Jillian Tamaki is no stranger to illustrating the nitty gritty, awkward realities of being young. She and her cousin Mariko Tamaki’s 2008 graphic novel Skim focused on the goth 16-year-old Skim as she navigated sexuality and depression while the duo’s 2014 book This One Summer was about the close friendship of two young girls coming-of-age. Her latest book is a collection of her popular web comic SuperMutant Magic Academy, which follows a group of magical high-schoolers, from immortal boys to wolf girls, at their boarding school. But instead of fulfilling prophecies and saving the world, Tamaki’s super-power wielding teenagers tackle crushes, teachers, board games and angst across the strip’s witty and beautifully drawn panels.
An undoubtedly relatable strip to anyone who’s ever been a teenager, for all of its supernaturalism Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy universe is a realistic and hilarious portrayal of high school drama and the mundane. I spoke to Tamaki about turning the comic into a printed collection, pulling material from being a student and a teacher, the mind-blowing realizations that come with puberty, and more. - Hazel Cills
You started SuperMutant Magic Academy as a web-comic back in 2010. What initially inspired you to create this comic?
There were a few things. I had actually done the Marvel Strange Tales comic, which is where they got indie cartoonists to do Spider-Man or characters in the Marvel Universe. And I don’t really know anything about that world but I asked them if there was a female superhero that everyone hates and everyone said, oh, Dazzler! She was totally a marketing tie-in with super lame powers, so I thought I’d do something with her. I did a comic with that and it was fine but it was my first foray into a superhero genre. She does end up beating up some villain but I was more interested in the fact that she had an older lover, you know what I mean? I was more interested in her day job than the fact that she had superpowers.
I think at that point Harry Potter was also winding down as well. I also think I had just finished Skim, which had been a big book, and I just wanted a project that was fast and immediate. So much of my work as an illustrator and someone who makes graphic novels it’s making it look nice and making it look perfect and publishable. I just wanted to give myself a project that could allow myself to practice writing and developing characters that didn’t have to look nice or pretty or anything like that.
You describe on the comic’s Tumblr that the series is kind of like a diary of sorts, too?
It is for sure the most personal work of mine. As an illustrator I’m used to interpreting other people’s content although with Mariko’s books I don’t consider myself just an illustrator, they’re definitely collaboration. But this, just because it was installments and I made them unprompted, did feel like a diary. In 2007 I started a sketch blog when that was sort of a more novel idea than it is now. That was great for just putting things online and building a relationship with people that was more than just finished pieces. You’re sort of showing a peek behind your personality, but eventually I got sick of putting up just sketchbook work. So I feel like the comic kind of replaced that.
One of the things that I love about this series is that when I think of schools for kids with superpowers, like the Xavier Institute or Hogwarts, those kids are always saving the world. Your characters are conjuring nachos and clearing their acne. Did you ever consider SuperMutant Academy a satire or a pushback of sorts against depictions of teenagers in superhero comics?
It’s so funny because I care so little about superhero comics. Like I can’t even really muster up the energy to get mad at, like, horrible female depictions, I just care that little about them. But I just think there’s a humor in the tension between being a superhero and being a self-absorbed teenager. The idea that a teenager be somehow destined to save the world when all you can think about is yourself, or at least that was me as a teenager, is really funny to me. They don’t want these powers; they’re not a blessing for them. It’s funny because [the strip is] so Degrassi, it’s not at all Harry Potter or the X-Men. You know I’m Canadian and that’s what was always on. They would show it to us in school, like in health class! Teachers would pop in a video like, “Oh here’s an episode about STDs.” That is so much the DNA of this strip versus anything serious.
You mentioned being self-absorbed as a teenager; are there any characters in the strip that you identify with strongly in terms of your teenage self?
I do feel like all of the characters are different reflections of my id, maybe, that’s so narcissistic to say. I also think that in the end Marsha ended up being sort of the one I latched onto the most. Not planned or anything like that, she was just an add-on to Wendy, but except for Everlasting Boy I identify with all of them. They all have a different terrible trait of mine
They’re all your children.
They’re all my bastard children.
A lot of SuperMutant Academy, especially in characters like Frances, I see strains of works like Daniel Clowes’ “Art School Confidential,” like your webcomic also functions as a commentary on school systems specifically. And I wondered, as a professor, if that’s ever something you’re thinking about when making the strips.
