It’s been a huge year for illustrator/cartoonist Jillian Tamaki—last year’s This One Summer, written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki, became the first graphic novel ever named a Caldecott Medal honor book—and it won the Governor General’s Award for Illustrated Children’s Fiction in Tamaki’s native Canada, the Printz Honor Prize and, most recently, the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize. Her follow up is a change of pace: SuperMutant Magic Academy (Drawn & Quarterly, on sale now) began as a sketchy, dark humored webcomic that Tamaki posted on Tumblr starting in 2010. It follows the loosely connected stories of several students at the titular school, where they learn to use their strange powers—but also create performance art pieces, fall desperately in love with their best friends, and deface school property with their laser eyes. In Tamaki’s work, growing up is never easy.
PWCW: When you started making SuperMutant Magic Academy [as a webcomic], did you plan for an audience, or was it initially just for you?
JT: A lot of my projects start out being for me, because I do see it as personal work—because they are so not lucrative. SMMA started as a webcomic, which is a low-stakes way of publishing. That was intentional to make it something much more akin to a sketchbook rather than having an eye on making a big book in the end. I knew that Drawn & Quarterly was interested in it shortly after it started, but I wouldn't have put it in a book unless it felt deserving of that.
PWCW: Some strips you didn’t care for are not in the book. What was it like to go through all of your work from five years ago?
JT: The structure is sort of a portrait of a developing project. It's very rough at the beginning. The characters haven't been fleshed out. The nature of a webcomic is that you're building things every week, so putting it all together into one extended sequence creates a different feeling. Things get revealed, and you see patterns. But it was nice, because I feel like all my books are little time capsules of what you're concerned about, what your anxieties were. For example, with Skim, the parents were very secondary, and with This One Summer, there's a much bigger role for the parents [laughs], because Mariko and I are the age of being parents—not that we have kids, but you're not preoccupied with that sort of thing when you're in your early 20s.
PWCW: On our podcast More to Come last year you mentioned that SMMA started as a way for you to practice writing. Now that it's complete, where do you think you are as a writer?
JT: You’re always going to be dissatisfied, and it's always going to be a process of growing and changing. I have a small comic [“Sexcoven”] that just debuted at MoCCA Fest, a 32-page stand-alone story. I was already working on SMMA for a couple years before I started that This One Summer. When you're churning out that much work, you become comfortable with what you can and can't do, and just having that knowledge allows you to be more confident in your voice.
PWCW: The inclusion of sex in your work and This One Summer in particular became controversial when it was announced that you'd won the Caldecott. Was that frustrating to you?
JT: I don't think an eight year old should be reading about this either, but our book isn't for an eight year old. The Caldecott goes up to 14 years old. I think it might not be for all 14-year-olds either, but 14-year-olds are not little blinkered human beings anymore. And it is supposed to be scary and intimidating, [because] that's what sex is at that time. It's certainly not represented in any titillating way, even in SMMA—there's nothing titillating about lying on the grass.
PWCW: The print edition of SMMA has a new 40-page ending. What prompted you to include something extra?
JT: Most of it is that a lot of this material has already been released. So I wanted to put more meat on the thing—you've followed along, and now you're going to be rewarded. And also, at the end of [cult Canadian soap opera] Degrassi High, there's a long movie, and I wanted that feeling. Also, though there weren't arcs or narratives in the strips, I felt a few things could have been tied up or have the illusion of being resolved. Especially with the Wendy/Marsha thing. The nature of a comics strip is that the thing exists for ever. Betty and Veronica are always going to be fighting over Archie. And I didn't want that to just be the way it was, and then it ends with the book. To have no resolution is a bit of a cop-out.
PWCW: Do you have any plans right now for a solo, non-serialized long form project right now?
JT: I definitely don't have anything planned or solidly booked or anything like that. This summer is all about the tour and I also just moved, so once I get back from running around I can think about the next one.
Jillian Tamaki is currently on tour and will appear at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival May 9-10.
Sam Riedel is a freelance writer and editor from Brooklyn. His work can be found at samriedel.com.