Gabrielle Bellot on the Dreamy, Queer Beauty of On a Sunbeam
The Moody, Women-Centered Graphic Novel Space Opera
We Need Right Now
Sometimes, you come across a piece of art that lingers. You can’t stop looking at it, reading it, thinking about it, the first time you dive into it; later, it comes back to you, and it makes you smile. You don’t remember it for its simplistic shock value; it shocks you, instead, in a quieter way, because it has formed a connection, a relationship, with you. We care about people when we view them as more than objects, when we, in other words, forge a relationship with them; meaningful art, too, works like this, in that we form a connection with the art that matters to us the most, and it ceases to be simply a book or painting or composition, but becomes, instead, something we interact with, love, hate, emote towards.
For Susan Sontag, photography created a relationship between photographer, viewer, and world; for Borges, the universe was a grand library; for Kenneth Burke, to write is itself to enter a conversation that has begun in a room long before you entered, like walking late into a parlor, where a heated discussion has already started, and the only way to join in is to listen, until you’re caught up, to do, in other words, what relationships require: paying attention. Good art creates a relationship between itself and its perceiver, such that the perceiver becomes something more. As Martin Buber and Eleanor Catton argued in their own ways—the Jewish philosopher in his most popular book, I and Thou, and the Kiwi novelist in a striking essay I’ve taught many times, “On Literature and Elitism”—we live more powerfully when we treat the world and its art around us as potential relationships willing to form.
I felt this when I read Tillie Walden’s gorgeous graphic novel, On a Sunbeam. When I first read it months ago, even before I was halfway done, I found myself wanting to tell everyone about it: the deep dreamlike color schemes that fill the pages and signify both the atmospheres of places and the atmospheres inside her characters; the fact that, for one of the first times in reading a piece of SFF, I felt that someone like me was the norm in the world of the text rather than being represented by one token figure, if that at all, for women and non-binary characters form the cast of characters, and queer relationships are commonplace.
The atmospherics are mesmeric; they alternate between deep moody blues, contemplative purples, soft oranges as much autumnal as vespertine, speleological interstellar blacks that feel palpably empty, or womblike, or tomblike. It is a story painted by someone who understands the language of the rain at night, who understands the feeling of being alone in a crowd, who understands the many meanings of blue as solitude and sea-deep-profundity and ice, and the witchery and chicanery of purples, and oranges as the warmth of body to body, razing blaze, deserts equally worlds of life and worlds of xeric absence. The comic felt like a meditative space. It was like meeting something, someone. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt like an experience to remember.On a Sunbeam gives us that city, or cosmos, of women and non-binary people, made extraordinary by virtue of its sheer ordinariness.
The comic follows Mia, a young girl sent to work with an interplanetary construction crew that repairs buildings and sites across space. The crew is led by an interracial lesbian couple, Char and Alma, who have a strong bond but also have to work through a number of issues over the course of the book; the other two crewmembers, who are closer to Mia’s age, are Ell (short for Elliot), a non-speaking non-binary “mechanical genius,” and Jules, a rambunctious girl whose loudness ludically offsets Ell’s silence. (Stephanie Burt, in a New Yorker review, speculates that Ell is autistic; this may indeed be the case, but I think Ell may be silent for other reasons, and I would rather not apply this label to the character with Burt’s casualness.) The environments are alive; even their ship looks piscine, a fish swimming between the stars. The characters feel real. No one is a romanticized image of perfection or tortured sadness.
Part of the narrative explores Mia’s past in a space academy, where she met her girlfriend, Grace, before Grace was forced to leave the school. Grace’s memory haunts Mia, and Grace, we learn eventually, also still thinks of Mia. In the final third of the book, Walden expands on Ell’s past, when the crew goes to a dangerous region of space in search of Grace as an act of kindness to Mia, a momentous work-impacting decision that causes a rift between Char and Alma. If the previous worlds were softly dreamlike, this final world is outright fantastical, complete with fiery fox spirits. The pacing occasionally feels rushed and chaotic in this final area, but the emotional stakes feel real.
Walden’s sixth book of sequential art—preceded by the award-winning autobiographical comic, Spinning—On a Sunbeam draws heavily on the visual possibilities of comics. At times, it reminded me of queer webcomics, like Melanie Gillman’s As the Crow Flies, that, in their most evocative panels, conjured up at an internal atmosphere through its outward one: its characters’ faces, the silhouettes of plants, shadows. One of the worlds in On a Sunbeam even faintly reminded me of George Herriman’s surreal planetary landscapes in his great comic, Krazy Kat (and both Walden’s and Herriman’s comics, while tonally very different, tell stories of unrequited love, the latter through the feline Krazy’s oft-fruitless quest to have the mouse Ignatz accept their love, Krazy’s gender fluidity imparting an obvious queerness to Herriman’s text).
