Tillie Walden’s webcomic On A Sunbeam has always been carefully invested in creating and developing structure, in every aspect of its narrative. It’s also been a huge exploratory exercise in rebuilding the sci-fi genre and bringing in a sense of place and location to the wide, desolate vast space of the galaxy. Following an unfolding dual narrative from the perspective of a young girl called Mia at two points in her life, every new set of digital pages only served to further flourish Walden’s world with fresh, joyous imagination and life.
Keenly interested in architecture, the various buildings and natural spaces created by Walden throughout the series have spiraled ever further outwards into outer space and beyond as the story has continued on this year, creating elegant and fantastical worlds for the characters to explore, salvage, and escape — but more than that, they’ve provided Walden the opportunity to create wildly, with an incredible range of expression. Each new location is punctuated by striking colors and arrangement, taking predictable locations and twisting them into impractical, gorgeous locales for the characters to wander through as they understand themselves and each other more through their shared experiences.
Core to the series is that as the buildings and worlds grew, so did the characters; supporting each other in small but important ways which have created a foundation for Walden to weave in humor, understanding and empathy into her story. The world has developed in line with the characters of the story, taking advantage of the specific (and prolific, in Walden’s industrious case) webcomics format to carefully tangle characters together in ways which take the story in unexpected directions even as the series calmly plots the course for each new twist and turn. Structure lies at the heart of every decision of On A Sunbeam, but at the same time the series never rests on a predictable or familiar shape. There’s a regular feel of the impossible in the way Walden designs her buildings, and in the way her characters interact and grow, which brings a sense of fantasy to her science fiction.
More than anything, however, the final year of the webcomic — which will be coming to print in 2018 now that its concluded online — has really established her power to craft a comics sequence. The panels serve as ways to trap the characters as they watch each other persevere, placing them into structures both physical and internal — they build barriers in their head which Walden cements as real through her pacing of the story. The goal then is to see if the characters can restore their relationships and take down those barriers, or use them to create fresh foundations to push them forwards into something new. Outer space is often depicted as clean and sterile, a white-and-grey industrial complex with no space for imagination of natural wonder — but On A Sunbeam gleefully brimmed with life and affirmation from the very first pages produced right up to the open-door exit of the finale.
We’re in the age of the webcomic, where the very best work is being done, and On A Sunbeam capped off an inspiring free-form run with a captivating and hopeful conclusion.
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