Since releasing her debut comic The End of Summer in 2015, Tillie Walden has become one of the most prolific, influential, and awarded cartoonists of our time. She’s created some of the most affecting and powerful comics of this century, from her sprawling queer science fiction epic On a Sunbeam to the intimate autobiography of Spinning.
In that same span, comics and graphic novels about queer people — especially YA titles — have become ever more prominent and popular. In 2021 book shops sold 30,698,081 comics, more than 2019 and 2020 combined. That means more people than ever are buying and reading comics. Over the years, queer graphic novel bestsellers like This One Summer, Gender Queer, The Witch Boy, and They Called Us Enemy have began to appear on the bestseller list with more regularity.
Webcomics have long been a space for queer stories, but the massive Kickstarter success of Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! — the second volume of which went on to become an NYT bestseller — paved the way for even more queer stories, including the massive print success of Webtoons like Lore Olympus (featuring multiple queer characters) and Heartstopper (gay romance), NYT bestsellers both. Beyond literary publishers and webcomics, DC Comics has published an abundance of DC original graphic novels which have examined, celebrated, and highlighted queer heroes in a way that we’ve rarely seen in the main universes of big two comics.
And it’s not a stretch to say that Walden and her catalog have played a key part in this landscape. With the upcoming release of Clementine: Book One, Walden steps into a new world: long-form licensed comics. She talks about taking on the fan-favorite character from Telltale’s Walking Dead video games, her growth alongside the comics industry, and what’s changed since then.
Speaking to Walden over Zoom, her passion for the medium is as clear as her talent. Although, if it wasn’t for two of comics’ most influential figures, we may not have gotten Walden or her comics. Her love affair with the medium began after finding a copy of Buddha by Osamu Tezuka in a New Jersey used-book store while on a visit with her dad. “I loved it!” Walden exclaimed. “When I saw Buddha — the simple line art, the beautiful story, these beautifully rendered backgrounds, and there were also some cute ladies, kids, and adults, and trauma and religion — it just tapped into something deep inside of me.”
Like many of us, manga became her key to unlocking comics, shōnen stories like Dragon Ball Z and YuYu Hakusho were some of Walden’s faves. “Interestingly, I never read a lot of shoujo,” she said. “I’m always curious if other lesbians found shoujo, because shōnen really worked for me and I was a tomboy. But I also think I would have loved shoujo if I’d found it sooner.” And as a teacher at the Center for Cartoon Studies — from where she also graduated — Walden teaches a large shoujo assignment, which has impressed its influence and impact on her. However, she does say with a chuckle that readers shouldn’t expect to see too much of that influence in Clementine.
After Tezuka, the second major influence on bringing Walden to comics was Scott McCloud when, at 16, she attended a workshop with the famed author of Understanding Comics. His kindness and encouragement made a fine art-fatigued Walden decide comics was the route for her. “It was an amazing class,” she said. “And at the end of it, Scott said, ‘I think you’re good at this. I think you should keep it up, kid.’ I was so touched by his encouragement because I was not good at comics. I have since looked at the comic. Not a hint of talent in there. But I was earnest, I cared, and I was young. And he put his belief in me because he was a good teacher and you always put your belief in your students regardless of where they’re at.” It was a life-changing moment. “I went home and started making comics and never stopped.”
In just seven years, Walden has released six graphic novels and a kids’ picture book, she’s won three Ignatz awards, two Eisners, and an LA Times book prize as well as being nominated for many more — and for good reason. Walden’s work feels unique in the way in which her characters are given space to grow, breathe, and live. “There’s something weirdly radical for queer people being allowed to take your time and take your space without saying why you deserve to be here or making the most of it or making it dramatic or making it sad,” Walden said. “It’s funny, I don’t always love reading books at that pace, but I love making books at that pace.”
To those who read them, Walden’s in-depth explorations of love, the cosmos, or coming-of-age can feel achingly cool thanks to her striking illustration skills and unique choices, but she’s quick to contradict that notion: “I’m not cool! I’ve never been cool!” But with the upcoming release of Clementine: Book One, that might all be about to change. Still, taking on the high-profile queer video game character felt didn’t feel like a gear shift for Walden. “For me, it felt very natural.”
Clementine was first introduced in “A New Day,” episode 1 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One. Only 8 years old when the zombie apocalypse began, she’s a child who’s grown up with the Walkers, and that dark past has informed her journey as an efficient killer and badass survivor. In The Walking Dead: The Final Season, Clementine was confirmed as queer when players were able to choose whether she could have a relationship with a boy or girl. It was a move that meant a lot to many fans.
Walden felt right at home bringing Clementine’s queerness to the page, but another aspect of the character offered more of a challenge in research and listening. In the final game in Telltale’s series, a teenage Clementine lost part of her left leg to a Walker bite. “I’ve talked to a lot of people to learn about life as a unilateral below-the-knee amputee,” she explained, “because it really is a different experience for her and how she goes through the world.”
As far as Clemetine’s queerness, for Walden it was both natural and full of exciting potential. “My own experiences of my own trauma have helped inform it and that’s been fun. It’s also been really fun to think about what it’s like to be this queer person in a world that is so new and so reborn and so messed up in so many ways, but also full of so many different opportunities.”
