The Jillian Tamaki Interview

RANDLE: When Skim was nominated for a Governor General’s Award while snubbing you in the process, cartoonists rightly protested. Chester Brown and Seth wrote an open letter defending your equal contribution to the graphic novel, signed by the likes of Lynda Barry, Dan Clowes and Bryan Lee O’Malley – a position that Mariko fully supported, I should mention. Skim made it into the CBC’s Canada Reads competition this year, alongside Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, but after Lemire’s book became one of the five finalists it was soon dismissed by most of the celebrity panellists solely because of its medium. Do you think the Canadian cultural establishment actually learned anything from that earlier Skim-related clusterfuck? And are things any better in the U.S.? Essex County did win the Canada Reads fan vote.

Illustration of W. B. Yeats on the subject of "how poetry will get you chicks."

TAMAKI: I think that we can’t expect cultural institutions, the general public, the book industry to fully understand comics right away. I think there’s…a knowledge gap, but it’s a growing pain, you know? People are just really excited about comics right now, but they don’t know what a comics fan or a comics aficionado would know, the history of comics. How comics are made. Even how to read comics, even that basic, fundamental thing is something that a lot of people are still learning. I think as comics people, it’s hard to go back to that, thinking: “What do you mean you don’t know how to read a comic?” Literally, some people don’t know how to read a comic. So this is sort of a learning curve that’s happening: how to shelve comics, how to give awards to comics, how to present comics in libraries. This is all something that’s a work in progress and people are still figuring that out now. So, yes, it was kind of a shame that Essex County got – there was a little bit of a clusterfuck, that was…they sold a lot of copies of Essex County [laughs]. And it was the same thing with our book. There was a big controversy, but at the same time I wouldn’t have had it any other way – if we had won the money, if she had actually won I would’ve had it another way, but, if you can believe it, we were talking for a week in the national, mainstream media about the nature of storytelling in comics. How often does that happen, right? It took a little bit of a controversy like that to have that discussion, and some people probably learned a few things from that whole episode. It’s a work in progress. I am only optimistic about it.

RANDLE: Yeah, I mean, there hasn’t been a mainstream media story about ethical manga-flipping or anything, so...

TAMAKI: Right, right. In time, in time [Chris laughs].

RANDLE: You recently wrote an article about the young cartoonist Hellen Jo for BUST. Was that a one-off, or do you want to do more prose work in the future?

TAMAKI: Oh no, God, I don’t want to do more prose work. I’m just really excited about her work. I see some young people that I get – “young,” I’m talking like I’m fucking 70 years old [Chris laughs]. I’m only 31 years old. But, um, whenever I see work that I think people should know about I like to tell them about it. I just think her work is really cool and badass and I know some people that work at BUST, so I was like, “hey, you should do something about Hellen Jo” and they said, “do you want to do it?” And I said: “Uhhh, I don’t know how to write, but okay.” [laughs] That’s purely what that was. It does not signal my ambition for a Pulitzer Prize [both laugh].

Illustration of Lady Gaga by Hellen Jo.

RANDLE: I was struck by the Indoor Voice sketches that look like exercises in evoking motion, almost to the point of abstraction, like that “pie crust explosion” series? What was your goal with those?

TAMAKI: I don’t know, I’m just a terrible nostalgic person in some way. I’m sort of fascinated with what sticks to your brain 28 years on. That sequence that you’re talking about was about Canadian commercial conventions – you’d see a fork pounding into a Tenderflake pie crust, and it would shatter like glass. And partly this is because I think I have a terrible memory. Someone will talk about a conversation that we had, you know, half a year ago which I should’ve remembered, I’ve met somebody and I don’t remember, and it makes me so anxious and scared, but then I’ll remember Canadian commercials from 1984, which is just depressing. So I’m intrigued by those touchstones in your life that sort of embed themselves and what effect those things have in your work, in your personality, how you see the world, what you create. I’m intrigued by that, and that’s actually one of the questions I asked Hellen Jo – but they didn’t publish it – in BUST magazine. I think that those subconscious influences probably have more of an effect than your conscious influences – you might become a student of a certain way of printmaking or a certain type of literature, and you might study that and that will have an influence, but I don’t know how much it can override the crap TV you watched when you were seven. Or the Archie comics I read when I was a kid. Or the particular collection of storybooks that you just happened to have. Or what kind of music your parents were into, or what they were like. I don’t know how much you can override those things.

RANDLE: It’s funny that you phrase it that way, because when I saw those sketches, the way that you represented them kind of reminded me of some of Norman McLaren’s animations – which is a different Canadian touchstone, but still.

TAMAKI: Yeah. He’s NFB [National Film Board of Canada].


TAMAKI: I’m not totally familiar with his work, I can’t really say.

RANDLE: He did that famous “Neighbours” short film–

TAMAKI: Oh, right. Stop-motion – the stop-motion animation.

RANDLE: He’s also known for these abstract animations set to music by people like Oscar Peterson, like “Begone Dull Care.” [both laugh, mysteriously]

TAMAKI: Again, I’m not familiar with his work enough to draw the comparison, but I do remember “Neighbours.” I used to – oh my God, I used to love NFB shorts. I used to tape them, because my parents got the movie channel and they would use them as bumpers, and I would wait until the NFB clips came on and I would tape them. It’s so funny, all the effort that you had to go through to collect material that you loved, whereas now it’s so accessible online. Like, if I’m a kid and I’m interested I just go find it, whereas before you had to sit and wait on the radio to tape something, or tape it on television. It just was not easy to come by.

RANDLE: I’m actually – I’m also actually too young to remember ‘80s TV commercials, so we both have gaps.

