How Jillian Tamaki, one of Canada’s most versatile and stylistically adventurous illustrators, has become one of our best (and funniest) cartoonists
The characters in Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy may appear at first like a cross between Hogwarts students and the X-Men, but strip away their bizarre powers and alien appendages, and their teenage ennui is better suited to the halls of Degrassi High.
It also would be a mistake to read Tamaki’s webcomic, published in book form this May by Drawn & Quarterly, simply as a rapid-fire compendium of sly gags and pop-culture touchstones without much of a narrative thread (though the author did add several new strips to the collection, taking the gang all the way to graduation). At the story’s emotional core is a motley crew of adolescents who demand empathy: there’s spectacled Marsha, who plays Dungeons & Dragons with the boys and secretly is in love with her cat-eared best friend; Trixie, an at times brazenly confident lizard-girl with modelling aspirations; Frances, a tortured artist whose performances often involve nudity (and occasionally a toilet); bald Trevor, whose badass lightning-bolt forehead and destructive behaviour bely the fact that deep down he’s really a crybaby; and the indestructible Evan the Everlasting Boy, whom Tamaki gleefully tortures over and over. Tamaki jokes that her “immature” life as an artist keeps her in touch with teen emotions, but that doesn’t give enough credit to the fact that she can infuse as much pathos into a single comic panel as Morrissey can in an entire album.
Tamaki cannot remember a time in her life when she wasn’t drawing, or wasn’t being told she was destined to become an artist. Even if the Calgary native’s future career path seemed inevitable, at some point during her formative years a fierce independence kicked in: “I didn’t want to be told what to do,” she says. As a preteen, Tamaki went through a phase in which she wanted to become a veterinarian. She chose math and science over art classes, and when she did draw, she repeatedly reproduced photographs of horses. She credits that early equine obsession with giving her the focus needed for cartooning, which often means “drawing the same scenes and characters over and over, from different angles and [at] different times of day.”
Tamaki also preferred animals to reading comics. She got into Archie through her younger sister, but unlike kids who spend hours drawing their favourite characters – trying to perfect Garfield’s lasagne-eating grin or the swoop of Snoopy’s nose – Tamaki didn’t pay serious attention to the medium until 2001, when she enrolled at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. There, she started making zines, and was introduced to the work of artists such as Hayao Miyazaki, Adrian Tomine, Chester Brown, and Seth.
Formerly enrolled in foundational studies for fine art at Queen’s University, Tamaki switched to ACAD’s visual communications design program after one year (she hoped the practical training would help her secure a job after graduation). She praises the program for being “really old-school and rigorous” in its attention to subjects like anatomy and its emphasis on drawing by hand over using a computer tablet. ACAD also was where Tamaki discovered she was much better suited to illustration (which she didn’t initially realize comprised half the curriculum) than design.
After graduating from ACAD in 2003, she was recruited by BioWare, an Edmonton-based video-game production company, where she worked on characters for the martial-arts game Jade Empire, while doing freelance illustration on the side. In 2005, Tamaki moved to New York, and two years later began teaching at Parsons the New School for Design, and later the School of Visual Arts.