Over the last decade, Jillian Tamaki has penned seven books, drawn innumerable book covers, and designed an art piece that can be viewed daily on the New York City subway. Her productivity is impressive enough, but compounded with her sweeping drawings, and admirably peculiar storylines, Tamaki is an unbelievable force. Since I’ve been interested in comics, Jillian Tamaki’s work has felt like an essential element of the genre. This could be offhandedly summed up to my interest in queer narratives (namely her book Skim, which was written by her cousin, Mariko Tamaki), or Tamaki’s presence in my hometown library’s slim-pickings comics section (like me, she’s from Canada). In actuality the answer is simple: Tamaki is a master at what she makes, so it would be difficult for the comics scene to not be smitten with her work.
Tamaki’s most recent book, Boundless, was released by Drawn and Quarterly today. When reading the book, a sinister feeling peeks from the edges of the pages, slowly encroaching like poison ivy. The book’s many stories are intriguing in their own respect, but what’s so captivating about the work is viewing it as a whole. Tamaki flawlessly captures the human impulses that are inseparable from our usage of the internet—such as a story of a girl’s spiraling obsessiveness with a Facebook meme.
I interviewed Tamaki earlier this month about making work for the internet, meeting her readers, and the darker side of technology.
RACHEL DAVIES: Does your approach to your work differ when you’re making something for the internet, opposed to making something specifically for a book?
JILLIAN TAMAKI: Both have their strengths and limitations. The form of a book is quite rigid in some ways. You have to respect the physicality of it. For example, a page turn is quite a dramatic event that can be exploited for effect. Because we know books so well, it can be fun to try to subvert the form a little bit, too. In Boundless, some of the pages are printed sideways, as they were originally an endless scroll when they appeared online.
When I had a webcomic on Tumblr [called SuperMutant Magic Academy], I loved the simplicity of the very fixed dimension and delivery method. There wasn’t really a lot of room for high detail. What worked best was very direct, simple drawings. The story was most important. Making a webcomic, where the feedback is immediate, can end up influencing the thing itself as it’s being made. Which is a very different creative effect from sitting alone in a room for a year, never showing your work.
Each of your books seem to approach storytelling in a different way. This One Summer and Skim, made with Mariko Tamaki, have detailed narratives with equally precise illustrations, while SuperMutant Magic Academy is told through humorous vignettes in a more casual style. Are you intentionally mixing these up?
There is a very strong through-line between the books I’ve made with my cousin, which are very narrative/dialogue driven, sensory, specific. Similarly, there is a connection between SuperMutant Magic Academy and the stories in Boundless. The shapes and styles change, but I sincerely hope there is a unity of voice.
Many times the “form” of the work is a response to what I have just done. I did a webcomic because I wanted a more direct relationship with my audience, versus putting out a book once every three years. I started writing longer short stories when the webcomic started feeling too limiting.
Did you grow up reading comics? When did you realize that you wanted to make comics specifically?
I grew up reading Archie Comics. As an aside, yes, I am totally obsessed with Riverdale. When I outgrew them, I didn’t think of comics in any way. I made some zines in high school but was so stupid that I never thought to make copies…I just gave them to a girl I was trying to make laugh. I only started reading indie comics when I was in college. I made my first proper comic when I was about 23. It seemed like a cheap, accessible, doable way of making a thing. It’s not like I wanted to “break into the industry.” I just wanted to tell a story. But I’m a bit of a competitive person, too. Once I made it, I wanted people to see it! So I sold it online and people liked it, so that was encouragement to make more.
Do you have any advice for young comics makers?
Compared to many art forms, comics still remain relatively accessible. It’s not perfect, and the comics community is constantly debating that accessibility, but truly, you need so little equipment to start. If you can get your work onto the internet, poof, you’re a cartoonist. I suppose another thing I hear new artists say is that they wish someone had told them about the financial realities. Comics are extremely laboor-intensive and not terribly lucrative. Even a very decent advance typically is not going to stretch very far if you figure dollars per hour. So I guess I will also throw that in. Be prepared!
You do a lot of commissioned pieces—book covers, magazine work, et cetera. I’m wondering if you feel that the possibly stricter parameters of these projects affect the way you approach your other work?
Well, I mentally categorize them differently. I pour a lot of sweat and tears into all my work, but obviously there is an increased sense of ownership over your own stories and characters. But I try to learn something on every job I do. Sometimes, to be honest, it can be a relief to do a straight illustration job, where you are interpreting someone else’s material. You get to give your own personality a breather for a second. Also, it’s not like I have complete freedom with my own work either. Those projects end up as “products,” to be perfectly crass, as well.
Some of the stories in Boundless are told primarily through interior monologue, and the words leave the reader with a lot to choose from, as far as visual representation goes. Like in the beginning of “1.Jenny,” you begin with writing about the mirror Facebook but the drawings are of the plants in the greenhouse before it’s indicated to the reader that she works in a greenhouse. How do you decide what to represent with your drawings?
Well, that’s the fun, isn’t it? The space between image and text is the whole thing. One generally wants to avoid being too literal, because then what’s the point of having separate image and text? I think of them as two streams of information–they can support or diverge or conflict. Many of the stories in Boundless aim to stretch and manipulate this space.
In the case of “1.Jenny,” I wanted to represent Facebook as something much more organic–not the actual interface. For a person who is completely comfortable online, the internet is not a series of windows or whatever, it’s a headspace or textural medium or something. The mirror Facebook might be the result of a bug or spam, but it grows autonomously, hence plants feeling appropriate.
After the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, you wrote on Instagram about seeing a lot of the same fans each year. Since you come face to face with your readers, I’m wondering if you think about your audience when you’re creating, or if you manage to compartmentalize?
You have to compartmentalize, at least for large chunks of the process. It’s scary to think about a stranger reading your book. I try to write “to” a few real people I respect and hope for the best. It’s probably best to also assume you will lose certain readers over time or on a book-by-book basis. Not everything is going to appeal to everyone. I’m not interested by doing the same thing over and over again.
I really love your posts about quilting. Can you talk a bit about the importance of creating things that aren’t necessarily for the public eye as someone whose job it is to create?
Thanks! Many self-initiated projects—comics, embroidery, even sketchbooking or blogging—have resulted in new career directions. Or, in other words, I have a problem of turning hobbies into work. I’m not sure that those things aren’t ultimately for some sort of “public eye” though. I mean, I did ultimately end up showing them, putting images of them online.
Regarding quilting, when I moved back to Canada from New York City, one of the things I wanted to prioritize was making non-commercial work. It’s a little cheaper to live [in Toronto], and the cartooning community in Toronto still has a very DIY sensibility that I admire greatly.
A lot of your stories have this eerie portrayal of technology or contemporary living, whether it be the grave effect “SexCoven” has on its audience, or the personal ways that Body Pods fit into the narrator’s life and relationships. When you started working on stories for the book, did you realize that they would all connect thematically, or were you just following your story telling impulses?
The latter. I think a lot of pop culture or technology can be easily dismissed possibly because they are so quotidian? There is “real culture,” then there is “garbage culture,” or something like that. But the garbage culture is so powerful. I mean, I think that became very obvious with fake news. People were like, “Wait, those crappy, obviously fake headlines on Facebook had a real effect?!” Or gamergate. The internet is not a subset of IRL. SexCoven chronicles a time when the internet felt more positive and anonymous, a sort of techno-nostalgia. It all feels a little darker now. ♦