Jillian Tamaki calls them “conceptual little thought experiments.”
That’s where the stories in her newest graphic book, Boundless (Drawn & Quarterly, $27.95), all began. In 1. Jenny, a woman becomes obsessed with a mirror Facebook profile that gives her a slightly different, and perhaps more desirable, life. Half Life tells a story about a woman who discovers she is literally shrinking. SexCoven takes place in the early days of the Internet and centres on a cult that forms around a mysterious music-sharing site. Darla! is about a short-lived pornographic sitcom that begins to gain traction years later thanks to Google and fan-convention culture.
Bedbug is about a couple whose life is disrupted by a devastating invasion of tiny parasites.
The stories are strange, sometimes funny, often melancholy and usually revolve around characters whose connection to the real world is tenuous or crumbling.
“I do think they link together in a loose way, not intentionally,” says Tamaki, in an interview from her home in Toronto. “I think there is an attitude or an atmosphere and a lot them started with a concept. There is no overarching theme that was intentional. But I like that, it creates a collage effect. It’s something you can’t really plan. It’s unintentional, but it’s there nonetheless whether you plan it or not.”
Without becoming fully fantastical, these tales often seem to have one foot in a slightly altered parallel universe. Which gives them a very different vibe compared to what may be the Calgary-raised artist’s best-known work, the Governor General Award-winning graphic novel This One Summer. That book was her second collaboration with her cousin, writer Mariko Tamaki, and told a down-to-earth coming-of-age tale set against the distinct backdrop of Ontario cottage country.
“The books I make with Mariko are so realist,” Tamaki says. “And I love that too. I love that those stories take place in a very specific year and about a very specific person and in a very specific place. They are really researched. I go to the places and take a million photos of garbage cans and trees and mailboxes and all that stuff and I love doing that as well. But I guess when I do my own stuff, I gravitate toward the slightly more conceptual. But hopefully there’s a realism in the characterization or the conversation or the reactions.”
While Tamaki may be better known as a comic artist and illustrator than writer, she says the stories in Boundless all began as narrative concepts rather than visual ones. Not that this takes away from the art, which veers from the expressive and surreal in The ClaireFree System, to the comic-book style of SexCoven, to the more realistic illustrations of Bedbug.
“It really is dictated by the story,” says Tamaki, who will do a book signing at Pages on Kensington on Tuesday, May 23. “Style can seem like almost a dirty word in that it’s superficial. But it does add so much information — texture, or emotion or atmosphere — to a story. I never start with ‘I want to draw it like this.’ It’s the idea first and then the style or execution follows. In fact, I often have false starts at the beginning or I’ll even finish the whole thing and it doesn’t feel right. Then you have to start again because the colours aren’t right or the execution doesn’t feel melded with the text. That’s one extra challenge of cartooning, they have to be symbiotic.”
Tamaki recently moved from New York to Toronto. While she loves her new home, she admits that some of Boundless, particularly the mirror Facebook of 1. Jenny, may have been inspired by the upheaval of the move.
“I’ve always been into the Internet and social media,” she says. “It’s shameful to say, but I really do love it. I find it really interesting and fascinating. It’s very superficial but there’s so much lurking underneath it. When I moved, I was very aware that I was communicating messages through pictures I’d post. That was my big form of connection to this former life of mine that I left. I was aware there was a duality with the projection and what was really going on with (me).”
Tamaki was raised in Calgary and graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design before moving to New York City. Boundless is not her first solo book. SuperMutant Magic Academy, released in 2015, was a New York Times bestseller.
But while producing both the narrative and artwork of a book can be freeing, she admits going it alone can also be daunting. Over the years, Tamaki has worked for high-profile clients such as The New Yorker, New York Times, Penguin Random House and Young Adult writer Hiromi Goto.
Next up for Tamaki is a children’s book, which she will again write and illustrate. While still in the early stages, she said it will be about “nature and perception and colour and how the way we view the world is variable and changes from day to day.”
“It’s very different challenge,” Tamaki says about working alone. “You’re in charge of all the decisions. Which is very liberating in one way but at the same time I think you feel personally out on a limb instead of sitting out on a limb with someone else.”