Tillie Walden is one of the youngest celebrated cartoonists currently working. Her comics have been acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Her first three books, published by Avery Hill, have garnered her two Ignatz wins and an Eisner nomination. Her longest work to date, Spinning is a 400-page memoir of her life starting at age 12 and moving into her late teens. A large part of that time was her participation in competitive ice skating, in both the individual and synchronized aspects of the sport. But the memoir also touches on the bullying and harassment she dealt with as a teen, her sexuality, her first girlfriend, and coming out to her friends and family.
Walden’s illustration throughout the book is lovely and wistful. The two-tone construction matches Walden’s certain line and eye for page composition. The dark purple ink emphasizes the emotional tone of the book, with yellow spot tone to highlight dramatic moments and direct the eye. Walden’s pacing is quite strong, and there are some stretches that seem masterful. It was hard not to be impressed watching skaters sink into great white panels, while in other sections, the number of panels per page explodes into over-tight grids, mirroring the perfection Walden is demanding from her body during competitive skating.
The storytelling has an intense melancholy to it. Walden’s storytelling is wide, almost stream of consciousness in its flow. It’s clear that in some specific cases, we see Walden touch the surface on a few things that have had a huge impact on her life. Seminal moments that seem soul crushing get a quick mention and then it’s off to the next big thing. There are some gut punches in this book that disappear almost as soon as they surface. One moment, where her twin brother tells her he thinks that being gay is wrong, hit me like a truck. But Walden drifts away from that moment; it’s a bullet point on a list of things that happened when she came out. The distance of Walden’s writing from that moment protects both the reader and Walden from what was certainly a moment of great hardship and despair.
Walden’s focus on figure skating is sure to resonate with anyone who has demanded perfection from themselves in a high stress competitive environment, but I think the skating is more or less the set dressing for a story of Walden’s emotional growth. We see her using friends, coaches, and teachers as emotional bastions or sources of validation, and we see how, long term, that hurts her and them. She’s not able to quit doing something she hates because she’s locked up and afraid, and when she finally is able, she’s angry at how easy it was.
Memoir is often telling a story from a time in a life, but the topics that Walden attends to in Spinning feel impossibly broad, and the book feels very big and open. That is something of a hindrance as the book ends. There’s no clean conclusion, there’s no strong sense of finality, just a lingering sense of sadness and a bitter nostalgia. If the back matter is any indication, it seems like Walden is fine with this, and honestly it feels like the book couldn’t end in any truly structured way. It’s too big to handle something so pat and dried.
Spinning was a compelling read, and Walden’s talent as a cartoonist is on full display. I couldn’t put it down, and I’m still left with that same sense of melancholy that the book is full to the gills with. Walden is a strong communicator and an excellent cartoonist. But Spinning’s greatest strength is, depending on your point of view, also its greatest weakness. By staying at 40,000 feet, Walden’s writing dilutes some of the more impactful emotional beats. That distance also keeps Walden at arms-length from the reader.
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