On a sunbeam was originally a sci-fi webcomic. It got collected into a thick graphic novel in 2018.

It’s a strong work from young Tillie Walden , with a distinctive setting. My impression is that it takes place in the same setting as her (also cool but more cryptic) The end of summer .

It’s mostly a found family relationship story, in space. Plus a coming of age story, plus romance, and a few cats. There are no bad guys.

This profile has S P O I L E R S. Not in the sense that it spoils *shocking twists*. It’s not that kind of story. But because the story is presented in layers gradually explaining everybody’s angle. With lots of flashbacks.

Like with our Windwarders article, these are primarily setting notes.


Other books

People who liked the Saga comics (everybody likes Saga) will prolly like On a sunbeam.

Or those who liked Wandering Star. But that’s admittedly lower-profile.

It can also be read after Walden’s Spinning , an autobiographical work that won a boatload of awards. Since the way the author reuses bits of her own life in On a sunbeam is cute.


On a sunbeam can classify as a space opera.

Space travel is common, and the titular Sunbeam — where the story takes place — is a spaceship. In space.


Tech level is non-standard.

Much of the day-to-day stuff people use resembles the 2010s. Clothing, beds, books, laptops, cellphones, food, drink, etc. would require little adaptation from a contemporary person.

There is, however, more advanced tech laying around :

  • Giant space habitats — in space — are well-trod tech. These range from the size of a mid-rise building, to small cities. It seems easier to build large space stations than build something on the surface of most planets.
  • It seems common for space habitats to maintain a breathable atmosphere outside their walls. Perhaps some sort of soft force field to maintain a pressure bubble.
  • The characters are seen playing one or more games that mix video gaming, cards, boardgames and RPGs. There’s some sort of small equipment that projects virtual cards and/or holographic action dioramas.
  • There are hoverboards, but this is technical sports equipment. It’s not meant for transportation or street use.
  • Small flying shuttles, and spaceships, are usually styled after aquarium fishes. My impression is that they use some sort of exotic and/or biological components from an unusual planet for lift and propulsion. While the crafts themselves aren’t biotech, AFAICT, they could be mistaken as weird space fishes from a distance.

Though conflict exists, the setting seems light on weapons. The serious, deadly fights in the story are fought with knives. However, these few fight sequences take place in an area where electronics are neutralised.


Population (part 1)

No men are visible, ever.

The entire population seems to be women, plus nonbinary persons with a female physiology. So that’s one way to solve toilet seat design issues. Perhaps we’re far enough into the future that Y-chromosome decay is a thing ?

This doesn’t seem to have always been the case. For instance a school is called Cleary’s school for girls.

However, it doesn’t *necessarily* means that schools for boys exist or once existed. “Girls” could be a signifier of age, not gender.

One character also once uses a testicles-based phrase.

Population (part 2)

Reproduction isn’t addressed. But you don’t need that much tech to run human reproduction without males.

Non-human lifeforms exist. But they seem rare, spooky, and specific to the weirder planets.

Ethnicities, names and the like seem roughly similar to what you’d find in a large, diverse US city of the 2020s. British-sounding and Spanish-sounding names seem more common.


The story seems to take place in the Southwestern galactic quadrant, called Deep Space. The quadrant has three other districts. They are apparently much smaller and can’t be freely navigated. These are Willows, Bat Wings and The Staircase.

Crossing a large chunk of Deep Space takes a month for a fast ship.

There seems to have been several historical flashpoints where cheap space habitats led to humanity dispersing and fragmenting.

This likely was also when new-wave space religions emerged. In space.

Earth is mentioned, but it doesn’t seem to hold central importance. Still, it was like real-world Earth at some point. Frex, one character has a decorative teddy bear named “America”, wearing a US flag T-shirt.


I guess I should pick something strongly associated with the 2010s, a bit abstract, and popular with younger women. Avicii, maybe ?

OH NO WAIT, I’ve got the exact mood. A cover of Chet Faker’s Gold by Thelma Plum some years back.

It’s, shall we say, heartfelt.

Not available for download on Amazon, but her Rosie album was good .

We be the crew

The crew of the Sunbeam is a freelance construction team. They specialise in restoring or refurbishing abandoned space habitats. In space.

Much of the work is physically intensive repairs of damaged structures. Though they seem to have lighter, better tech than what’s available on real-world construction sites.

Parts of the work can be lighter, such as basic art restoration. Say, fixing damaged frescoes. This seems to be their value-added speciality.


