This graphic novel is a winner. Skim is a unique creation by Mariko Tamaki, a Toronto-based writer and playwright, and her cousin, illustrator Jillian Tamaki, formerly of Edmonton and now living in New York, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and Maclean’s. Skim was first published in shorter form as a special edition of the magazine Kiss Machine in 2005. Mariko Tamaki also adapted an earlier version of it as a stage play.
Set in a very recognizable Toronto in 1993 and influenced by early 1990s riot-grrl and goth culture, Skim is both a character study of 16-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim) and a fast-paced high school drama. Skim is an overweight grade 10 student stuck in the suburbs at a private girls’ school, dealing with her separated parents, absorbed in wicca, tarot cards, astrology, and philosophy, and rebelling against conformity. She’s also a visual artist grappling with her emerging gay identity. The tale is narrated as excerpts from Skim’s diary and chronicles her life over the course of one autumn, ending at Christmas. Each entry begins with “Dear diary” and portrays the day in text and art, creating an immediacy and intimacy at the centre of the story.
Skim and her best friend Lisa are outsiders at school. Bullied by cruel cliques and hungry for understanding, Skim develops a sexual crush on her English teacher, Ms. Archer, after a talk in the woods outside school leads to a kiss. Skim begins stalking the teacher (who withdraws) and becomes estranged from her best friend. Skim’s mourning, loss, and isolation are palpable.
Skim’s struggle to become an individual is set against a subplot about a popular girl’s jock boyfriend, who has committed suicide. Assuming that the youth’s suicide is a romantic heterosexual tragedy, the students spiral into group hysteria, led by the marvellously named guidance counsellor, Mrs. Hornet. The story’s examination of gay identities reveals just how closeted high school culture is: the students don’t discuss the fact that the jock was gay. Nor does Skim share her sexual feelings with her best friend.
Scenes are often hilarious and black-humoured as well as serious – the mock horror of the high school dance; the blind double date with two identical car-less geeks; the sleepover party where Skim arrives as The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion, only to find all the other girls dressed as ballerinas and figure skaters.
Mariko Tamaki’s prose captures an authentic adolescent voice that’s dramatic, self-obsessed, funny, earnest, and sometimes glib. Using teenage vernacular, Skim’s voice ranges from adolescent rage (“I’m a freak”) to inner sensitivity (“I had a dream/ I put my hands/ inside my chest/ and held my heart/ to try to keep it still”). Skim is an unforgettable character in the tradition of Holden Caulfield – a clear social commentator on adult and adolescent behaviour whose ironic observations on social hypocrisy ring sharp and true.
Illustrator Jillian Tamaki’s fine draughtsmanship gives Skim a classic elegance that’s missing in many other graphic novels. The italic font evokes the hand-written script of a diary, with words often crossed out and new ones added, revealing Skim’s changing emotions. The monochromatic pen and ink drawings build an atmosphere of shadow and light as characters are portrayed dramatically against blocks of grey and intense black washes. Tamaki’s drawings are fluid and loose, creatively employing elements such as dialogue balloons and lines to show movement. The panels vary dynamically in size and placement, using unusual diagonal framing, bird’s-eye perspectives, and close-ups to portray adolescent turmoil.
The only colour image, on the cover, is a sensual close-up of Skim that evokes 18th-century Japanese woodblock prints. The illustration imaginatively portrays Skim, who thinks of herself as unattractive, in the Japanese tradition of erotic portraits of beautiful women.
Jillian Tamaki creates entire sequences without words. In one wordless double-page spread of the woods – a refuge where Skim and her teacher retreat – the girls are dwarfed by haunting black and grey tree silhouettes as they walk away from the spirit of the dead boy they wished to summon, who sits watching them leave. Here the illustrations convey a powerful sense of mystical eeriness that deepens and enhances the story.
Skim is a funny, poignant, memorable drama of navigating adolescence.