On a Sunbeam’s Intimate Spaces

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Exalted Funeral

We’ve all seen it before: the classic movie kiss. The lovers hesitate, get in close and kiss. The music swells, the camera spins and pans, and it creates a huge, grandiose moment. 

I’ve always found the whole thing gross.

Putting aside the fact that PDA bothers me, I understand what these types of scenes are going for. These are grand, romantic gestures, intense displays of love. The intent of these types of scenes is sound. My problem is that I can’t find these grand romantic scenes believable. They lack intimacy.

Intimacy is a tricky thing to depict because intimacy is so varied. For me, intimacy is a quiet, subtle thing. It’s not kissing at the bow of the Titanic. Intimacy is holding hands in the darkness of a movie theater, or the back of a car. It’s asking “Can I kiss you?” in the corner of a room, crowded or otherwise.

Of all the media I’ve consumed recently, Tillie Walden’s graphic novel On a Sunbeam depicts intimacy in this exact way. At its core, On a Sunbeam is a sci-fi epic about two women who fall in love while at boarding school, only to be abruptly separated due to circumstances beyond their control. Years later, Mia, now part of a space-faring crew, just wants to see Grace again.

What Walden nails throughout the novel is tying intimacy to space. Mia and Grace tend to have their most intimate moments in private, in their bedrooms or in the empty halls of their school. The few times that the couple share intimacy in public, Walden is quick to shrink panels to only include the couple, or erase background elements completely, communicating that the intimate space is solely for Mia and Grace.

But what makes Walden’s depiction of intimacy even more evocative is how she depicts intimacy breaking down. Those panels of Mia and Grace together, with big character drawings, close proximity and tight focus, are then followed by the exact same settings with all intimacy ripped out of them. Using the same settings for both intimacy as well as rejection emphasizes that these close moments were created by Mia and Grace, not by the spaces they inhabited.

On a Sunbeam is a masterful depiction of the intimacy I am familiar with and a subtle display of how characters’ feelings can alter the spaces they inhabit. Through this control of space, Walden’s characters don’t need to expound on their feelings through monologues or repeated dialogue. We can tell exactly how they are feeling through Walden’s art. 

On a Sunbeam is a wonderful example of believable, small-scale intimacy. It’s a beautifully drawn novel, managing to make tiny bedrooms feel as vast and powerful as the grand void of space.

You can read On a Sunbeam in its entirety for free here. Walden originally published On a Sunbeam as a free webcomic.