Certainly the best take on YA comics I’ve read in ages, insofar as it’s thoroughly appealing to me, a man in his mid-30s, cartoonist Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy impresses me because it’s not trying to be “relatable,” which is exactly what makes it so. Tamaki utilizes a school-for-superpowered-youngsters set-up that’s part Hogwarts, part Xavier’s, part Degrassi, part that school from Gossip Girl. She knows her audience is familiar with these touchstones — witness the winkingly generic title of the strip — so she can dispense with the bog-standard tropes and dig down into odder, pricklier, funnier topics. Instead of wasting time telling the audience that it’s okay to be different or whatever the fuck, she can depict young artists struggling with the anxiety of influence, or smart kids trying to reconcile their intellectual ideals (particularly regarding gender, sex, and feminism) and their dumb old hormones, or very human teachers who are occasionally disarmed by their students’ charms and foibles, or the performance of different varieties of “cool” (nerdiness, popular-kid-ness, hotness, artiness, anti-mainstreaminess, rebelliousness, talent), or any number of vastly more interesting things than the usual YA fare, relevant to the lived experience of anyone who used to be a smart or artsy or cool-aspiring teen. I’m particularly struck by how Tamaki rectifies the sexlessness of a lot of material of this sort (from Harry Potter on down) without smutting things up and thus cutting off her audience: She addresses sex mainly by depicting kids experimentally trying to establish sexiness, a fascinating and underdiscussed element of adolescence.
But beyond all the highfalutin stuff she’s just a natural strip cartoonist. Her character designs are a blast: There’s a dinosaur girl, a student who is just a cat in a uniform, a normal-seeming girl with a giant Leader/Hector Hammond-style noggin, a Doogie Howser version of Doctor Manhattan, and someone called Everlasting Boy whose superpower is, I believe, that he is immortal and always the same age. I especially love taciturn conceptual artist Frances’s pyramidal haircut, omnipresent cigarette, and thousand-yard stare; she’s like a lost Nate the Great character. Many of her best gags eschew the high-school stuff altogether and simply riff on the kids’ magical or mutant powers: There’s some memorably black humor about unsuccessful transformations, Everlasting Boy’s godlike abilities are plumbed with a great eye for the absurd, and early on there was a rare but totally dead-on moment of raunch as male students solemnly gathered to grope a dude with multiple pairs of female breasts, like pilgrims at a reliquary. Some of her best jokes go from zero to sixty in the space of a panel, Perry Bible Fellowship style, like the one in which a D&D kid who’d previously defended the idea of including his girlfriend in the game reacts to her vapid statement about their sparkly dice by punching her right in the face. Others are barely jokes at all, just a little girl throwing a tantrum, or a kid reacting to not getting the reaction he wanted out of his paintings, or some stuff I just plain didn’t get, I think. There’s so many different ways to draw pleasure from this thing. I plowed through the entire comic in one sitting and could gladly do so again. If I were still in high school I’d probably be able to do it just by going through all the print-outs that’d be decorating the inside of my locker.