At its core, Jillian Tamaki’s Boundless is a series of short stories examining concepts of connection—the ever-constant search for purpose. What makes the book feel simultaneously so contemporary and yet time-capsule specific is the pervasive lens through which this theme is explored: a chronicling of modern interactions with technology and culture, often with a focus on how the former has impacted the latter. In the age of tech, connection comes from consuming; relationships with culture define relationships with people, and define the individual self.
But people don’t change. As much as the means, modes and dressing may alter, human nature remains constant. People want belonging, place, fulfillment, to feel part of it all, or part of something. In “Body Pods,” a woman charts her partners in relation to their enthusiasm for a cult film. Developments in the actors’ lives and the production of a remake parallel events and meaning in her own. “Jenny” posits a mirror Facebook, where information gleaned from the site is used to create another “you.” The titular character becomes fixated on the differences between her and her mirror self’s lives—the possibilities of alternative, better paths. “Sex Coven” is an internet fable about a strange music file that takes on mythic qualities. At first it’s overlooked, gaining a small following, then an object of popularity and misunderstood hysteria, before becoming a thing around which commercialism and “irony” arises. In “Darla!” a retro sitcom finds new life on the internet, giving its director renewed relevance as he makes the convention circuit rounds, even as he worries he’s part of a joke and that people aren’t “getting it” the way it was intended.
The central theme in the above stories may not only be the tension between meaning and technology, but also time. A modern worry is that screens drain time, and through the loss of time, and attention, we are unable to ascertain meaning. There’s a greater focus on speed and advancement, to constantly move forward and keep pace—a pace that our culture is beginning to reflect. Within this dizzying carousel, definitions become thinner. Meaning becomes thinner. But Tamaki’s stories show that meaning isn’t rigid. It isn’t constant—it’s ever-changing. It’s some- thing we search for, and find, again and again. Her characters reside in and out of these gaps. Boundless has its skepticism, but it has empathy, too.
Tamaki’s seamless ability to move from expressive brush strokes to dense, textured work or clean, colored lines is integral in conveying tones and nuances particular to the story she’s telling. Her lines go where they need to be, carrying a base evocative quality that lends the emotional heft required. In “Darla!” they’re breezy and round. In “Jenny,” they aptly mirror the earthy holistic-ness of the protagonist; in “Sex Coven,” finer cursives bring to mind a wistful those-were-the-days ambience. Her cartooning is exemplary in both function and technique.
The song-like “World-Class City” features loose scribbles of pen on winding, full-page spreads that give off an unfettered, exuberant sense of joy, as a young woman imparts her hopes for the world around her: what it can give her, what she can give to it. “The Clair- Free System” sees Tamaki showcasing a black humor, presenting the nouveau Avon ladies and their recruiting as Stepford-witchy, coven-like, as they ritualistically murmur spiels, rub cream potions into women’s hands, soothe and persuade. It’s eerily and gorgeously rendered in black and white, horror-like, a comment on using the exploitation of women via enforced beauty standards as some kind of progressive marker. In “Half-Life,” Helen starts shrinking and doesn’t stop, until she’s not able to work, or communicate, or even be seen. She’s gradually no longer able to be part of society and doesn’t seem to miss it much, instead finding a freedom away from expectations and duty, and a new, if brief, connection of sorts.
Boundless is many things—contemplative, cynical, amusing, surreal— but it mainly anchors Tamaki as a formidable essayist of modern life, and undeniably one of the finest cartoonists of this generation.