Tillie Walden’s magic realism draws you into her character’s past, but also up into the future

// Tillie Walden
// Tillie Walden

To be precocious without being precious? Impressive. A City Inside is already the third graphic novella from up-and-comer Tillie Walden (she’s only 20 and recently graduated from the Center of Cartoon Studies). In just 50 pages, she lowers us through one person’s caverns of escape, longing, fantasy, and pain, only to float us out into a future resolved—a place where “you’ll realize it was enough.”

In a counselor’s office, a young woman lies in a soft, beanbag-like bed, drinks some tea, closes her eyes, and sinks into her thoughts. Walden’s drawing of that bed, its patterned surface undulating around the patient, makes us feel that we’re sinking in, too, deeper and deeper, away and away . . . and then it’s not us but “you”—“you grew up in the south . . . you left when you were 15.” The second-person voice pulls us not only into this Ghibli-like world (sunlit spaces outside; cats; a house in the sky; a recurring koi motif) but up—she doesn’t move to the city but up into the sky.

What pulls her back down and how she lives after that is best left to you to discover. But Walden’s prose-poem so expressionistically expands this nameless yet so-near-to-us woman’s inner world. The captions are sparing, letting the shadow-and-light images descend, and many stand on their own, as if plucked from a storyboard for a film.

Spaces and places reflect the speaker, filling up with her thoughts and desires, like this book itself and perhaps Walden’s hope for it—“its open spaces waiting for you to fill them up with everything you have.” In the metropolis that the woman doesn’t like, commuters are cross-hatched with shadow; two panels later, she’s rising through the clouds, her short hair blowing a little across her face in the wind. There’s a magic-realism sensibility here but also a picture-book immediacy, as when Sendak’s panels in Where The Wild Things Are expand, Max entering the kingdom he’ll make his own before returning home. In Walden’s short but deep-lived book, though, the spaces are so potently rendered that they become places for us to move into for a while, look around, and wonder.


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