The Jillian Tamaki Interview

In “Bad Mood,” a sketchbook strip from her last collection Indoor Voice, Jillian Tamaki contemplates a piece-in-progress: “You are completely without talent and this will finally expose you as the fraud you are.” It hasn’t happened yet. She’s still drawing evocative, stylized illustrations for the likes of Esquire, The Guardian, Penguin Books and just about every venerable publication with “New York” in its title. Tamaki’s career can be seen as an inversion of the typical cartoonist’s, taking on freelance jobs to eat in between their comics; she’s been a full-time illustrator since graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design in her Calgary hometown, making periodic forays into cartooning.

There was nothing dilettantish about her 2006 debut, Gilded Lilies, which collected various drawings, paintings and early comics experiments, including “The Tapemines,” 80 wordless pages of strange transformations and distorted forms. But the artist really hit her stride with Skim, a graphic novel scripted by her cousin Mariko. Tamaki’s swirling, expressionistic brushwork foregrounded the ritualism and mystery surrounding its title character, a teenage Wiccan outcast who begins an affair with her bohemian English teacher.

I spoke with Tamaki at this month’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival, where she was not only a featured guest but the official poster’s illustrator. She’s frank, funny, and charming, even when stuck doing an interview inside a tiny kitchenette, and unlike the cranky rant strips that make up part of Indoor Voice. (There’s a recurring though understandable fixation on the errant dog turds lying around Brooklyn, her current stomping grounds.) I had to annotate a lot of bracketed laughter.

CHRIS RANDLE: I understand that you didn’t read many comics as a kid, so I’m wondering when you started dabbling in the medium, as opposed to pure illustration.

JILLIAN TAMAKI: When we were promoting Skim, I found that I was saying that I hadn’t read comics as a kid, and then it dawned on me that I read a lot of comics as a kid, but they were Archie comics [laughs]. And I just sort of…didn’t count that as comics or even really count it as reading. It was just something that I did, like you read Archies, and I had totally forgotten that I had read so many of those comics. I had submitted designs – they have those contests in Archie, or rather Betty & Veronica comics, where you can design outfits and send them in. I was super into Archie comics, but again I had totally forgotten that I was really into [them], which kind of that I didn’t think it was that important or that interesting or was a precursor to anything that I would do. And then I used to make a lot of zines when I was in high school, but I didn’t even think about photocopying them. I’d just make them and give them to people [laughs]. Then when I was in art school – the Alberta College of Art and Design, I graduated in 2003 – after I graduated I became interested in making comics and reading comics in some sort of serious way, and therefore starting reading them seriously, going to comic book stores. The first comics I was interested in were Tomer Hanuka, because I was interested in his illustration – he also does comics, okay – so I would go find Bipolar whenever it came out. I started trying to educate myself with Will Eisner’s books and just reading a lot of comics…Reading a lot of Seth, reading a lot of Chester Brown, Michel Rabagliati. That’s why it’s so incredible that I’m published by Drawn & Quarterly now, because the publisher has put out books that I really gravitated to initially, as a young 23-year-old person.

RANDLE: You also worked at Bioware, the video game company, for a couple of years. What was that like?

TAMAKI: That was a fantastic job, actually. I was recruited out of art school to do that. I had really no training, they sort of taught me the software there, but it was a very – if I had to have a day job, which I thought I did, it was a great place. The guys there – and they were all guys [laughs], there were very few women that worked there – I still sort of miss that environment when you’re all working as a team for years towards a big goal, and then when the goal is accomplished it’s like a triumph for everybody. It’s such a different kind of work from what I do now, which is very solitary. Isolating.

RANDLE: The big video game companies are industrial-scale things. It’s like making a film these days.

TAMAKI: It wasn’t so much like that when I was there at Bioware. It was still – they hadn’t been bought out by…Pandemic, it was still a small Edmonton company, relatively small. They were upgrading, but when I started they were on Whyte Avenue, which was the place they started when they had 20 people. It did grow quite a bit even in the few years I was there, but it still felt like – the CEOs would be walking around, and you’d be talking about being a vegetarian with them or your vacation or whatever. And they were probably, like, billionaires [laughs], but it was still very down-to-earth. I actually really liked working there.

RANDLE: Would you ever consider – maybe not as an employee, but doing that sort of world-building work again?

TAMAKI: It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, to sort of – I feel like cartooning, making comics, it kind of is like that, in that you’re building a world around a story or a set of circumstances. And that’s what is appealing if you are an illustrator, you spend some time with this single image and then it goes off and gets published or whatever and it’s gone. Comics, you’re spending an amount of time with stories and characters in an environment, and you really – at least in the comics I make, I do try to flesh out the world quite a bit. So there is sort of a correlation there, actually.

Tamaki's Best American Comics 2011 cover.

RANDLE: Can you give me an idea of what your usual process is like for each kind of freelance gig you take on? When someone from the NYT calls you up and asks for an editorial cartoon, for example, what’s the typical deadline and which drawing tools would you reach for?

