Drawn To Other People: A Conversation With ‘This One Summer’ Artist Jillian Tamaki
Jillian Tamaki’s work is a triumph of contradiction. It is lush, yet spare. Emotional, yet understated. Detailed, yet intriguingly simple. It is, at all times, astonishingly good. While reading This One Summer, which she created with her cousin, writer Mariko Tamaki, I found myself regularly putting the book down to better absorb the power of her pen. “Look at this!” I said, thrusting the book at nearby friends. “Look at that ocean! Look at those hands! Look at this part, where she does that flowy thing with the hair!” And my friends would look, and nod, and ask where I’d bought my copy so they could get one too.
As I strolled the aisles of the 2014 Small Press Expo, talk of Tamaki’s work was everywhere. Other creators I interviewed name-dropped This One Summer. Fans referenced Super Mutant Magic Academy, her soon-to-be-print-published webcomic, as a favorite. Aspiring artists called her an inspiration. She became, over the course of the weekend, an Ignatz Award winner. In the midst of this well-earned celebration, ComicsAlliance sat down with her to talk success, adolescence, and what’s coming next.
ComicsAlliance: So, you won the Ignatz. How does it feel?
Jillian Tamaki: Always feels good to be validated — need I say more? [laughs].
CA: I know you've been working the small press con circuit for a while. I've seen a lot of newbies in the room this year. How does it feel to be looking from the vantage point of someone who's established?
JT: It's interesting. I haven’t tabled in a long time, so this is my first time tabling in years and years. This was the first con I ever went to, in 2006. I actually met the girl who was sitting next to me in 2006 — she came by and said hi. It’s so weird. Time is passing. I think it’s cool, but it makes you feel old, and I don’t consider myself old. I think that there’s a lot of energy in comics right now, and that’s really apparent at a show like this. And also, a lot of people have made a lot of money, which is great. It shows that there’s an interest in discovering new artists, and buying comics, and people’s work.
CA: This One Summer has received a lot of attention this year, and rightfully so. How does it feel to have a hit?
JT: Well, it feels like there’s a little bit of luck. And you’re just grateful that it connected with people, especially with a story like this that is kind of subtle and quiet, you don’t know if you’re communicating what you want to communicate in it. But I’m grateful -- you don’t know how your work will ever be perceived by other people, so I’m just so grateful that people seem interested in it. You can’t plan for success, I don’t think.
CA: I've noticed that between this and Skim, your other work with Mariko, you really capture a certain teenage malaise.
JT: An ennui?
CA: Definitely an ennui. And it’s interesting, because I've found that I can give This One Summer to a younger teenager and she enjoys it on a very different level than I do, but we’re both finding that resonance. You guys have captured teenage girlhood in a way that people rarely do. What draws you to that point of life?
JT: It’s interesting you said that, because we were on tour, and we would go to events at high schools, and then we would go to events at comic stores, and we’d come across people that had completely different reads on the story and were taking things away from the story that I couldn't even predict, because I’m not 14. So it is very, very interesting to hear which characters people glom onto. That’s another way you never know how things will be received.
But that’s really nice for you to say. I’m interested in telling stories about girls and women and I guess it’s just a very vivid time. Every emotion is amplified. That makes it very rich to mine. I don’t know why I’m drawn to that age group — I think that’s the first time when I felt like I had significant emotions. I think I’m also always looking for the emotional story. That’s something that I’m trying to convey. And with Mariko, that’s where our work gels. She writes from a very emotional place, and that’s something that I enjoy trying to amplify.
CA: How did you two develop This One Summer and Skim? Does one of you have an idea? Does it come out of conversation?
JT: Both of those stories were her idea. They’re based in her experiences -- she grew up in Toronto, she went to a cottage in the summer -- and I love collaborating with people. I feel like I can always drape my experience over somebody else’s environment. So she writes a script, almost; she has a play-writing and theater background, so she writes from a dialogue-based place. She writes very directly and it’s mostly dialogue, there’s very little stage direction. I do the sketches, and then we edit together.
Much more, on This One Summer, it was much more collaboration, and Skype didn't exist when we made Skim. So this one was more going back and forth, editing three drafts before we even sent it to the publisher. So This One Summer was much more collaborative.
CA: Is there anything that you two, and you specifically, seek to bring to the table of comics? Is there a message or theme in mind, or does it all just germinate?
JT: I try to make good work. Work that is accessible, but also of quality, and that seems like a big enough challenge. [laughs] That seems like a big enough challenge to attempt, let alone anything bigger or grander. I want to just make stuff that isn’t garbage. Culture has enough garbage in it, y’know?