Char is the Captain of the Sunbeam. She’s the most qualified pilot, and also seems to have degrees in art history, architecture and/or related areas. She knows at least some Ancient Greek.

(Technically, the proper name of her ship is thus AKTIS. Though I suppose that, even more technically, it’s ἀκτίς).

Char keeps an extensively illustrated journal where she documents the art and architecture they are working on. And what historical information she can gather about those.

She’s a quiet, introverted, serious person. Char being reluctant to give orders, she lets her wife Alma do most of the foreman and liaison stuff.

But she’s the most mature and responsible woman aboard. Though she’s visibly uncomfortable when in the presence of people she doesn’t know.

Other traits

Charlotte deals with “headquarters”. This is where they get the jobs and fill their reports. This structure isn’t discussed. Maybe they’re contractors, maybe it’s a guild, etc..

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - The AKTIS landing

The Sunbeam landing.

But once Char takes a leave of absence, it quickly becomes apparent just how much she had been shielding her crew from headquarters’ corporate crap.

Char and Alma have been together since they were teenagers, and are very close. In the unlikely case they are separated for a while, they become kinda lost.

Alma Martinez

Like Char, Alma seems to be in her late 20s. She seems lighter on academic qualifications, but she’s considerably louder.

Also like Charlotte, Alma has significant less-than-legal and fighting experience. So I guess she’s a bit of a Han Solo type. In space.

She does most of the day-to-day running-a-tight-ship work, and might be the one with the most construction know-how. Alma also seems to have the most physical strength.

She briefly attended a medical school.

There are three Martinez sisters. The elder one, Maria, is a teacher at the select Cleary’s School For Girls. The middle sister, Rosa, died a bit more than a year before one of the story’s main segments. Alma is now the legal guardian of Rosa’s daughter – her niece Jules.

Other traits

Alma likes risk and thrills, whereas Char is more… reserved about that. But for both women, it’s their relationship that’s the most important thing.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - AKTIS ship taking off

The Sunbeam taking off.

As a teenager, Alma used to fly with a sort of illegal relief squadron. These would ignore borders and laws to provide assistance to stranded travellers and colonists. Apparently, it was a time where a lot of small-scale settlement projects petered out, but were too tiny and scattered for the authorities to care.

When they were younger, Alma and Char were smugglers. Space smugglers. But Char was uneasy with this, and they pivoted toward legal contract work.

However, Alma remains brash, and is entirely willing to take on manifestly unreasonable risks.

Both Alma and Char tend to spend time in Adult Mum On Deck mode, since two of their charges — Jules and Mia — are unruly teens.


Alma’s niece seems to be of high school age, maybe 17. She’s brash, loud opinionated, affectionate, energetic, loyal, competitive and an extrovert. She could use a bit more discipline, but she has an unusual strength of spirit.

She was taught general construction and maintenance. But her passion seems to be gaming. Primarily complex, heroic-fantasy-themed RPG/boardgames. Some evoke Magic: The Gathering, others Talisman  or Gloomhaven .

After a day of hard work, Jules will usually set up a welcome gaming session for the Sunbeam crew.

The fiery Jules believes she can change the world for the better, and that lollipops are the best. Her belief in following rules and putting up with inadequate empathy levels is less marked.

Elliott Reed

Ell was smuggled out of The Staircase early during Alma and Char’s joint career as space smugglers.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - Elliott, Alma, Jules

Elliott, Alma, Jules.

Reed was pretty much adopted by the couple, and may have been the first person to join the Sunbeam as crew.

Elliott is non-binary , and much prefers the singular “they”  for a pronoun.

They also have taken some sort of oath of silence. This poses surprisingly little hindrance, and Ell can always write a short note on their paper pad when necessary.

Ell is about the same age as Jules and Mia. The three are close friends.

Folks from The Staircase have a scary reputation as badasses, and Ell certainly lives up to that. They’re a superlative electronics expert (seemingly specialising in artificial gravity generators), hand-to-hand fighter, and cartography artist.

More about their background in the section about The Staircase.


He’s the ship’s cat. In space. He’s the easy-going kind.

Paul was originally Grace Hill’s pet.

Mia & Grace


Mia Sagong is the main character, and the one who evolves the most.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - Crew watching TV

Alma, Paul the cat, Charlotte, Elliott, Jules, Mia.

(I *think* that her last name is “Sagong”. Maybe “Sayong”. We only see it in her own handwriting and, well, I can’t really criticise anybody’s handwriting given the state of me hands, but I’m JUST SAYING).

