Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘Are You Listening?’, available now from First Second Books.

Required Reading: 'Are You Listening?'
Cover to ‘Are You Listening?’ OGN. Art: Tillie Walden/First Second Books

by Arpad Okay. Tillie Walden is a modern master of comics. Full stop. From the first few moments of intense anxiety and surprising beauty, the act of tying shoes on a highway strip too thin for feet colored in crimson and violet abrasion, Are You Listening? flows over your head, carrying the reader as current on a river.

And that’s tragic, because nearly every panel begs for the eye to linger. Rich in content, inventively colored, it is a series of marvelous moments all framed just so. It’s as if Walden was swept up with us, putting down only the perfect lines, no time to crowd the page, letting the art snap like the story does. But Walden is the tide, and each choice is planned passion.

Are You Listening? is horror like On A Sunbeam is science fiction, drifting into the genre from roots in the real. Creepy eyes and unnameable dread is just what happens to all of us on public transportation. The solemn atmosphere steps into the supernatural on cat’s paws, off the road. Horror is a dark shade of magic, but there is magic too in personality, in mystique, truth, and compassion. A story simply told from the passenger’s seat, confessional and cathartic, is mortifying as any monster. Vulnerability requires the same strength as sorcerers.

It’s a Texas story. The city: where Bea and Lou need to find a path their hearts can follow. Home is somewhere else, and in the distant miles between it and the metropolis, in the folds of the map, lurk sinister powers.

Does doing what makes you happy make you happy? Navigating the alignment of talent, well-being, and profession, that’s scary. Courage is taking the step that leaves certainty behind. There is no escape from the tragedy of life, but the pain I cannot be rid of will not be the all of me. Mountains and valleys. Every kind of weather. Texas.

Grab the nearest cat. Here are the rules. The smol must be protected. There is power in the innocent, in pure belief. You have to let things go. The space between places is a freedom from facts. Labels. Rules. An escape from what is.

Walden sees the strength in running away: It is control, the catalyst to facing what you’re running from on your own terms. Walden also sees happiness contingent on escaping the past is a fragile thing. Life gets in the way of plans, though usually what pursues you isn’t the shadow monster division of the local sheriff’s office.

You can visit Are You Listening? for Walden’s radical modernist architecture. Fantastic homes swallow space like the horizon ties off the sky. Impossible textures of city are a rolling boil, the road a wooden spoon. Equally mammoth and dreamlike are Walden’s drawings of the natural world. And the colors are a third environment of emotion.

Are You Listening? is always speckled, twinkling, sun-dappled or snowing. The colors are of berries, plums, blue purple red. These rich hues are laid on top of each other without overlapping, light shades drawn out of the dark as rays strike the dome of the eye. Driving to Slumberland through dark and night, Walden gives the sky the space it deserves and that’s a lot of ink on the page. With the dawn this curtain of the impenetrable rises to rosy beauty, a fruit to feed us hope.

Even the gutters are storytellers. They act as a physical presence as much as dividers of time. Plenty of story is told in large montages where gutters dissolve, images overlap, time passes in multiple exposures over distance. Character and mood and landscape laid out for the reader across a starless night. Gutters are barriers between people. They are the beams in a house collapsing. They fray as perspective unravels, just as the hand-lettered dialog shows the emotional wear of the speaker.

The magic in Are You Listening? is vulnerability. The power of emotional risk is what changes lives. Fate puts Lou and Bea together, as it crosses the lives of everyone, chosen family the bond that connects you to purpose. But physical bonds are temporary. Life is tragedy and it is triumph and if you make a promise to a cat, keep it.

First Second Books / $17.99

Written by Tillie Walden.

Illustrated by Tillie Walden.

Colored by Tillie Walden.

Lettered by Tillie Walden.

Edited by Connie Hsu.

Enjoy this 10-page preview of ‘Are You Listening?’, courtesy of First Second Books!

More Required Reading…

‘Misty Presents The Jordi Badia Romero Collection’ an exquisite macabre treasure

‘The Poe Clan’ a fairy tale heavy with gothic mystery, intrigue, hedonism

The Laphams’ cryptic, lurid, frightening ‘Lodger’ one of Black Crown’s best

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