That idea of a broken world that could become a better one is key to the appeal of zombie storytelling and dystopian fiction in general. “I think it’s a very weird fantasy to be like, I am here at the end of the world and I get to remake the world in my own image now, I get to choose who I’m with, which is really, really special,” Walden shared. It’s an idea that also resonates in terms of the unexpected accessibility of The Walking Dead. “There have been some papers written about how the Walking Dead universe is actually a really interesting commentary on how the world could sort of remake itself to accommodate the sheer amount of disability that would show up because of the mechanics of how Walker bites work.” It’s a great point and an idea that Walden is keen to continue exploring in Clementine: Book One and beyond.
One of the angles of Walden’s take that has caused the most controversy online has been allowing Clementine to exist outside of the badass characteristics that have come to define her. “I thought a lot about how tough Clementine was in the games and how that made her such an inspiring and relatable character,” Walden said. “But when she came to me, I saw all that toughness and was like, Now her next badass step is to cope or let it mess her up, let it wreck her, because that’s what it does. And then learn to heal from that.”
The intricate black-and-white graphic novel does just that. And in that way, it feels incredibly similar to what made The Walking Dead so popular. We still get to see Clementine killing Walkers in an efficient and brutal fashion, but she also — like every key character in the series — has to struggle to keep her humanity amongst all the death and decay. “It’s such a natural progression, I think, for a child of the apocalypse to go from feeling invincible to eventually beginning to feel your mortality and your past, especially when things slow down.”
Just as Clementine has grown up in the unexpected world of the zombie apocalypse, Walden has had the rare experience of growing up in the comics industry. So as queer stories have become more prevalent and mainstream at every level of publishing, does Walden feel like she’s seen a change in the way queer stories are treated in comics? “I feel like it has changed,’’ Walden said. “I feel like maybe six years ago there was much more of an emphasis on coming out.”
Another thing that’s changed is who’s getting to make those comics and get paid to do so. “I also think that the queer graphic novels we were seeing were predominantly white creators. I think that’s changing now. We’re getting queer stories from all queer people.”
She continued, “I do think there’s still a pressure and a tendency for a lot of queer comics to focus on pain. Of course people will still want to write about their pain and they should, but I feel like I’m beginning to see a trend of people who are queer but go on an adventure unrelated to their queerness.” That leads into one of Walden’s biggest wishes for the industry as it moves forward. “I hope that publishers are starting to realize that they don’t have to hire a person of color or queer person to just tell a story about their marginalization. They should just hire them and let them do whatever fuckin’ story they want to.”
While those changes are steps in the right direction, Walden still feels there’s a way to go. She recalls times that she felt was approached simply to tick a box. And while she doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to be perfect, she does have ideas for how it could be better. “I think the next step is getting more queer people and people of color who work in publishing, which is extremely predominantly straight and cisgender and white.”
Still, though, she feels hopeful. “I’ve seen so much progress. I couldn’t be happier to be a cartoonist right now. I’ve never had anyone stop me from doing what I really wanted to do in my stories, but it’s always this push and pull of, ‘We’ve come so far and we have so far to go.’”
As a queer creator, Walden’s hopes for the future of the comics industry speak to the wider issues in the industry, like a lack of distribution options for indie comics. “There are all these amazing comics I see that can’t get into bookstores, So now it’s all about how we get these comics in more people’s hands.” There’s some hope, though, as Walden reminds us that “webcomics have been huge for that!”
The other thing on her mind is a matter of survival, and one that has plagued the comics industry since its inception. Despite the landscape changing enough that queer cartoonists like Walden, Wendy Xu, and Bianca Xunise can get six-figure deals, the time limits put on them can be unrealistic. And then there’s the issue of healthcare and stability. “There’s no system in place for my publishers to actually be my employer,” Walden explained. That means no health care, no benefits, no paid holiday leave or support outside of the agreed payments for the work done.
“I’ve talked to other cartoonists who have families and who take these next steps in life, and how the strain can really start to show. We make this money doing these comics, and it’s one thing when you’re single and young and healthy, and doing OK, but as time goes on, it’s like, What is comics giving back to us? It’s something I really struggle with, because my wife and I really want a family but it’s like, How are we going to support them with this?”
She continued, “Getting your books out there — when they sell, that’s great. But it still feels like comics is a career without much of a safety net. And as more people come into this career that didn’t have access to it before, I sometimes feel a little bit like these big book deals are misleading because it calms people down, making them think that we’re supported. In a lot of other ways, this is a very difficult job with very little support.”
So with all of the industry talk done, how does she feel now Clementine is almost out in the world? “I’m excited!” Walden said. “I’m excited for people — and teens, especially — who don’t like zombies or don’t really know or like The Walking Dead to have a chance to engage with it and to have a chance to feel like this genre of post-apocalyptic stories is actually really fertile and interesting ground for them too.”
Clementine: Book One is now available at comic book shops and digital platforms and will be available everywhere else books are sold on June 28.