THIS REVIEW OF CLEMENTINE, BOOK ONE CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.
by Kate Kowalski. Tillie Walden’s Clementine is a portrait of grief. That deep-welled pit dug deeper by extraordinary and unavoidable circumstance. There’s grief for the people lost, of course; not many can make it in a zombie apocalypse. But there’s also that deep, empty hole where a dream for the future would have lived. That brighter tomorrow is gone, floating off like dust in the wind. And despite all of that, Clementine is also a portrait of resilience, a guidebook for those whose futures have been taken or irrevocably altered.
Walden’s book opens on a pair of crutches, white against a solid black background—a somewhat ominous image for a story set in a zombie apocalypse. The next page continues into a dense forest thick with the undead. It’s Clementine, on those crutches, versus a whole herd. Bad odds. She swiftly takes down each one with a small knife, the crutches, and her makeshift peg leg. It’s an impressive fight sequence where Walden seems to be telling us, “Don’t worry about Clementine,” or, at least, not yet.
Clementine isn’t alone for long. After trekking for a while, she encounters a group of Amish girls down by the creek who take her into a village to repair her broken prosthetic. There she encounters Amos, a bright-eyed youth in a stove top hat setting out for the first Rumspringa the village has held in years. He’s setting off to help build a new community on a mountaintop and he invites Clementine to tag along. She reluctantly agrees. They don’t find a big, warm welcome but instead a ragtag group of three teen girls: unnamed and unfriendly twins (Left and Right) and straight-talking Ricca. The five teens settle in at the top of the frozen mountain and begin their difficult ritual.
Clementine is slow to warm. After so much loss in such a broken world, she’s gotten out of the habit of making friends. We uncover her trauma through memories and dream sequences scattered throughout the book. All of that death is inextricably linked, the grief looping into one neverending rope. Nearly every person she has loved is gone. What will the future hold? More painful goodbyes, one after the other?
During one emotionally charged point in the story Ricca turns to Clementine and says, ““Sometimes you have this face on like you don’t even know who you are.” How could she? Clementine’s whole day-to-day existence since she was eight years old has been about surviving to see the next day. Most apocalypse tales are oriented on adults, those who have already come of age in the “before.” We get a clear window into the before and after of this world, how a person can change after once being so established. But in Clementine our protagonist has come of age in the “after,” has been molded by it.
Things go well on the mountaintop. Until they don’t. But through it all, Clementine begins to open up again. She forms connections and bonds—exactly what she was trying to run away from in the beginning.
So this book is Clementine’s journey back to other people. Acknowledging her loss, learning how to live and push as she mourns because it never really ends. But her lesson is an inevitable one: the only life worth living is the one lived for other people.
Clementine, Book One is an emotional experience. The plot itself is devastating but sprinkled with glimmers of hope. Through strategic paneling and carefully rendered expressions, Walden hones in on the emotional core, the pain inside Clementine and underneath that the ever-hopeful heart of a child. The characters are rendered simply—faces built from a few sketchy lines. But in the book’s truly gutting moments, every emotion is writ large. There were a few panels I sat on and studied, amazed by how such complex emotions emerged through the addition or tweaking of a few small lines.
Joyous occasions explode into beautiful two-page splashes. The scenery is gorgeous. Panels in the beginning are busy as the characters are enclosed by a dark, inky forest. The emerging walkers also take on the same wet, melty quality as the surroundings. On top of the snowy mountain the world feels less claustrophobic, more bright and open. Walden’s lettering is also fantastic. She’s creative with the onomatopoeia. Within speech bubbles, words bolden and even grow in size. Every single detail is cohesive and executed thoughtfully. Clementine is an incredible one-woman show and Tillie Walden is a force to be reckoned with.
You needn’t have played the Telltale Games series in order to better know Clementine or even go on her journey. Walden’s got you covered; she reveals key information when it’s needed, and doesn’t dwell on lore. Yet this book—and from the impression it leaves, the two forthcoming Clementine books, as well—becomes a beautiful extension of the character’s ongoing, cross-media saga. More crucially, Walden stays faithful to who Clementine is, and responds to the life-changing moments the character has been through with care.
One more thing of note: there’s little to no adult presence in the story. There doesn’t need to be. Clementine and her friends are fully capable. It’s up to them to salvage and make something of this messed up world they’ve inherited. It’s time for the young folks, the ones molded by this calamity, to take control of their futures.
Skybound Comet / $14.99
Words, art, and letters by Tillie Walden
Clementine Book One is available now. For purchasing information, click this. Book Two drops October 10.
Check out this 10-page preview of Clementine, Book One, courtesy of Skyboud Comet and Image Comics: