There are interesting layers of meaning to the word “soft”. In one sense, it can mean comfortable, inviting, pleasant to touch. In another, it conveys instead looseness, a lack of structure, or a yielding quality. These connotations have an unspoken gendered quality to them – “soft” is code, in so many ways, for “feminine”, and whether something being soft is a good or bad thing betrays much about the speaker’s attitude towards femininity. As a case in point, whenever a dude dismisses something as “soft scifi”, I get the sense that he prefers scifi that follows strict rules, that doesn’t deviate from real-world scientific theories, that dispenses with ooey-gooey trivialities like “romance” and “feelings”, and that he would call these things “hard scifi”.
Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam is not for that guy. This is a comic that is proud of its softness, and with good reason. A story of young love, boarding school, construction work, and leaving the small town you grew up in, Sunbeam feels in many ways like something familiar. But set against a backdrop of spinning stars in the void of space, familiar elements take on strange and wondrous new life.
Mia is fresh out of high school when she gets a job doing deep-space building restoration, joining a crew consisting of curt foreman Alma, shy captain Char, silent technician Elliot, and ebullient iconoclast Jules, travelling in a koi-shaped starship to fix up old buildings free-floating out in the abyss. It’s a lush and dreamlike setting peppered with beautiful and inexplicable background elements and following a set of rules that only Walden knows. Windows open harmlessly to space, train tracks stretch between planets, gigantic cats play and hunt among the stars, and gravity doesn’t exist except when it does. It’s delicious and odd and I’ve never seen its like.
But as bizarre as the imagery might be to a reader, for Mia fixing up the abandoned temple of a forgotten space religion is just a regular blue-collar job, and we get the sense that she found herself here because it was her only option – though exactly what bridges she burned to end up here are left mysterious. Whatever her mistakes, the bond she forms with her new teammates allows her to forget them… for a time.
And here the narrative splits, flashing back to Mia’s freshman year at Cleary’s School for Girls, a facsimile of a prototypical earthbound boarding school but transposed to the vastness of space. Here we begin to see how Mia might’ve fucked things for herself: she’s a whip-tongued rulebreaker, an abrasive peer, and a mediocre student. She’s also fierce, stubborn, loyal and driven—but not always in constructive ways. When she meets the quiet, studious Grace in detention, the two girls begin to form a stuttering friendship that’s as familiar as your own awkward memories of middle school. Mia sees in Grace a kindred spirit—a fellow delinquent—but Grace’s rebellion is still, purposeful, and hidden under her serious mien, so she scorns Mia’s attention. At first.
The dynamic between the two girls and their slowly blossoming love is at once joyous and painful to watch, because it’s interrupted by regular flash-forwards to Mia’s present, a time when Grace is nowhere to be seen. What happened? How fresh is that heartbreak? And was the breakup due to mundane incompatibility, or were they crossed by the stars?
(I’ll give you a hint: this comic has a LOT of stars.)
Sunbeam‘s quiet tone makes its scenes of action all the more immediate and urgent. We see Alma and Char in their old job—smuggling people out of an isolated, xenophobic pseudoplanet called The Staircase, their ship pursued by horseback vigilantes. We see Cleary’s big sport, flux—a scifi calvinball played with bumper-car-sized spaceships—and we see Mia and Grace sneak into the flux stadium for an ill-fated joyride. We see Mia nearly fall to her death when she stumbles into an off-limits wing of the building they’re repairing. The way Walden renders each of these moments is so understated that they feel like slow motion, each second suspended by piano-wire tension, yet at the same time they feel sleepy, even distant, as if only a dream from which Mia is about to wake.
That, I think, is the reason On A Sunbeam speaks to me so deeply. We’ve all fucked up so bad at some point that we felt like we were stuck in a nightmare. Sunbeam is an escapist fantasy for that feeling, where our fuckups are just dreams. And maybe we can’t wake up from them, but in the end they’re not so bad. Even at our lowest point, there are people—friends, strangers, found family—who still value us, still love us, and still want to help. And even tragedies and mistakes can lead to incredible adventures.
Final Verdict: A staggering work that is at once high-minded poetry and delightful, satisfying pulp. I can’t recommend it highly enough.