There’s a brilliant new social-media app called Binky, which works just like Facebook or Twitter, except for one difference: those scrolling images of food are randomly generated, and don’t belong to real people. The app seems innocent — nothing more than an innocuous time-killer — especially if you compare it to the monstrous one that appears in Jillian Tamaki’s comic “1.Jenny.”
In Tamaki’s story, which appears in her new collection Boundless, a mirror Facebook site grows organically, making subtle changes to everyone’s profiles, including their romantic interests, hobbies and snack cravings. Everyone is obsessed. The main character, Jenny, works in a garden nursery, and asks for a transfer to the flowering bush department so she can surreptitiously check her alternative life more often. Under the Toronto cartoonist’s beautifully rendered illustrations, the nursery foliage is lush but claustrophobic, closing in around status updates where Jenny discovers that her Facebook doppelganger watched Top Gun and is now dating a guy named 1.Robert.
Tamaki herself admits to having an unhealthy relationship to technology. “It’s a way of momentarily turning off one’s brain, a familiar, comforting mental space you can carry around with you,” she says. “I cannot easily disconnect but I only feel bad about it sometimes. It’s how I maintain many of my friendships.”
As a kid growing up in Calgary, Tamaki was always drawing. She remembers sketching photographs of horses, which helped develop her physically muscular illustration style and the discipline required to draw the repetitive scenes for serial comics. Tamaki was never into comics, though she was a fan of Archie and the Riverdale gang, to whom she was introduced by her younger sister. Comics didn’t enter the picture until she was a student at the Alberta College of Art and Design, making zines and discovering the work of artists like Adrian Tomine and Seth. Today, Tamaki too is a cartooning idol: her work draws just as many fans to events like the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
In 2005, Tamaki partnered with her cousin Mariko on Skim, a 24-page comic about a teenage Wiccan goth and her boundary-skirting relationship with a female teacher, for the Toronto literary magazine Kiss Machine. Both were new to the form, and without any rules to hold them back, were willing to experiment. Skim impressed Groundwood Books’ then-publisher Patsy Aldana so much she signed the cousins to produce a full-length edition. The graphic novel was internationally lauded for its nuanced but provocative storytelling and show-stopping illustrations.
Boundless demonstrates Tamaki’s incredible versatility as an artist, effortlessly mixing up photo-realistic to painterly styles. How she decides to render a drawing is a purely instinctual process. “I am intrigued by the information contained within lines and colours and shapes and how those interact with words,” she says. Some stories showcase Tamaki’s dry wit, which was on full display in her last book, SuperMutant Magic Academy, about a high school for outsider superheroes. Many of the subjects in Boundless deal with modern anxieties, from getting rid of bedbugs and boyfriends, to cultish skin-care systems. Her characters’ worries feel relatable, even when the story is about a woman who shrinks down to the size of a dust particle, but Tamaki refuses to call her work therapeutic. “Writing feels like work or a personal challenge,” she says. “That said, of course creating it involves deep meditation on a topic. As for what I am personally freaked out about: world politics, economic disparity and housing instability within Toronto.” She just finished her first picture book, which will be out next year, and is now looking ahead to the future. “So I guess I’m thinking about next projects,” she says. “My first book of the Trump era.”