Jillian Tamaki’s voice stutters briefly, continues, then goes into full shut down, silence emanating from her end of the telephone. She’d been talking about freedom, artistic freedom, and how it could actually be a bit of a trap, and then she just stopped, mid-sentence. There’s a beat, and then another beat, and then a soft rustling in the background.
“The cat is puking everywhere,” she finally offers by way of explanation. “Sorry.”
It’s only another second before she finishes her thought, feline excretions only a momentary match for a train of thought running full steam.
“Anyway, I think freedom is kind of overrated,” Tamaki picks up. “It’s very paralyzing, I think — and it’s a weird fallacy that if you have unlimited resources and time and money, that things will be better or you’ll be able to do what you want to do. I’ve always found it pretty fruitful to work within constraint. Because at least then you have parameters.”Mutant Magic Academy
A burst of cat puke amidst a little more airy talk about art is an oddly appropriate punctuation considering the subject of our conversation is SuperMutant Magic Academy, Tamaki’s web comic turned Drawn & Quarterly book, getting its official launch at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival this weekend.
Putting some constraint on herself was part of the actual genesis of the strip/story, which follows a group of generally awkward teens made marginally more oddball by their collection of special powers, which range from being able to turn into a fox to being everlasting. Begun in 2010, in the midst of her work on Skim and This One Summer — her Governor General’s/Doug Wright Awards nominated/winning collaborations with her cousin Mariko Tamaki — it was a chance, she says, to intentionally simply her often lush and evocative illustrating style, to boil it down to the narrative basics and work her way through a story.
“They’re very different form the books I make with Mariko, which are very immersive, and very much about time and place and mood and … like, weather. I think that suits her stories. But I get bored of drawing trees, and making things look nice,” Tamaki says, with a hint of what you might call affectionate sarcasm in her voice. “That’s not unnatural for me — it’s how I draw. But this is more like my handwriting: it was giving myself permission at the beginning to just do whatever the hell I wanted. The directness was something I don’t get to do a lot of the time.”
Although there’s less of the graceful, dream-like brush strokes that characterize Tamaki’s more deliberate work, SuperMutant Magic Academy is spiritually similar to her work with Mariko, even though she’s taken on the writing hat. Set amongst teens, it’s a place of very live-wire emotions, muddled in with doses of melancholy, and a lived-in humour. There are unrequited crushes, and fights against the encroachment of a mildly creepy adult world; there’s teachers driven to drink, and art students disrupting fashion shows with naked protests; there’s heartbreak mixed with solving your lazy problems with magic, all spun up in punchy, comic-strip form.
I feel like life is a little like that: things don’t get cropped in real life
SuperMutant Magic Academy does manage to fumble towards some bigger, badder things about teen life — even magic teen life — but the quick rhythm of the strip style lends itself to jokes, which is where Tamaki’s stamp is most obvious: sharp jabs into the pretensions and profundity of her characters that closely approximate what it’s like to talk to her (or follow her on any social media feed). Her cat puking was presumably an accident, but cleaning up puke in the middle of trying to say something important is a pretty good example of the push and pull of her sense of humour.
“Everything is very vivid for a teenager; you’re experiencing those normal human things for the first time, and they’re totally remarkable, even though they’re not,” Tamaki says. “They’re remarkable to you, because you’re suddenly, for the first time, connected to broader humanity, not just your kid bubble. That’s painful, and also really cool, and it feels important, I think.
“But there’s always my natural inclination to try to deflate any profound moment,” she goes on. “I feel like life is a little like that: things don’t get cropped in real life. By deflating it, you’re alluding to that next moment, when you’re not going to feel so profound.”