TAMAKI: Oh, they’re so different. I do many different types of work. Maybe I’ll give you two extremes. The extreme sort of classic illustration job would be a New York Times op-ed page illustration, which appears – there’s two illustrations on that page every day and I will get called at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and it has to be done by 7, for example. You’re running on pure instinct in that instance. You’re doing the first thing that comes to mind, sending it off and [hoping] it’s approved – usually it is, they can’t be picky, no one can be picky at that point. And the execution is…you’re drawing on all the skills that you’ve accrued through your experience, and just banging it out. I’m really happy with a lot of the stuff that I do for that page, because it isn’t slaved-over, it ends up being fresh and lively in your first instinct, which you can second-guess sometimes if you have a longer project. On the other side, I just did some Penguin book covers, some classic literature book covers, that were embroidered. So that was, like, two and a half months of labor, stitch by stitch by stitch. That’s the other extreme of what I do. I have…such a short attention span, maybe, that I think I set myself up – I sort of gravitated towards a career that allows me to have both. Because I get bored very easily [laughs]. Sometimes, honestly, the stress of doing an Op Ed – doing an Op Ed like that is very stressful, but it’s a shot of adrenaline, you know?

RANDLE: It kind of seems like going to the studio and recording live off the floor or something.

TAMAKI: Right, right. Exactly, exactly. And it can feel very liberating to do that, where you don’t have the time. I think sometimes having a long deadline can be detrimental, because you’re picking away. That’s what I always trip up. I’m never happy with those illustrations, the ones that I labored over. I don’t know why. It just seems like I know that piece too well. All I can see are the flaws, whereas if I dash something off I can be surprised with the piece. I’m not sick of it.

RANDLE: How did you end up collaborating with your cousin Mariko on Skim?

TAMAKI: My cousin is like a woman-about-town. She sort of knows everybody in the literary scene in Toronto. She’s a performer, she’s a playwright, she’s an actress – she does all this stuff, she’s a writer, teacher. And so she came across an opportunity with a zine, somebody who runs a zine, who was putting together a small string of 24-page comic books. The idea behind the comics was to pair people who had never written a comic and people who had never drawn a comic. It’s interesting because I didn’t actually know Mariko that well. She’s my cousin, but we grew up on opposite sides of the country. But she said, “hey, my cousin’s an illustrator, maybe she’ll want to do this.” I had actually been looking to – I’d made one minicomic before, and it was something that I would totally be interested in doing, this very accessible thing, 24 pages, doesn’t seem that hard. We sort of did this one-off comic not thinking anything. This’ll be fun to do, we’ve always wanted to try to do it, and maybe I’ll get to learn a little about my cousin, get to know her a little bit better. And then once we had finished it, it was a nice little production, with a glossy cover and everything like that, but it didn’t go anywhere. It was distributed on a magazine rack in Canada. But we had this little object that we could then eventually sell to the publisher.

A panel from Skim.

RANDLE: What is her scripting like? Is it very involved, or more minimalist, or…

TAMAKI: I would say it’s minimalist. She has written for the stage, so her scripts look like a stage play in that it’s all dialogue. There is some visual direction in terms of – that’s actually what makes her such a great collaborator, is that she does the skeleton of it and then passes it on to me and sort of allows herself to be surprised…as I expand upon her world. She lets it be. She embraces that it’s going to be different from how she maybe imagined it herself, which I think is the hallmark of a good collaborator. You respect the decisions that your collaborator makes. When we collaborate, we don’t – I try not to interfere with her realm, and she doesn’t interfere with mine.

RANDLE: The narrative in Skim is often elliptical – we don’t know everything that goes on between her and Ms. Archer, for example. Did the original script share that aspect? It reminds me a little of the relatively plotless sequences in Gilded Lillies.

TAMAKI: It’s an interesting question, because who’s to say – I think that is my style, not to moralize or be too pat with stuff. I do like an open-endedness where people can fill in the narrative with their own thoughts or infer things, but…I think it was open-ended, actually, in the script when [Mariko] gave it to me. That’s why it ended up being a successful collaboration, there was a gelling of her ethos and mine. I think we like things to be a little more ephemeral.

Another panel from Skim.

RANDLE: You’ve never lived in Toronto, right? What was your impression of Scarborough [an inner suburb on the eastern side of Toronto infamously nicknamed “Scarberia”] while collecting photo references there?

TAMAKI: I never went to Scarborough – Skim is actually set in Toronto, and they go out to Scarborough for one scene. That was all Google. But I did take a trip up to – all my family lives in Toronto, so I’m fairly familiar with the city, but I came up after I thumbnailed general ideas: “I want a bus here, an alley here, a house there,” or whatever. Then I went on a sort of fact-finding mission and took photos of the hydrants and the streetcar rails and the signs and stuff like that. Again, to go back to world-building, I think it’s important, if you’re going to place it in a very specific…place, to get those details right. It also comes from me – to situate myself in the story.