Mia is implied to come from an affluent family, with protective and fussy mums. As a teenager she attended the high-end Cleary’s (boarding) School for Girls.

However, as she gets older, her ability to focus on coursework erodes away.

Mia is smart, creative, highly romantic, unruly, non-conformist, and experiences strong emotions. She’s fascinated by ships, and comes to share Char’s interest in art and history. She craves meaningful, soulful relationships. In space.

Over the course of the story she gets taught piloting, construction, maintenance, electronics and leadership. And how to remain self-confident while being less reckless. And perhaps even how to button a damn jacket.

Other traits

Mia is a huge fan of Lux, the signature competitive sport at Cleary.

Lux involves a small team speed-building, then piloting a compact aircar to pick up points across an obstacle course. In some ways it resembles bobsleigh.

During one of the story’s main segments Mia is 13 or 14. At the conclusion she’s 19 or so.

Due to reasons, Mia leaves the Cleary School to join the AKTIS construction crew. The teacher Mia’s closest to, Ms. Martinez, arranges this as Alma’s sister.

Grace Hill

Grace is a dorky new student of Mia’s age, who joins Cleary’s School for Girls.

She’s an outsider, unaware of the explicit and implicit school rules. Mia somewhat randomly takes her under her wing, which is a mixed blessing.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - Lux competition prep

Cleary students preparing a Lux competition.

The highly cerebral Grace has a large and precise vocabulary, and is an exceptional student. Most of her young life is about becoming a writer, with an apparent focus on theatre.

She’s reserved and a bit stiff, and the moments where she decides to take action can be hard to predict.

Grace is the only Cleary student with a single room.

Grace’s intellect and unusual background mean that she’s at once unusually mature and somewhat naïve/clueless.


Grace keeps her family name and her background a secret. She’s actually from The Staircase.

Grace is the youngest daughter of the Hill matriarch, who basically owns The Staircase. Her big sisters Mattie, Helen and Jane seem to be at least 10+ years older than Grace.

*Very* few people from The Staircase ever leave it. But Grace demanded to receive a specific education.

The school’s director knows where Grace is from, but everybody is scared of the Hill brood.


Grace and Mia gradually become an item, which is the story’s main narrative engine.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - Grace and Mia determined

This is their first — they’re 14 — and an intensely emotional, life-defining experience for the both of them. This is especially true for Mia.

It’s a modern story, so both kids are equipped to handle their relationship in a sensible and respectful manner. And homophobia is a non-issue in this setting, for obvious reasons.

The Staircase

The Staircase (“TS” to the natives) is a small, weird area of space on the galactic edge. Its one world is about the size of the Moon. But since everybody is used to space stations, this seems huge.

There is some kind of atmosphere across TS, and a lot of flying crap that makes navigation difficult. Maybe it’s a tiny, abnormal nebula. The high winds and airborne debris mean that most TS natives live underground.

During the story, this gets even worse and threatens to close The Staircase entirely. This seems to be called the “second winter”. In space.

TS natives almost all wear dark dusters and a hat. This is to deal with the dust that permeates everything on the planet, and can become dangerous if there’s a gust of wind. Their old clothes are somewhat reminiscent of the Old West, with a vague Puritan vibe.


TS has a number of extraordinarily valuable, unique resources. But nobody’s going to exploit them.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - Mia and Grace space storm

The most plentiful resources include “healing rocks” and “mineral waters”. These can apparently erase damage from severe pollution. This loosely implies that habitable planets are fatally polluted, perhaps explaining all the space habitats in Deep Space.

The locals lead harsh lives and have a tough frontier, “never back down” ethos. Part of this culture seems to have come from skirmishes and assassination attempts to grab the TS resources. Another from the environment being both hostile and fragile.

This has led the TS natives to edict strict rules where no one comes in, no one leaves, and serious crimes are punishable by death.

They also placed technology-dampening fields to prevent intrusions.


TS is owned by the Hill family, who discovered it. They’re acknowledged as leaders. If somebody disagrees, the Hill matriarch and her daughters are wicked knife-fighters.

They are the sole authorities. After the conflicts over the exploitation of TS resources, the area was shunned by other polities . All frontiers are closed and there are no treaties.

TS has a number of alien lifeforms with strange powers. Some are called “ancient beings”, and are considered sacred by the locals.


As a child, Ell was the apprentice of Sid, a mapmaker. The charismatic Sid was feared and respected, since maps of The Staircase are both indispensable and hard to do right.

On a sunbeam - Tillie Walden - Charlotte tells about a temple

There’s a loose implication that part of Sid’s cartography prowess came from communicating with Ancient Beings.

