As editor of the graphic novels section at Booklist, I have the luxury of having first pick of what to review, and there are a few comics artists whose work I always snatch up for myself. After reading This One Summer, a book I adore and still regularly recommend to anyone who will listen, I put Jillian Tamaki on that list.
Boundless, Tamaki’s latest work of graphic fiction, immediately shot to the top of my stack. If you read my enthusiastic starred review, you’ll learn Boundless is just as satisfying as I hoped. With her expressive, dynamic artwork, Tamaki wryly skewers human nature in these comics, but there’s something tender and wistful in them, too. In anticipation of the book’s release (today!), Tamaki and I chatted over email about her artwork and influences.
SARAH HUNTER: First things first, congrats (I guess?) on This One Summer becoming the #1 most challenged book this year! How does it feel to win such an absurd honor?
JILLIAN TAMAKI: It’s weird, although not completely unexpected. It’s been challenged a lot since it came out, but never appeared on the “official” ALA list, so then to be #1? Pretty nuts. We get a lot of congrats and comments about how it will improve sales. I understand that reaction but I think that means already-sympathetic individuals will pick it up. But challenges are really about issues of access and morality-policing, which is upsetting.
I’m always curious about how artists get their start. Were you a preternaturally good artist as kid? When did you know you wanted to work in illustration?
I guess I was a little art kid, so they tell me. I loved art-making but didn’t think it would be a good job, so I was thinking art history was a much safer option. You could get a job in a museum or something. Then I decided I would be a graphic designer, so I went to design school. The program happened to be half illustration, unbeknownst to me. I 100% would have not chosen to study illustration, I don’t think I knew what that even meant, or how it could be a job. So I was very lucky I just happened to find myself in a program that required it.
Your art style varies a lot across the book. Do your stories ever shape the artwork or vice versa? What makes you choose a particular style of art for a comic?
The comics are basically most of the short fiction comics I’ve produced in the last seven years or so. That was really the criteria, though I do think they fit together loosely. They usually center around the individual. I think there are ideas of identity, community, interior/exterior. These are all incidental!
How did you choose the comics collected in Boundless? Did you have an overarching theme in mind?
Absolutely, I think there is a dialogue between style and story. Visuals are another layer of information in a comic that can run parallel, add meaning, clash, juxtapose. That said, there’s no hard theory behind any of this. I just do what feels appropriate and I’m interested in that moment. Like I said, the stories were produced over several years. You’re interested in different ideas, tools, executions so they naturally end up looking superficially different.
One thing I’ve noticed is your attention to the realities of being human, with all its ugliness, pettiness, beauty, and wonder. What draws you to those stories and moments?
It is pleasing to hear that because sometimes I think I’m too easy on my characters. I don’t let bad things happen to them. I really don’t know how to answer the question though. What else is there? (Obviously a lot, but human nature is what’s most interesting to me.)
What were some of your influences for the comics in Boundless?
Eleanor Davis, Michael DeForge, Lynda Barry, Alice Munro, the internet, cities, friends and enemies.