Tillie Walden talks CLEMENTINE, optimism, and the end of the world
The newest graphic novel by Tillie Walden is out today with Clementine: Book One, which is set within The Walking Dead universe and centered around a character who has to-date mostly appeared in video games.
This is, essentially, the first major addition to The Walking Dead in comics since the main series ended in July 2019. It’s also the launch of a new YA imprint from publisher Skybound — dubbed Skybound Comet — and Walden’s first new original book since Are You Listening? hit in 2019 (not long, coincidentally, after the aforementioned end to The Walking Dead), aside from a collection of older material.
Today’s book release is, simply put, a very big deal. The Walking Dead has grown from a creator-owned comic into a veritable media empire, one of the medium’s single biggest success stories in the past two decades. Walden, meanwhile, is a critically-beloved multiple-Eisner and multiple-Ignatz award-winning cartoonist, who at not even 30 years old is already a massive star and one of the most accomplished creators in the industry.
And while The Walking Dead and Tillie Walden are perhaps not the most obvious combination, Clementine: Book One is an absolutely fantastic read, a must-read graphic novel that seems poised to appeal in equal parts to Walden’s audience as well as to fans of The Walking Dead and just zombie/survivalist fiction generally. In advance of the book’s release, Tillie Walden generously made time to speak with The Beat about how she came to work on this book, the creative choices that helped form it, and where she was able to connect this world and its pre-existing character to her own interests and her heart.
Perhaps the first thing that struck me about Clementine: Book One was all the ways it felt different from Walden’s past work. Obviously, this book is about zombies, but past that, Walden’s two most recent graphic novels use ethereal backgrounds and sort of haunting architectural styles to create original aesthetics that feel wholly new. From Clementine’s first page, this story is far more grounded in reality, coming across as almost rustic.
Walden said that while illustrating the book’s setting was initially an adjustment, it’s not ultimately as dissimilar to her other work as it may initially seem:
“In a lot of my past work, I definitely relied on the fantastical element of environments, and The Walking Dead is historically a series that is grounded in reality, which is funny to say for a book that involves so many zombies, but it is. It was a bit of an adjustment but I think I took my love of the ethereal and tried to apply it in different places. I thought a lot about how I drew the snow in the book, and how I drew the cabin they stay in. Even though I had to draw the real world, I did try to draw it in a way that felt true to how I’ve historically drawn environments.
“I still think there’s something kind of dreamy about being on a mountain, there’s something haunting about it. I live not far from where the book takes place, so I was using the world outside my window for a lot of my reference photos, which was fun because on a lot of my other projects I haven’t been able to do that.”
Speaking of that mountain setting, that was one of the foundational elements of Walden’s work on Clementine. When Skybound asked her to take on this project, Walden says part of why she said yes was that she had an idea that would let her combine the character from the video games with pieces of her own life. The mountain setting was a big part of that, given that Walden had recently moved back to Vermont after a lot of time away. She notes:
“I had never really touched this state or this environment in any of my stories. I was feeling directly inspired by coming back to Vermont, settling down here — I bought a house, I got married — I really felt like this is going to be my home for the next 30 years, 50 years, what does it feel like to live here?
“Then I merged that idea with what I know about Clementine from the games. It was an interest I had at the time, and I couldn’t think of any time in The Walking Dead they’d done a lot of mountain stuff…
“I was really enamored with the idea of what it would be like to be buried in snow without the means of the modern world. You don’t have a lot of warm clothes, there are still walkers around that are really hard to deal with, and I also think the snow creating a barrier between you and the world can be really comforting. I felt comforted by the winters in Vermont because you feel tucked away, and I wanted to see what that would be like for Clementine.”
What grew from those interest is a book that feels like it almost lives between two different survivalist genres: arctic and zombie. It’s a combination, though, that comes together seamlessly, playing to Walden’s strengths while feeling additive to The Walking Dead, as well. On top of that, Walden creates new characters for this story that are rather memorable.
One of those characters is Amos, a young man from an Amish community who is moving through The Walking Dead’s world with a positive disposition that feels inherently at odds with it. This, Walden notes, was intentional. She wanted to write a character for this book who in spite of all the awful was able to stay cheery.
“[Amos] still sort of believes there is hope in every corner, there is hope around every Walker, and I felt it would be an interesting contrast to Clementine. Even though I don’t think Clementine is a hopeless character, I think the trauma she experienced in her younger years — and we saw what that was through the games — has left her feeling like she isn’t allowed to be hopeful. So, Amos as a character was there to be not really a foil to Clementine, but to show her there is a way to walk through the world with positivity, even when positivity doesn’t actually make any sense because the world is senseless and violent.”
While Clementine: Book One is intended to be the launch title of a new YA graphic novel imprint, it certainly doesn’t feel limited to a YA audience. I think fans of any of Walden’s other books will enjoy this one as well, and I also think it will appeal to readers who have been missing new Walking Dead comics over the past few years.
There are zombies everywhere and the themes are complex and nuanced. I wanted to ask Walden about one recurring theme in particular: when to be honest about yourself and with which people. This was a theme culled from Walden’s own teenage experiences.
“When I was the age of these characters, I remember how intense the stakes felt when it came to sharing who I was with other people. Some people don’t have social anxiety, they just walk through the world and tell you their story, but I think for me and a lot of other kids around me, how we presented ourselves to others was — it almost felt like life or death sometimes. It felt really important, it felt like the consequences could be huge if I say the wrong thing or if someone misunderstands me.
I feel like for a group of teenagers who are all vastly traumatized and deeply alone because so many of them have lost so much of their families and their communities, and they’re wandering through the world — I feel like how they share who they are with each other is integral to how they grow up. How they’re learning to open up to each other is what makes it a coming of age story to me, overall.”
From a craft perspective, one of the most noticeable differences between Clementine and other Walden books like On A Sunbeam is the amount of dialogue. I was curious whether having so much more text required a different way of working.
While Walden did not change her process substantially, it did lead to changes later.
“If I’m not drawing while I’m writing, I don’t feel like I can write something really good. I penciled the book and wrote the dialogue at the same time, but because the book is so heavy on dialogue — it doesn’t have narration and dialogue is one of the major driving forces in the story — I rewrote maybe all the dialogue after the first round of edits. Then I think I rewrote another 30 percent of it again. The re-writing process was intensive…my process didn’t change, and yet I had to add in this extra step of really making sure the dialogue was working for me, was really going somewhere.
I’m accustomed to writing conversations that are similar to the way I draw backgrounds. They’re sort of ethereal, they’re talking in a way that is kind of stylistic, not necessarily full of content. It was hard, but I did realize through this book that I do have it in me to write good dialogue, which made me feel really good. Now that I’m working on Book 2 of Clementine, I’m hoping with the dialogue I’m writing I learned something from Book 1.”
Walden was interested in taking on this project, she also noted, because it presented new constraints, which in themselves can be a sort of freedom. With Clementine, she had an established character, and the job was to contend with her whole history while helping to also shape her future. That challenge was a creative kick Walden says came along at just the right time in her career.
Yet within those constraints, she was able to find very personal connections that ultimately shaped the story and continue to do so now as she works on the second book (with a third one to come, perhaps at a pace of one per year).
“At the end of the day I have certainly contended with my own traumas in life and Clementine has too. When it came to making the book connected to my heart, it was about thinking about how I’ve healed from my own life and how I can help Clementine find that healing too, in ways both similar and different from me.”
Clementine: Book One is out now through Skybound Comet.