For sure, especially because the class I taught [at SVA and Parsons] was fourth-year portfolio class, so I had the kids all year and they are trying to put a portfolio together. And what is a portfolio if not a comprehensive snapshot of yourself? Showing what kind of work you want to achieve or what side of yourself you want to present to the world, that’s what a portfolio is. And it ends up being really existential. You’re asking questions like: what would you happy, what wouldn’t make you happy, what kind of images do you want to make, what do you really want to say? And all of those questions for students bring up some really deep stuff and you end up being a guidance counselor or a mom a lot of the time [laughs.] Suddenly being done school is a really real thing and kids are like, oh my god, I can’t put off thinking about this stuff anymore, what do I really want? And I can’t answer those questions for them! So they have to kind of struggle through it and I can sort of chime in once in awhile.
Their struggles help you remember your own and that was definitely material, just the not knowing. It’s such a simple thing to say but really hard in practice is just the power to make decisions and not knowing how it’s going to turn out and taking a leap of faith. Those are all themes that ended up in the comic as well.
They’re microcosms for society. I think that there’s inherently tension. Like I’ve been lucky enough, as a freelancer, that if I don’t want to hang out with someone I don’t have to hang out with them [laughs.] You might have to in a workplace. In school that’s where I really feel like I identified with Marsha, just thinking: I need to survive. I just need to keep my head down and one day this will be over. As an adult I have more autonomy with what I surround myself with and who, but in high school nobody can do that. You are dealing with a hand of cards.
From Skim to This One Summer, you’ve approached coming-of-age narratives in many different ways, and SuperMutant Academy is solely your take on the female teenage experience. Why do you find yourself consistently drawn to teenagers and kids?
I think the concerns of girls in particular are important to me because I’m a feminist and I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to put stuff into the world that makes things that are important to me visible. It’s not that I feel like I have a responsibility, it’s just an interest of mine and it’s something and I’m drawn to those issues in art. I just think that teenagers are interesting because, firstly, I’m probably a little bit immature as well [laughs] but it’s also a time when you feel things very vividly. You’re making discoveries that are mind-blowing to you that everyone who is an adult knows, but it doesn’t matter because you’re discovering things for the first time and therefore they are mind-blowing.
I think that’s a really powerful idea, the moment when you get connected to a bigger thing, a broader world. The awakening of your intellect and your empathy [as a teenager] is really fascinating. Teenagers are sort of as being cynical, and I was jaded, but that vividness is compelling and earnest. Every experience has a deeper meaning and is a metaphor. That’s kind of my personality now too, I totally identify with that feeling like everything has to mean something. And sometimes the worst thing is the realization that not everything has to mean something.
I’m reminded of a strip you did for the comic with the character Gemma where she’s sitting on a park bench and she feels like she’s going insane. There are just so many moments in the strip where characters are feeling something and truly think they are the only ones who have ever felt that way.
And nobody can tell! Nobody sees that you are going through monumental changes. Mountains are crashing inside of you and nobody knows or cares [laughs.] But it’s significant nonetheless. It’s not right to dismiss that. So I think that’s always very funny and always a source of humor to me.
The only guideline was if it was really, really bad, it stayed out. And I gave myself permission to show the rough ones that the beginning that maybe don’t spit or were hand-sketched because I didn’t have a computer. So I think that reading the book is also an exercise in seeing someone’s process and seeing how someone evolves. I don’t think everyone will appreciate that and I don’t expect everyone to, but that was part of the book that hopefully some people will find interesting, the evolution of a thing. And then the ending being 40 pages is a much more polished version of the entire thing.
Did you always know how you were going to end the strip?
Not at all. But going back to Degrassi, the ‘80s or ‘90s version of it, there was a movie at the end of the series and it was two hours long and it was funny because it was so much more intense than the show! There was swearing and sex and real music in it, not just like synthesizer background music, and they went off location. It was so much more a production. So I thought having a thing like that at the end would be kind of funny, that this is the same world but somehow the leash gets leapt off of it just a little bit.
You’ve been with these characters for so long, would you ever revisit them?
I mean, never say never. I have had a few pangs of, oh that would be a great strip and then I’m not making the strip anymore. But I started out the project to use it to learn something and I think I really learned a lot from doing it and building that world, even if it is a limited, specific world. I got what I needed out of that project. Already the projects I’ve done since then, SuperMutant Magic Academy is sort of in it, its been passed on, so in that way I am pleased in how it has carried on but not directly with those characters. When you end the thing you’re not completely leaving it.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned doing the strip?
I think the shape of stories. When you’re working with only six panels or twelve panels, that’s a very limited, tight, story and shape to build variations on one theme. I also just think getting your voice. I just got more confident doing it. I was less scared and even paralyzed [laughs] by the idea of writing. Confidence is invaluable.