TAMAKI: Okay, good [laughs].

RANDLE: Whenever a cartoonist draws something in their sketchbook, they recontextualize it by definition, but certain pieces in Indoor Voice seem to do so consciously – I took a very different meaning from those “Four Sex Scenes” vignettes [semi-naked women working out and hiking alone] than I would from their source material, which you eventually reveal in the authors’ notes [Spanish softcore porn].

TAMAKI: That’s what’s interesting, right? When you see an image you bring your own context, and your own – you either find it interesting or you don’t. You either find it interesting knowing what I eventually was drawing from or you don’t. But I like that, and to go back to Skim, I like that it’s ambiguous. I revel in ambiguity. You can think one way and that is totally fine. I think that being too literal is the death of a lot of good art. When I tell my students, it’s like: “You don’t need to be so literal, people have brains. They can fill in the blanks.” That’s why people see Jesus in toast. You know what I’m saying? You just need a few landmarks to represent something, and I think conceptually it’s the same way. You don’t need to draw everything out – conceptually, I mean, draw everything out – so literally. The ambiguity and the spaces in between are actually what’s interesting.

One of the "Brooklyn Follies" strips from Indoor Voice.

RANDLE: I also like in Indoor Voice the sketches that you’re sort of using as catharsis. Like the “Brooklyn Follies” series.

TAMAKI: Right. Grumpy. I’m just a very grumpy, complain-y person. I feel bad because I feel like one of my true talents is complaining [Chris laughs], but it’s such an obnoxious thing that I’m suppressing it completely. And I’m on Twitter, but – it’s so stupid, but – I try not to complain too much? But then when I do bitch, people are like “I like it when you complain.” It is catharsis, again, even those – some of the drawings in that book are drawings of myself as a 90-year-old or 80-year-old woman, and for some reason I find it so comforting to draw this person who’s let themselves go. They’re really ugly, but they’re too okay with it to care. They’re sort of too wise to worry themselves with those things anymore [laughs]. It’s soothing, in a weird way.

RANDLE: And grumpy misanthropy is a venerable tradition in comics.

TAMAKI: I know, but it’s so played out [Chris laughs]. Maybe I bring a new feminist spin to it or something like that.

RANDLE: Yeah, it’s usually middle-aged men.

TAMAKI: Yeah, that’s right. I’m breaking barriers, what can I say [both laugh].

RANDLE: I just had a mental image of the one where the kid’s going on the motorized scooter: “Hope you get the ‘betes.”

TAMAKI: “Enjoy the ‘betes.” I know. I used to live by a park, and a lot of those comics – where the kid started shooting [with his finger] at me? That totally happened. Children are so confounding. Being in America, you’re a little bit of an outsider as a Canadian sometimes, it feels like.

RANDLE: Is there certain source material that you’re parodying with Supermutant Magic Academy? It kind of reminds me of all those Marvel comics about angsty X-teens, except they’re bickering college students.

TAMAKI: You know that new movie, um, X-Academy or something? I don’t know what it is.

A Supermutant Magic Academy page.

RANDLE: X-men: First Class?

TAMAKI: I was so excited. I was like: “Oh my God, that’s my comic! La la la la!” And then I saw the preview: “That’s not like my comic. There should be more teen drama happening here!” That series came out of doing my Dazzler comic in Strange Tales [Marvel’s “indie” anthology], which was a much more straightforward ironic foray into superhero comics, but, um, I know nothing about superheroes. Or Harry Potter. The only knowledge I have is from the movies. I’ve seen a few of them here and there, not even in succession. I became very interested in this idea of a superhero world or superhero characters after doing the Dazzler comic, but they’re probably more like Archie, which is where I came from? I really have no plan for those, and I’m not parodying anything because I don’t know the source material at all. I have to admit to that. Oh well. I think that gives it a bit of naïve, ignorant charm, or something. That’s what I like to think.

RANDLE: What are you working on at the moment? Can you tell me anything about – I hope I’m not mispronouncing it – Awago Beach Babies?

TAMAKI: Awago Beach Babies? [He was mispronouncing it.] I know just about as much as you do about that, because while we’ve signed on to do it, it’s really in Mariko’s hands right now. And then eventually she will finish it and then I get it. That’s kind of how we work, she completes it – we worked on the pitch together, but she completes the story and then she gives it to me to slave over for a couple of years.

RANDLE: I only have one last question, which is – I read on the D&Q blog that your grandma was famous in ’50s Montreal. Can you talk about that?

TAMAKI: Yeah! Her name was Fawzia Amir, and she was an Egyptian girl that was married off to an American G.I., and she came over to the States and popped out a few kids and then got divorced and moved to Montreal in the 1950s – maybe the 1960s, actually. She ran nightclubs, the Club Sahara or something like that, she was a bellydancer and performer and club owner, and hobnobbed with the seedy underground of Montreal, hanging with celebrities. She [was] a classic diva, which is funny, because I’m so not – I don’t even know how to apply makeup. And she’s wearing pasties and she’s wearing fur coats and diamonds and makeup, she looks different in every photo, and you see a picture of her with her armoire, with 75 different types of hair product. I’m so bewildered by all this. She’s sort of a tragic figure, actually. She was somebody that was so beautiful on the outside, but had a lot of paranoia issues, was a narcissist, was paranoid of everybody’s actions. A drama queen. We sort of assume – diva, drama queen, it’s so fabulous, it’s so outrageous, but it can ruin your relationships and cause a lot of strife in your life. But if you’re a drama queen you need that, right? That was my grandmother. Maybe there’ll be a book eventually. I have glamour shots of her and those are inspiring enough, almost.