Tillie Walden is an unstoppable force in comics. At only 23, she’s one of the youngest Eisner Award winners ever, and for the past three years, Walden has been responsible for some of the most heartfelt and striking graphic novels to hit stands. Each of Walden’s First Second releases—the graphic memoir Spinning, sci-fi coming-of-age story On A Sunbeam, and surreal road trip drama Are You Listening?—have drastically different narratives, but they are united by Walden’s distinct perspective, blending dreamy visuals with hard-hitting stories about the challenges of growing up. In Are You Listening? (First Second), that challenge is pushing past trauma, spotlighting two queer women who find each other at a time when they’re both working through overwhelming pain.
While running away from home, 18-year-old Bea runs into her 27-year-old neighbor, Lou, who is mourning the death of her mother a little over a year earlier. Bea has no method of transportation and Lou has no company on her drive to her grandmother’s house, so they embark on a road trip that becomes very strange once they find a lost cat being chased by shady workers from the Office Of Road Inquiry. With its focus on young queer women in Texas, Are You Listening? feels like a follow-up to Spinning, even though it’s not overtly autobiographical and embraces magical realism. When Lou talks about the intense productivity of her early 20s and how that changed the satisfaction she got from the activity she loved, it’s easy to interpret this as Walden expressing her own concerns about her relationship to her art as she becomes more and more prolific.
Road trips are fascinating experiences that facilitate bonding (by putting people in a confined space for a long period of time), but also aid introspection, thanks to those moments when the talking stops and you’re left alone with just your thoughts and the landscape zooming past your window. Walden is deeply in tune with this dynamic, and she always finds time for quiet pages that let the reader sit with the information revealed in Bea and Lou’s conversations. This book is filled with beautiful natural imagery, with Walden’s blend of delicate linework, thick pools of black, and vibrant coloring imbuing the landscape with a sense of mystery and wonder. The sprawl of this environment often overtakes panel borders, which helps to reinforce an ethereal atmosphere.
In the end, Are You Listening? is a story about processing pain to find a new way to push forward, and Walden is very sensitive to how readers will respond to potentially triggering material. When Bea shares the story of why she ran away from home, Walden doesn’t visualize any of the dialogue, instead focusing on the water that Bea drags her feet through. This captures how Bea tries to wipe away the details of past events, but it also puts the reader in Lou’s position, gaining no extra context for the trauma beyond what Bea tells her. The emotional impact is there, but Walden doesn’t immerse the reader in an agonizing past. Instead, she keeps the action in the present, highlighting the bravery of Bea sharing her story with another person and choosing not to suffer alone.