The Canadian artist Jillian Tamaki, author of SuperMutant Magic Academy and This One Summer (co-created with her cousin), has risen to prominence as a cartoonist in the last decade thanks to a stunning catalogue of playful work and lush, primal drawing style that radiates with life. Her latest book, the critically acclaimed Boundless, which was published by Drawn & Quarterly earlier this month, makes clear that Tamaki is only improving, as she confidently takes her writing and art in unexpected and dream-like directions. Across nine beautifully distinct stories — including one about a short-lived erotic sitcom and another about a mysterious song that the message board-era internet becomes obsessed with — Tamaki explores the way technology, culture, and fantasy have changed modern life.
I recently traded emails with Tamaki, where she talks about the freedom of short narratives, working solo, and how she’s found support in the comics community.
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Bryan Hood: Despite being a collection of stories, Boundless feels of a distinct and organic whole. How did you choose which stories would make the book?
Jillian Tamaki: The book represents most of the short stories I’ve produced in the last five or so years. A few things didn’t feel like they “fit” into the collection because they were straight humor or nonfiction pieces, etc. It wasn’t hard to choose.
BH: Is it more liberating working in the short story format rather than on a single, sustained narrative?
JT: Both lengths have their charms and challenges, of course. Short stories are more liberating in that you’re not bound to a set of characters, drawing style, or story for multiple years. That’s definitely a type of freedom.
BH: One of the aspects of the art that stuck out to me most was how varied your layouts are. With the exception of “Half Life,” grids aren’t really present in the book and some stories (“World Class City” and “Boundless”) even require you to hold the book sideways in order to read them. Did you use these devices to bring readers further into the text, or was there another reason?
JT: I think I have represented “sequentialness” in various ways over my career. My very first book, Gilded Lilies, included a scroll-like narrative not dissimilar to the stories “Boundless” or “World-Class City” in this collection. I guess my answer to that is, “why not?” I enjoy working within traditional grids but I do feel like there is so much language of comics to explore.
BH: While the stories in the book focus a lot on their characters’ interiority, the outside world — like the internet (“Sex Coven”) and pop culture (“Body Pods”) — also come into play. How do you think technology affects our lives?
JT: I don’t really think any of those things are inherently good or bad. I go through phases of feeling distracted and that feels negative. Or soothed in a somewhat negative way — the Instagram discover tab is essentially TV. But I think it’s quite grumpy and shortsighted to write it all off as “bad.” Too many good things (my career, friends, etc.) are a direct result of the internet. Most of the stories in Boundless that deal with technology or culture are more about the humans around the Thing (show/movie/music), as opposed to the Thing itself.
BH: Because the book’s contents feel so varied, what influences — inside and outside of comics — were you drawing on while working on Boundless?
JT: New York, Toronto, the economy, the internet, moving, friends, the Art Gallery of Ontario, therapy, Alice Munro, Eleanor Davis.
BH: Boundless is your second major solo release (following SuperMutant Magic Academy). Before that, came two graphic novels — Skim and This One Summer — that you co-created with your cousin Mariko Tamaki. How do your solo and collaborative works differ from one another? Do they?
JT: Well, of course. When I work with my cousin Mariko, we are collaborators, and the dynamic is very different. It’s less pressure, I think. It’s fun to play within given parameters. The books I make with her I could not do on my own. They’re much more emotional and dialogue-driven.
BH: What’s your writing approach? Are your script or outlines more visually minded than those you work on with other writers?
JT: I am most comfortable working with words first. So I actually write everything out first, in a text document, like prose. I like to overlay images later.
BH: Have you and Mariko talked about working together again?
JT: We’ll do another collaboration in the future, I’m sure.
BH: Do you think of yourself as more of a cartoonist or illustrator? Do you even differentiate between the two at this point?
JT: Eh, I just think it’s like wearing different hats. I call myself a “cartoonist and illustrator.” Illustration is a lot more lucrative per hour.
BH: It feels like comics are in a period of transition right now, with more new and diverse voices gaining attention than ever before. At the same time, some creators and fans have fought back against these changes preferring for things to stay the way they were (i.e. comics primarily by white men for an audience primarily made up of white men). How do you feel about the medium (and the scene that surrounds it) today, and what are your hopes for its future?
JT: Oh, both illustration and comics are much better off these days, even from when I started. There are more women and people with varied backgrounds interested in reading and making comics. As both become much more identity-driven, I do think there is a certain pressure to be a public “personality,” which is kind of a bummer. I always wanted to just make work.
Maybe because I’m in indie/alt comics, as opposed to mainstream comics, I get a different vibe, but I don’t hear too much wholly negative “pushback” against the stuff you mention. Possibly I’m extraordinarily lucky, but I’ve generally felt quite supported by most of the community. There is plenty of discussion around WHAT #diversity means, how it’s defined, and by whom. But that feels like a different, much more complex issue.
BH: What do you mean by the pressure to be a public “personality”? Are cartoonists now expected to establish a “personal brand” in addition to creating work?
JT: I can’t imagine it’s much different from other industries, especially those that traffic in ephemeralities like “cool” or “good taste.”