shine. Walden’s dialogue—never talky, but never too sparse to follow—complements her characters’ body language; it also brings out the feeling of ninth and tenth grade, when every impediment seems like an apocalypse, and every kind word like an angel’s violin. But that dialogue is also a clue to a set of cosmic mysteries that connect younger and older characters, present and backstory, A plot and B plot. Why does Charlotte’s employer distrust her? What does Elliott fear, and why can’t they go home? Can Mia and Jules adjust to life with this tightly knit, and apparently romantic, triad? Will Mia find love?
Mia has already found it, with Grace, and then lost it. Just as in “Spinning”—and in several other comics by Walden, short and long—our point-of-view character fell hard for a smart, dark-skinned girl when both were in their teens, and then that girl left, suddenly, and without much explanation. In “Spinning,” the real Walden goes on with her heartbroken life. In this much longer but equally heartbreaking epic, the school-age couple of Mia and Grace break up for far more complex reasons, and a mission to a secluded planet of volcanic tunnels and warriors with Amish hats (really) is required to rescue Grace, who may not want to be rescued.
It’s probably no coincidence that this comic, so sensitive to its characters’ feelings, is also uncommonly sensitive to newly visible identities: non-speaking autistics, people in triads, people trying to make queer romance work under pressure and across a racial divide. One identity Walden doesn’t draw: men. There are none here, and no one asks why, which means—as in earlier utopias—that all romantic love in this universe would read as queer, or gay, in ours. (Since there are no men, there are no gay men or trans men; perhaps they live on other planets, or in other books.)
Like all science-fictional utopias, “On a Sunbeam” feels imperfect, even (to quote Ursula K. Le Guin) “ambiguous.” But it also feels magnificent: it’s a world in which many readers would want to live, and a way to envision solutions to real-life problems that seem intractable now. It’s a queer love story in a universe where benevolent authorities still get things wrong; it’s also, for all its spacecraft and planets and xenogeology and (eventually) aliens, a story that purists might label not as science fiction but as science fantasy. But such genre labels—though inevitable—seem beside the point. As always for Walden, even when she is writing and drawing pilots and engineers, the point is not how things work but how people feel, and what choices they help one another make.
Comics critics and would-be comics sophisticates—especially the kind who spurn superheroes—may think we have to choose between realistic characters who experience permanent loss and change, on the one hand, and escape, sublimity, and sheer wonder, on the other. Those sophisticates are wrong. “On a Sunbeam” is not the first American science-fiction comic to say so (consider “Finder,” or “Saga”), but it may be the most consistently beautiful, the most self-assured, the one with the best love story, and the one most vaultingly effective in its transitions between small-scale and large, between the deadly caverns under an exoplanet’s mountain and the look on a hopeful girl’s face.