Before she put the finishing touches on April's sexually tinged techno-mystery comic Frontier #7, or garnered multiple awards and acclaim for 2014's gorgeous graphic novel This One Summer, Canadian comics artist and writer Jillian Tamaki was making a home at Tumblr for a funny, mostly black-and-white comic called SuperMutant Magic Academy. For four years, Tamaki chronicled the ordinary experiences of rather extraordinary beings—a host of mutant high school students—as they endured the perpetual battles of adolescence. Late last year she announced in a post that the series would soon end with a print collection.
Inside wobbly hand-drawn panel borders, Tamaki's sparsely rendered youths critique jock culture and challenge societal gender norms. Normalcy and frequently intelligent conversation are at the fore, and turning invisible or deploying telekinetic powers are beside the point. "I'm not interested in castles or wizarding class or fantastical monsters, . . . Only, like, disappointing food, or being ignored by your friend, or trying to make sense of your own body," Tamaki told the Hairpin about her book recently. "I liked the absurdity of this fantastical cast dealing with the utter mundane."
There isn't any traditional magic to be found at the Wallace family's summer cottage either, in This One Summer, a riveting stand-alone work from Tamaki and her cousin, writer Mariko Tamaki, that snagged a Caldecott honor, among many other awards. (Their 2010 book Skim also received plenty of acclaim.) The script, resonating deeply in the manner that recent family drama-driven comics like Jeff Lemire's The Underwater Welder or Rutu Modan's The Property do, focuses mostly on the experience of preteen Rose, the only Wallace child. She's weathering a bumpy coming of age, which includes a turbulent juncture in her parents' relationship that owes to a years-old tragic secret.
Ferns and smudgy shrubbery line driveways and lakeside paths in This One Summer's Awago Beach, with tufts of leafy branches blotting out the power lines. Jillian Tamaki's drawings pull back to showcase the small community's diverse range of faces and body shapes and beams in on close quarters to isolate intimate moments: during an argument between Rose's parents, Alice and Evan, in the Wallaces' kitchen, Tamaki brushes out most of the backdrop, leaving only bitter sentiment and dinner dishes.
This One Summer's visual impact is immediate—awash in deep denim-blue inks and precise line work, these pages are radiant. There's even an elegant wilt to Tamaki's slender lettering, which gets quite a workout in a new issue of Frontier, the comic series from San Francisco publisher Youth in Decline.
Each Frontier spotlights a single artist, and following a spellbinding horror story from Emily Carroll, the seventh issue goes to Tamaki, who incidentally crafted the book's cover logo for its 2013 debut. Like Carroll's gothic short, Frontier #7's "SexCoven" begins like a fireside tale set in the era of Napster-folder-sifting teens and carefully curated mix CDs. Using lots of narrative text and film clips and TV documentary-style storytelling to support both flashbacks and real-time dialogue, Tamaki charts the growth of a supernatural, often sexual power that stems from "a wordless, six-hour atonal drone" making the rounds in the music file-sharing circles of the 1990s. As with This One Summer, nostalgia powers Frontier #7, and Tamaki uses a similarly spare color palette. But it also teems with fresh and ornate page design. Fanciful visuals, fluctuating lettering, and computer-desktop-mirroring panel overlays are abundant, with a sharp focus on the creator's specialties: kids and magic, specifically in cases when the magic isn't that important.
In SuperMutant Magic Academy, it's the ideas that matter more. Philosophical girls reduce makeup to protection against "societal cruelty and death," a sporty wolf-headed type in a varsity jacket weeps at new work from a political performance artist peer, and on the football field shape-shifting jock Cheddar bolsters his open admiration for a teammate's physique with an argument about "the basis of attractiveness throughout all world cultures" when his peers resort to homophobia. At one point, a snooty student pushes the familiar and lightweight "graphic novels are serious" argument while broadly disparaging all superhero comics. But even he would have to be impressed by Tamaki's sophisticated 44-page epilogue, which is print only.
For the Academy's prom night, Tamaki breaks from the one-page story template, using markedly stronger panel composition in busier backdrops and blots of gray shading. There's proper magic afoot this time, but mop-topped, stubby-nosed Marsha is focused on the trappings of teenagedom, a bigger hurdle than managing mutant powers. When Cheddar asks what makes her unique ("What's your deeeeal?"), a splash page not possible within the confines of Tumblr finds the pair surrounded by a darkened cave's stalactites. Marsha fumbles while trying to discuss her abilities.
"Sometimes I think I'm missing a chunk of my brain," she says. No sorcery here—just a few kids swimming against the tide of young adulthood.