On a Sunbeam
First Second (US), Avery Hill (UK)
October 2, 2018
In Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, kids go to school in giant floating buildings. The world is awash in rusty reds, sunny yellows, and dusky blues, and construction workers fly from world to world in spaceships that look like fish. People are more important than propriety, and family has very little to do with blood. And there isn’t a man in the whole story. Not a single goddamn one.
On a Sunbeam is a glorious sci-fi adventure story in which the very concept of masculinity just isn’t important. Mia, the protagonist, starts out as a twitchy, frustrated teenage girl. All the students we meet in her school are also girls. She’s got two moms (and the only parents we ever hear about are also moms), and the construction crew she lands on after high school is made up of three women and a nonbinary twenty-something. We don’t see any men, no one talks about them, and “he” is not a pronoun that comes up. Whether or not men exist in On a Sunbeam’s world is irrelevant, because even if they do, this story isn’t about them.
That’s not to say gender is irrelevant, though. The women in On a Sunbeam are purposefully women, and to be a woman is not the only option. Elliot, one of the people on Mia’s construction crew, is nonbinary, and their pronouns are established immediately and decisively. This is a story about people, and none of those people happen to be men.
On a Sunbeam’s utter lack of men is so wordlessly effective I feel I’m doing Walden’s world a disservice by stating it explicitly. But it’s that wordlessness I feel compelled to talk about: what Walden has accomplished with this five-hundred page brick of a book is the revolutionary act of rejecting a paradigm by simply refusing to acknowledge its existence. The result is a book that reflects the safety I feel when writing for WWAC and our sister site Sidequest: a comfort in knowing that here, at least, you are among peers and can let the pressure of being compared to the men melt away.
All of this is not to say that the book is perfect, idyllic, or free of error or weird gender politics. There’s something unsettling about the one nonbinary character choosing not, or not being able, to talk for the vast majority of the story, and Elliot fits the easy mold of white, slim, short-haired nonbinary person. But Elliot is comfortable in their skin, and their crew respects their identity as if they’ve never considered doing anything else. On top of that, when a character in a position of authority has the gall and disrespect to misgender Elliot, another member of the crew jumps to defend them. Elliot’s presence, and the way Walden treats them within the narrative, made me (an admittedly white, slim, short-haired nonbinary person) feel included in a way I absolutely never have in mass-market fiction before.
Content Warning: Misgendering (followed by a defense of the person being misgendered) in the image below.
Even beyond gender, On a Sunbeam’s world is remarkably easy to just drop into. There’s plenty of exposition as we follow Mia through her life and across space—we need to learn the history of the Staircase, a dangerous planet in deep space, and Walden is quick to spell out Elliot’s pronouns and identity—but anything not strictly relevant to the plot is typically left unsaid. The unstated worldbuilding isn’t unimportant, it just is: if the characters don’t think something is extraordinary, they don’t comment explicitly on it.
This approach to worldbuilding is, of course, how I got 100 pages into the original webcomic before realizing everyone in it spends all their time in engine-powered buildings, and I kept seeing floating fish, because those are the spaceships, duh. The characters never questioned it, so I didn’t, and I didn’t have to fully understand the world to follow the story.
There are times, though, when too much goes unsaid. On a Sunbeam is built around Mia’s relationship with her high school sweetheart, Grace, and their journey of meeting, getting dragged apart, and trying to meet again. The characters’ stories are tied together by wildly implausible decisions, many of which involve following incredibly dangerous paths in the interest of goals which, to me, seem a lot like whims. Characters’ decisions at key moments often had me squinting at my book due to the disparity between the things characters wanted to do and the absurd effort they needed to put in to do them; it was easy for me to take the fantastic sci-fi world at face value, but I needed more explanation for why Mia’s crew prioritized her finding closure so much more than their basic physical and legal safety (although writing that makes me feel like the Grinch).
Even so, the main characters’ willingness to make massive sacrifices for each others’ whims was surprisingly consistent: in this world, or maybe just for these characters, actions taken in the interest of love seem to carry much, much more weight than they do in my reality. Logistical feasibility is a lot less important to On a Sunbeam than a character’s will to do something, and the interesting parts of the story come from the consequences and conclusions of the characters’ incomprehensible decisions.
On a Sunbeam is built out of a brilliant limited palette, with heavy blacks and expanses of bright color. Early on, Walden uses restricted, almost monochrome palettes to set up different settings (Mia’s boarding school, Cleary’s, is blue; the site of the first restoration job Mia works is red), but as the book unfolds the palettes intermingle: reds appear at Cleary’s, and blues leak onto Mia’s crew’s ship; yellows and oranges explode into climactic scenes. Walden establishes color rules and breaks them incredibly effectively, creating some of the most visually arresting work I’ve seen since Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire’s pages in the second volume of Pretty Deadly.
Walden’s character designs are very much an exercise in similar, but different: their faces and body types are largely the same, which when combined with the limited palette could make it difficult to tell the short-haired, lighter-skinned characters apart. Most of the time, though, characters were easy to track. Between different hairstyles, skin tones, and distinctly different voices, it’s easy to imagine each character as a different, fully formed person, their similarities are caused by Walden’s abstracted art style. That said, the homogeneity in body type is a pretty notable issue. Regardless of “style,” it’s not great to spend five hundred pages in a world where the only shape people come in seems to be “ambiguously slim.”
As a whole, On a Sunbeam is ethereal, gentle, and just a little bit confusing. Walden’s swiftly drawn pages and sometimes scrawled hand lettering create a comic that feels incredibly organic and, in some softly outlandish way, true. It isn’t free of weird issues (e.g., Elliot’s muteness), but without trying to excuse those, Walden’s stories land for me in a way few do. I hope she hears critique—on nonbinary representation, on body diversity, on anything related to the inclusivity of her stories—and considers it, and learns. Given the number and kinds of things On a Sunbeam felt like it did right, it’s hard for me to imagine she won’t.
On a Sunbeam is beautiful and strange, and has captured me in a way that I’ve found incredibly difficult to explain. If you feel lost, or have ever felt lost, read it. It might help bring you back home.