The complete collection of Jillian Tamaki’s popular webcomic SuperMutant Magic Academy, which she drew over four years beginning in 2010, melds a satire of Harry Potter-type magical fantasy tropes with real-world teenage drama and observational comedy, shot through with dreamy, poetic surrealism, straight-talking truths, and existential angst. That’s quite a mix of genres and tonal qualities; the fact that it all works so seamlessly is a testament to Jillian Tamaki’s great skills as a writer and artist. Tamaki channels the everyday concerns of teenage years with hilarity, heart, and deadly accuracy.
Unlike Harry Potter and his pals, the student body of SuperMutant Magic Academy isn’t forced to deal with the dark forces of evil. They only have to contend with school, each other, and their own inherent insecurities and flaws. Ms. Grimdorff, the only teacher that’s given much attention, is still mostly peripheral to the large cast of students: our main protagonist, Marsha, a bespectacled, closeted outsider, who hides her vulnerability under a mask of cynicism; Wendy, the pretty, sweet-natured popular girl with fox ears and with whom Marsha is secretly, painfully in love; Gemma, whose impressively-sized cranium holds a bundle of anxieties about her writing aspirations; Frances, the brooding, would-be transgressive performance artist; and Trixie, an amphibious girl who just wants the simple things: to be pretty, popular, and have a boyfriend. Some of the boy students include studly, popular Cheddar; bratty, impulsive Trevor; and the ever-transmogrifying Evan, aka Everlasting Boy. Being immortal, Evan has a special relationship to the cosmos: he’s literally able to wrap himself up in the stars in the sky when he has a mind to. He’s on a completely different plane than all the others, obviously.
Tamaki’s characters are archetypes of teenaged idealism, their aspirations often faltering under simple human desires. In one strip, Gemma is out jogging, pumping herself up against sweaty exhaustion: “I churn and churn, never tired… I could run forever if I wanted to.” Then: “But what if I get hungry?” As the strip concludes: “God, I’m so hungry.” In another episode, Gemma lectures Frances about smoking, reviewing all the terrible health risks and the amoral corporate greed of Big Tobacco, all of which Frances is well aware. Gemma: “Well then… why?” Frances: “It brings me pleasure, I’m afraid.”
Another favorite strip along these lines is Marsha and Trixie’s confrontation with Cheddar:
These particular strips, shorn of magical realism or the otherworldly, are almost Schulz-like. The strip above melds its commentary on sports and the battle of the sexes with perfect snapshot portraits of its principal characters: Cheddar’s off-hand male confidence-cum-arrogance, Marsha’s premature cynicism, and Trixie’s make-no-waves innocence. In other entries, Tamaki takes us fully into fantastical realms, particularly when Everlasting Boy takes center stage:
Tamaki’s art, like her writing, effortlessly and whimsically captures the constant emotional shifts of her teenagers, alternating from quickly tossed-off, drawn-in-the-margin scrawls to varying thick, sometimes brushy lines. The strip is largely presented in black and white, but occasionally Tamaki judiciously employs color, generally to enhance gags, as in one panel that depicts Marsha’s red-faced embarrassment, or another showing Frances’s use of red and blue paint for a Fourth of July performance art piece. In this lovely installment starring Gemma, Tamaki employs a color palette to poetic ends, the color the obvious impetus for the drawing itself:
Tamaki created a wrap-up story for this collection that takes place on prom night. Marsha, true to form, opts out of attending, becoming an instant hero to some of her peers (“Yeah! Fight the power, girl!” says one) while infuriating Wendy, who bids Marsha farewell as she leaves for the big event: “Byyyyyyye! Have fun by YOURSELF! I’m still really mad at you!” Marsha escapes to a secret hiding place where she encounters another, surprising, fellow dissident. Together they have an unexpected, rather harrowing adventure involving a Prophecy, a Chosen One, and a scary soothsaying entity; meanwhile, all the other kids are whooping it up, dancing, sneaking booze in a deserted classroom - all the usual prom night shenanigans. The entire sequence is a showcase for Tamaki’s effortless talent for juxtaposing the magical with the mundane; it is that very quality that lends SuperMutant Magic Academy its unique and delightful charm. You’ll have a hard time finding a more enjoyable and engaging book of comics this year.