The comic’s world is populated entirely with women and non-binary characters; no one who explicitly identifies as male is present. In this way, it joins a long tradition. The first woman of the Middle Ages to earl her living from the pen, the Italian-born Frenchwoman Christine de Pizan, envisioned in her monumental, subversive 15th-century work, The City of Ladies, a city built and peopled by extraordinary women from past and present, as women were so often lambasted by the great male authors she had been taught to revere, if women were not left out altogether; all the same, she could not fully imagine a world without men and even composed manuals of manners entreating women to learn ladylike etiquette around men. Still, The City of Ladies was astonishing for its time.
In 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a jungle utopia where women lived without men; William Moulton Marston’s Wonder Woman comics, the titular character of which first appeared in 1941, introduced readers to a character who had come from an island populated only by women (and, as later writers of the comic, like Greg Ruthka, made explicit, it was the norm for women there to fall in love with other women). Centuries after de Pizan, books like On a Sunbeam give us that city, or cosmos, of women and non-binary people, made extraordinary by virtue of its sheer ordinariness.
By contrast, many science fiction stories in the early 20th century featured worlds largely or entirely bereft of women—and certain authors endorsed this, arguing that putting women in stories would reduce the tales to “mush” or “slop” or “romance,” misdirecting the tough male explorers and scientists from their manly pursuits. (The men, of course, were straight and white.) Comics arguably paved the way for greater gender parity in the genre following WWII, like Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella and—one of my favorites—Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ Valérian and Laureline, the latter of which features Laureline, a confident, powerful, vulnerable woman who travels with her partner, Valerian, through space and time to combat crime. These texts were often ironically written by white men, and so I relished, too, the Caribbean and African-American women who worked within the genre at a time when few female SFF writers achieved prominence, like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson.
On a Sunbeam draws from this long tradition, yet goes beyond it, all the same, in its total centering of women and non-binary figures. It shows a range of queer women, too: femme, butch, white, brown, black. And the text makes no mention of its dearth of men. Perhaps there are trans or cis men in a crowd who don’t speak up, or perhaps they exist elsewhere, in another sand grain of the universe. Either way, the story works without them. The queer dynamics simply exist, allowing queerness to feel natural, yet exceptional—the latter because it still feels so stunning to read such a book.
Walden agrees. When asked by Mallory Yu if reading a queer comic like her own coming-of-age-and-coming-out tale, Spinning, Walden was emphatic. “It would have changed my life,” she replied. “If I’d read something like that at 13, I would have quit skating, cut my hair, grabbed the hand of the girl I liked . . . really! I was always on the cusp of being myself. I have quite a spirit in me, I was so close. I just needed one nudge. One person, or one book, to say ‘It’s okay, you can stop being an ice skater. You can be a lesbian. And you’re going to be okay.’” Those who have never felt the need to be represented because they are the representational norm often fail to grasp this. When you never see people like you in the media you consume, you come to feel isolated, like the opportunities granted to the people you do see do not, or should not, apply to you. You may even feel, if you grow up somewhere small and repressed enough, that you are the only one of your tribe, that no one else is like you. I felt this; it took years to untangle that lonely blue pain.
On a Sunbeam has often been described as science fiction, but it’s closer to scientific fantasy, or what Ursula Le Guin memorably described, in a conversation with Margaret Atwood, as “fantasies, with spaceships.” It is perhaps the closest to a moody space opera, a cosmic spelunking into the self. Walden has little interest here in the rules of the cosmos; people walk, with hardly a concern, onto new planets without worrying about differing atmospheres or gravitational strengths. Instead, space functions here as an emotional plane. “I love having characters go through challenges, then learn to live with them, and let their desires grow and change,” she told Yu. “Space was the right place for this kind of dynamic simply because it’s so vast and mysterious. Space isn’t simple, it’s endless—like the way our need to be loved is endless.” Yes, indeed.
For Whitman, art mattered because “you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse,” as he wrote in in “O Me! O Life.” Art exists not to engender change or empathy (though it can and ideally will do both), but because we exist, and we do not do well on the long beach of loneliness, do not do well without relationships of some kind. Art, as relationship, saves us by giving us something to hold onto, not perfect, and even ugly and inexplicable and scary, but beautiful, somehow, in spite of that. In that way, it’s a lot like love.
On a Sunbeam is one of those books I’d been waiting for, without fully knowing I was waiting for it.