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Tamaki's hot streak continues with first solo graphic-novel outing

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/5/2015 (1746 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jillian Tamaki may be having her best year yet. In 2014, she won the Governor-General's award for children's illustration for This One Summer, her second collaboration on a graphic novel with her cousin, writer Mariko Tamaki. It also became the first graphic narrative to receive a Caldecott Honor from the American Library Association.

This makes up for the 2008 controversy over the cousins' first book collaboration, Skim, for which only Mariko Tamaki was nominated for a Governor-General's award for children's literature. Following a petition by prominent cartoonists demanding the illustrator be acknowledged as a co-author, the Canada Council said it was too late to revise the nomination. Seven years later, the landscape has changed significantly.

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SuperMutant Magic Academy is Jillian Tamaki's first solo-authored graphic novel, and is already garnering the kind of attention that signals a literary superstar on the horizon.

Tamaki grew up in Calgary and graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design. She now lives in Toronto and has built an international following as a cartoonist and professional illustrator. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Guardian, National Geographic and The Walrus, as well as online.

Like Skim and This One Summer, SuperMutant Magic Academy focuses on the complex feelings of adolescence and the bittersweet experiences of high school. The visual style is more cartoony and sketchy than her graphic-novel illustrations. She manages to evoke the intense emotions of love, jealousy, insecurity and loneliness in deft caricatures with spare backgrounds.

The premise is that a group of paranormal teenagers, some who look human and some who look like aliens or cats, attend the SuperMutant Magic Academy. There is a bit of Hogwarts and X-Men satire going on here, but the book also updates the high-school antics of Archie comics, the teen melodrama of Degrassi High and the acerbic wit of Daria.

The book is based on Tamaki's web comic of the same name, which she began in 2010. Many of the sequences are therefore one or two pages long, while she has added a longer sequence to conclude the story. By the end, we have a sense that the SuperMutant Magic Academy is a surreal, strange place, but that it cannot escape the banal, everyday crises of adolescence.

As in her previous works, sexuality is a common thread throughout Tamaki's narrative. A particularly poignant story arc focuses on one girl's repressed desire for her popular best friend. In the tradition of high school stories, the plot moves towards the prom dance. However, Tamaki adds a fantasy twist about an ancient prophecy that reminds us of all the false promises teenagers hear about the "special day" and post-graduation life.

Tamaki's dry observances of adolescent angst and high school politics are hilarious. Her characters act like teenagers and talk like philosophers, often at the same time.

Jillian Tamaki

Jillian Tamaki

She is also brilliant at pacing, frequently ending a sequence with an ironic turn or a silent panel that reveals a hidden emotion or inappropriate thought. Interspersed throughout are more fantastical sequences that remind us these are mutants who can unzip their skins to go to bed or whose particles can fall apart and reassemble into human form.

This book stands out among the recent serious turn in graphic narratives in the best ways. It's refreshingly laugh-out-loud funny, especially since so much of everyday school life is similar to the office politics and bureaucratic irritations of adult life.

SuperMutant Magic Academy will reassure teenagers that high school is a weird place, even for humans, and will remind adults that it is an experience we never really outgrow.

 

Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English department at the University of Winnipeg.

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History

Updated on Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 8:50 AM CDT: Formatting.

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