Sid knew she was going to die – perhaps due to exposure to toxic air in areas with Ancient Beings. She thus went to meet a dangerous Ancient Being.

The encounter went wrong, and Sid was slain. Shocked by the loss of their beloved mentor, little Elliott attacked in a rage. They killed the Ancient Being – the greatest possible crime on TS.

Sid’s sister hid Elliott for a time. She then arranged for the kid to leave TS via two young, intrepid smugglers – Alma and Charlotte.


When she was 13 or so, Grace went on a hunger strike so she could go to a fully-featured school. In space. Since TS is presumably limited to home schooling.

This left the Hill matriarch little choice. She discreetly broke her own laws so Grace could leave TS for a time.

Ms. Hill knew how to contact Char and Alma to exfiltrate a second person. This loosely suggests that she had helped Sid’s sister get Ell out.

Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG

Tell me more about the game stats


Dex: 03 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Responsibility
Int: 03 Wil: 04 Min: 03 Occupation: Captain
Inf: 03 Aur: 03 Spi: 03 Wealth: 005
Init: 011 HP: 015

Acrobatics (Climbing): 03, Artist (Artist): 04, Charisma (Persuasion): 04, Martial Artist: 03, Medicine (First aid): 03, Vehicles (Space): 04, Weaponry (Fighting sticks): 03

Expertise (History), Familiarity (Construction, Art history, Architecture), HQ (Expansive – the AKTIS), Language (Ancient Greek).

“Headquarters” (Low).

Dark Secret (past as a smuggler), Dependants (Sunbeam crew, 5pts).


Dex: 03 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Thrill
Int: 03 Wil: 03 Min: 04 Occupation: Foreman
Inf: 03 Aur: 03 Spi: 03 Wealth: 004
Init: 011 HP: 015

Acrobatics (Climbing): 03, Animal handling (Horses): 03, Martial Artist: 04, Medicine (First aid, Treatment): 03, Vehicles (Space): 03, Weaponry (Fighting sticks): 04

Expertise (Construction). The Martinez sisters (and Jules) *might* speak Spanish.

Underworld (Low).

Dark Secret (past as a smuggler), Dependants (Sunbeam crew, 5pts).


Dex: 03 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Thrill
Int: 03 Wil: 03 Min: 04 Occupation: Worker
Inf: 03 Aur: 03 Spi: 05 Wealth: 004
Init: 009 HP: 015

Acrobatics (Climbing): 03, Artist (Figures skating): 03, Medicine (First aid): 02

Familiarity (Construction, Video games). The Martinez sisters (and Jules) *might* speak Spanish.


MIA toward opening her big mouth.


Dex: 04 Str: 02 Bod: 04 Motivation: Thrill
Int: 04 Wil: 04 Min: 05 Occupation: Worker
Inf: 03 Aur: 03 Spi: 05 Wealth: 004
Init: 015 HP: 030

Acrobatics (Climbing): 04, Artist (Artist): 04, Gadgetry: 04, Martial artist: 05, Medicine (First aid): 02, Military science (Cartography): 05, Thief (Stealth): 04

Area Knowledge (The Staircase), Expertise (Antigravity systems), Lightning Reflexes.


Dark Secret (TS native).

Mia (near the end of the story)

Dex: 03 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Responsibility
Int: 03 Wil: 04 Min: 03 Occupation: Captain
Inf: 04 Aur: 04 Spi: 04 Wealth: 005
Init: 012 HP: 020

Acrobatics (Climbing): 03, Artist (Artist): 03, Gadgetry: 03, Martial Artist: 03, Medicine (First aid): 03, Thief (Stealth): 03, Vehicles (Air, Space): 04

Familiarity (Construction, Art history, Antigravity systems), HQ (Expansive – the AKTIS).

“Headquarters” (Low).

Dependants (Sunbeam crew, 5pts).

Grace (near the end of the story)

Dex: 03 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Responsibility
Int: 04 Wil: 05 Min: 04 Occupation: Playwright
Inf: 03 Aur: 03 Spi: 04 Wealth: 003
Init: 010 HP: 015

Artist (Writer): 04, Weaponry (Knives): 04

Familiarity (General education, Literature, Theatre).

Hill family (High – but she cannot reach them during the Second Winter).

Dark Secret (TS native), Dependants (Mia, 0 pts).

By Sébastien Andrivet.

Source of Character: On a sunbeam.

Writeup completed on the 29th of March, 2020.