Roaming, the latest graphic novel from cousins Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, explores friendship, sex, and identity in an energetic romp through New York City rendered with sharp dialogue and in mesmerizing tableaus of soft peach and purple. When high-school friends Zoe and Dani reunite in Manhattan for their first spring break of university, tensions run high when Dani’s art school classmate tags along on their trip. Fiona, a girl with bold eyeliner and opinions, moves through the city with feigned confidence and quickly complicates the group dynamic by striking up a flirtation with Zoe. Set over the course of five days, Roaming explores how foundational adolescent friendships can be tested when each person is given the space to experiment and change after moving away from home, a dynamic that surfaces early on when Dani shares old photos of Zoe with long hair, to Zoe’s obvious discomfort (they’ve buzzed their hair during the time apart).
Roaming is Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s third graphic novel, and their first foray into adult fiction. Their other collaborations, Skim (2005) and This One Summer (2014), were both considered young adult titles, but the pair have never shied away from difficult topics: Skim explores a Japanese-Canadian high-school student’s ambiguous intimate relationship with a female teacher, and This One Summer touches on miscarriage and abortion through the eyes of two teenage friends who spend the summer absorbing the complicated lives of the adults around them.
Jillian and Mariko are experienced topographers of the world of adolescent turmoil, but the classification of their work is incidental. “We never set out to hit a demographic,” Jillian said in an interview with Room magazine in 2015 (following the release of This One Summer), “there’s nothing in the process of making it where we are like ‘is this appropriate for a kid this age?’” This lack of rigid categorization is one of the duo’s greatest strengths: their work appeals to readers of all ages because they explore the mystery and excitement of early sexuality and identity with great emotional complexity and nuance. Roaming is a natural evolution from their previous two books. Here, the characters are older, and things like drugs and sex move from the periphery – things the characters in their previous books think and wonder about, but don’t do – into the centre of the narrative.
Dani, Zoe, and Fiona traipse through New York having the kind of conversations that only first-year university students can, such as whether it’s possible to have a genuine emotional experience at the Met if it is a monument to Western imperialism. New York becomes a rich stage for the trio’s simmering interpersonal tension.
In the Room interview, Mariko suggests that their shared goal is to create “something that feels like a single story being told, not a story being told twice, once by words, and once by images.” This interplay between text and image is central to Roaming’s delicate exploration of the tensions that arise between Dani, Zoe, and Fiona. The illustrations explore what goes unsaid in interactions, and as much – and sometimes more – is communicated in a blush of purple on a cheek or a touch between fingers as in dialogue. Rendering these gestures visually creates a subtlety that dialogue might not be able to convey; the reader is invited to notice details that can be easily overlooked. As Zoe and Fiona’s flirtation gains momentum, the illustrations highlight gestures that Dani doesn’t notice, such as a quick brush between Fiona and Zoe’s hands that is blown up to a full-page spread.
The spoken and the unspoken work in tandem to build a complex narrative of emotional and sexual tension. This contrapuntal interplay between word and image shines in a moving scene between Dani and Zoe near the comic’s end, in a rare moment away from Fiona. When they crawl out onto the hostel fire escape to smoke a joint, past and present collapse and Zoe’s hair is long again, like Dani remembers it. As they sit and reminisce about high school, their New York reality drops away and they return to the shared streets of their adolescence, walking through the Toronto suburb of North York, looking for a lost cat.