Review: Are You Listening? (First Second)

This years award for ‘graphic-novel-we-really-should-have-read-sooner’ goes to Tillie Walden’s Are You Listening? A thoughtful and powerful road story of two young women travelling through Texas with a supernatural cat.

Publisher: First Second
Writer: Tillie Walden
Artist: Tillie Walden
Price: £19.06 from Amazon

As long time fans of Tillie Walden’s work (stretching back to I Love This Part), you’d think we’d be all over this new piece of work. However it slipped through our net as is being released via First Second Press rather than her former publishers SelfMadeHero (Spinning) or Avery Hill (On A Sunbeam). So now is the time to rectify this, as Are You Listening? is another tour de force read from one of indie comics most exciting creators, and this is definitely a continuation of the glorious work that we have seen in her previous books.

Are You Listening? begins with young hitchhiker called Bea bumping into fellow traveller Lou in a gas station. Lou knows Bea’s family and guesses that she is running away from home and so offers to help her – if only to try and encourage her to return home. After initial uncertainty the pair develop a strong friendship as they travel the highways of West Texas, and this bond is strengthened via the discovery of a cat (who Bea names Diamond) and the pair set out to return her to the mysterious town of West.

While this latter development gives the book a slightly fantastical quest element, at it’s heart Are You Listening? is a classic road movie with the story alternating between epic Texan locations and intimate moments based in cars, motels and truck stops. Like most great travelling stories it’s more about the journey that the destination and the blossoming relationship between Bea and Lou is the emotional core of the story. As with her previous work Tillie has an amazing ability to write very subtle but emotionally real relationships between two young women.

Bea is running away from an incident at home (which is revealed in a really powerful moment later in the book) as well as struggling with her identity and sexuality (a common theme in Tillie’s work). Meanwhile Lou is coping with the loss of her mother and also looking to escape from her small town up bringing, but in less dramatic fashion. This shared vulnerability sees the two create a relationship which is part friendship and part sisterly/maternal love with Lou taking care of the vulnerable Bea. With both confessing to being gay it hints at a potential romance, but Tillie avoids taking the characters down this avenue and the story is much richer as a result. Not all ‘love stories’ need to be about romantic love, and Lou and Bea are still able to foster a really beautiful and very emotionally genuine relationship as a result.

Visually the story is outstanding, with Walden juxtaposing the cramped confines of car based conversations with some epic Texan vistas. While this mix of talking heads and epic landscapes is a familiar concept from books like On A Sunbeam and A City Inside, in Are you Listening? the landscapes are very much based in the real world. However, thanks to Tille’s beautiful eye for shapes and colour she manages to make them feel ethereal and otherworldly at the same time. Certainly by setting the story in her native Texas you can see Tillie make the most of these familiar landscapes and making them a fourth character in this wonderful story.

Our only negative about the whole book is that it is very dark in places, making some of the images not leap out as much as they could. It also meant that at time the differentiation between the two lead characters wasn’t always obvious and so following which character was talking was a bit tricky in a few places.

These are only minor points and this is another wondrous read from Tillie. If you have already discovered her work like Spinning or On A Sunbeam then this will feel really familiar and like a continuation of both of those books, and if you are new then this is a great starting point.

What makes this books great for long term fans though is seeing Tille’s confidence and scale of story telling growing more confident and ambitious with every new work. The relationships have always been a strength and continue to be, but the mix of realism with only a hint of fantasy makes this into a really mature read. While the content may not feel as ambitious as On A Sunbeam, or as personal as Spinning, the way Tillie has moved into new territory with this story is just as admirable. It would have been easy for her to just write more fantastic space stories or ethereal personal musings, and this feels like a very accomplished book from a creator who is at the very top of their game.