RANDLE: It was interesting because – I mean, I grew up in Toronto but I grew up downtown, in Bloor West Village. And until I was 20 or so I literally had never been to Scarborough on foot. My parents drove us out to go to the zoo. I think that’s partly a class thing.

TAMAKI: Yeah. It’s interesting because I live in New York now, and there will be people that will ask you directions on the street and they will be from New Jersey. Like, they’ve never been to Manhattan before, and they grew up in New Jersey. It’s just across the water, but…It’s interesting how people travel only in their little worlds. There’s parts of Manhattan that I’ve never been to, because you just sort of follow your own little path that you make and that you know. The world is still very small, even in a big city.

Cover of George Grosz's satirical portfolio God With Us (1920).

RANDLE: You’ve cited George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix as influences at various times, so I’m curious: have you seen that big new German Expressionism exhibit at MoMA? And if so, what did you think of it?


TAMAKI: I didn’t see it yet. I’ve been busy finishing up teaching, but I do wanna go very badly. It’s all printmaking, which is very interesting to me. But I haven’t gone yet.

RANDLE: At least that’s a good segue into my next one, which is…How did you become an instructor at the School of Visual Arts?

TAMAKI: I started teaching at Parsons…maybe 2007…and, I don’t know, they just asked [laughs]. It is a nice supplementary income – life as a cartoonist and illustrator is freelance life, so a steady paycheck is kinda rare. But I actually enjoy teaching quite a bit. I kind of believe that people can only be molded, you can’t make something from nothing. You can only mold what’s there and what they’re willing to put in. But I do enjoy teaching, so when the opportunity came up I definitely jumped at it.

RANDLE: Is there a certain approach that you decided to take to it when you became an instructor?

TAMAKI: The only frame of reference I ever had was what I experienced myself as a student, at ACAD, which was very very traditional commercial art/design training. And I think that that rigor was very beneficial to me. We weren’t allowed to work in color until third or fourth year, we weren’t all allowed to work on the computer ‘til third year; most of the first-year illustration was anatomy, like muscle charts and skeleton charts. Pencil renderings, architectural renderings, which seemed a little overkill at the time, but I’m so glad that someone took the time to teach me those fundamentals – especially with cartooning. I wouldn’t use architectural rendering skills in a usual job, but for cartooning and doing Skim I’m so glad I knew them. When I teach, I try to combine conceptual thinking with technical skills. That’s what people want to learn anyway, it seems to me – they want to learn how to draw “properly,” they want to learn how to draw in a semi-realistic style, but most people would not be happy with the kind of training I had. Again, I try to take a somewhat holistic approach and shift the projects with what I think the class needs, what their interests are.

RANDLE: There’s a collection of Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures from…I think he was an instructor at Cornell? Some Ivy League school. There’s one on Charles Dickens, and he’s reading the scene where Jo dies in Bleak House, and almost as if anticipating people tearing up in class, at the end he says: “This is a lesson in style, not participative emotion.”

TAMAKI: [laughs] Exactly, exactly.

A recent self-portrait.

RANDLE: My assumption is that Skim resembles Mariko’s high school experiences more than your own, if it’s inspired by anyone’s in particular, but do any moments in there ring familiar to your teenage self?

TAMAKI: Absolutely. I mean, clearly, to write the text she’s going to be putting part of her personal experience in it, and on the surface it is more her experience – I went to public school in Calgary and she went to private school in Toronto, with the uniforms and everything else, all girls. So on the surface that is more her world, but some of the friends and the interactions with the girls are very my own personal experience, especially the character Lisa, who’s definitely based on friends that I had back then. She was more into the Wicca thing. I was not so much into the Wicca, but the disaffected, kinda gothy – they called us “the dirties” in high school. “You’re like the dirties.” I was a little bit like Skim, on the fringe, but not actually that hardcore. At all [both laugh].

RANDLE: In your Inkstuds interview with Robin McConnell, you mentioned being perplexed by people who describe your characters in Gilded Lilies and Skim as “ugly” rather than “distorted” or “stylized,” as George Grosz’s probably would be. You also said that they seem to intend it as a compliment, but still, do you think that reaction has anything to do with gender, that female cartoonists are expected to draw a certain way?

TAMAKI: Hmm. I don’t know, actually. I was listening – I hope I’m not misquoting this, but I remember doing a panel or something with Gabrielle Bell, who said that the only things that drive her stylistic choices are to make her drawings not look girly [laughs]. And I think I might be the same way, subconsciously, it’s terrible to say. I guess I can’t view my work from any viewpoint other than my own. Like, I don’t think I’m drawing something “ugly.” A lot of times it’s just my shorthand, and whether you think that’s ugly or not, that’s your thing. But yeah, it’s an interesting question and I don’t know. I think people respond well to – at least the surface, the surface quality of my work.

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