CA: Do you have any specific influences? Was there anyone you looked at for This One Summer or for Skim and thought, “I want to do something that feels like that"?
JT: I think that Miyazaki that is an influence that I can’t deny, and that is in my DNA. Not that he was someone that I grew up with, but he was very influential in my work, very influential as of college. His work makes a lot of sense for some reason, stylistically. I don’t read that many comics, to be honest.
CA: That’s actually something that I've heard a lot, doing interviews like this, from creators who have done very impressive work this past year.
JT: I think I get more out of actually reading novels. I feel pretty confident drawing, and I’m looking to do work that’s very straightforward, actually, and very direct, and almost conventional. But what I am interested in developing is storytelling. And to interpret a story without images is somehow more useful to me. I can always think about how to illustrate something, because I’m a commercial illustrator, I’m used to doing that. So I would say novels, these days.
CA: Are there any particular novels that come to mind as influences?
JT: In the last couple years I've read more postwar Japanese literature. That sounds haughty, but I’m not super knowledgeable about it, but I do really like the weird clinical tone of them. The surreal situations. Those are some of the most memorable, like Woman In The Dunes. Those are the books that have made the most impression on me lately.
And I also read, this summer, a lot of really commercial novels, like Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) and Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I was like -- there’s a lot of skill in writing a thriller. That’s interesting to me too. And it’s so easy and so fun to read, but there’s a lot of skill in writing a book like that too.
CA: I’m really interested in the materials you use. I know you've worked in embroidery -- what drew you to that?
JT: That’s not a thing I do too often. Occasionally I get a job for it, and it’s something I did as a little fun thing I put on my blog, and people saw it and liked it. It’s not anything I’m going to be developing. With illustration, I get bored, so I’m always trying to mix it up, which you could argue is maybe not the smartest thing, but it makes me happy, so I do it.
CA: How did you arrive at your illustration style? As you look back over the years, what has that evolution been like?
JT: I don’t know that I have an illustration style — I think I have multiple styles.
CA: One thing I've seen mentioned a lot is that you get body language on a level that a lot of illustrators don't. Where does that come from?
JT: I like drawing the figure, and I think I've had an aptitude for it, which I didn't know necessarily until I was in art school. I just think it's fascinating, really, that we’re so perceptive to small changes -- that seems like a powerful device to use. It’s a tool to tell the story, so why not use it, in my mind. I think we’re drawn to other people and other people’s emotions, or at least I am.
So that’s what I try to emphasize, and analyze, and develop, and place contradictions in. Someone could be saying something different with their body, which can be really interesting. And Mariko does that too, where somebody’s saying something, but they mean another thing, or they’re saying something but they’re lying. It can be fun to play with that discrepancy.
CA: What’s in the future for you?
JT: I am doing the book version of my webcomic, Super Mutant Magic Academy. That’ll be collected from the webcomic, with new material. The strip will end with the book, so I’m trying to wrap it up in a satisfying way. And I’m doing a Frontier issue with Ryan Sands next year, and that’ll be exciting because it’s not YA. [laughs] Not that I try to make YA books, they just sort of end up like that somehow.
CA: That’s something I've found interesting when I recommend your work -- it’s in this weird no man’s land, where all work about teenagers is considered YA. Even if it’s not, specifically.
JT: For sure. And it’s just marketing; “Oh, there are 12-year-old girls in it, so 12-year olds will want to read it.” Or younger, even, because kids are aspirational. But I think This One Summer is a much more mature book than Skim, in a lot of ways. But that’s marketing, and I have no control over that. I’m lucky to be involved with people that let us do what we want, and don’t worry that there’s a swear or an insinuation of sex, and they understand that a 14-year-old can deal with that, or that they hear swears in their life. It’s not going to cause their head to explode.
CA: Do you have any particular favorite creators? In the room, or in the comics world in general?
JT: I think there’s a lot of really interesting creators. I think that Eleanor Davis is having a big moment right now. I’m excited with what Ryan [Sands] is coming out with, in Youth in Decline. I think Sophia Foster-Dimino is going to start -- she has a day job, but she’s producing really good stuff. And like you were saying, there are so many people I don’t know, and it’s like, “You have a whole graphic novel that’s amazing!” And obviously Simon Hanselmann.
I feel like people are coming out with their work so completely developed already and it’s so interesting to have your mind blown over and over by these incredibly talented people that have already developed their work so well.