Most cartoonists can only dream of the year Jillian Tamaki is having. Last May, First Second Books released This One Summer, a gorgeous graphic novel illustrated by Tamaki and written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki about a girl’s coming-of-age during summer vacation. Full of lush natural imagery and deeply expressive characters, This One Summer garnered Tamaki major recognition, and in February of this year, she became the first graphic novel artist to be awarded a Caldecott Honor. She received this distinction in the time between the airing of her two episodes of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, but she’s still firmly rooted in the world of comic books, releasing two new pieces this season: SuperMutant Magic Academy, a Drawn & Quarterly collection of Tamaki’s long-running Tumblr comic, and an issue of Youth In Decline’s monograph series Frontier. She recently spoke with The A.V. Club about her evolution as a creator, the value of exploring adolescence in art, and the challenges of jumping from comics to animation.
The A.V. Club: What was your first introduction to comic books?
Jillian Tamaki: My younger sister actually was very into Archie comics, and Mad Magazine, and Cracked. [Laughs.] Which I always think is funny, because it’s usually an older brother or sister that gets you into things. She would always buy Archie, and she would color-code them on a bookshelf. I started getting into comics more through her, and then we would just read Archie and stuff like that. We would cut out the little word balloons and paste them on other things and make funny connections that way. And then I sort of aged out of that, and then didn’t read comics again until I was in art college. I was around some people that were fans of alternative comics, and that’s where I clued in to the fact there were things that were about real life. [Laughs.] I really had no idea that stuff even existed. So, I didn’t make that leap. I’m sure there were many ways a young person can graduate from kid comics to something in between, like maybe that’s where our books fit in somewhere, but I don’t know if those existed or I didn’t know about them at the time. So, it’s something I rediscovered again in my early 20s.
AVC: What were some of the alt-comics that stood out to you at that time?
JT: Adrian Tomine’s comics were amazing, and then when I wanted to start making them, it was the Drawn & Quarterly stable of people. Michel Rabagliati was super cool. I really like how he balances technical aspects with his style of storytelling. And Chester Brown. One thing I really glommed onto early on was Tomer Hanuka and Asaf Hanuka’s Bipolar, which is funny, because they have a new book coming out. It’s not something I hear about that often, but I thought it was cool how Tomer was an illustrator and making comics. I don’t even know if he would consider himself a cartoonist. I know his brother does more of that now. That was really intriguing to me that he was doing both of those things.
AVC: When did you decide that you wanted to pursue illustration as a professional career?
JT: I went to the Alberta College Of Art And Design. I went to become a designer, and then realized by accident when I got there it was half illustration, half design. I didn’t even know illustration was a thing. It’s so funny, because I taught at SVA [New York City’s School Of Visual Arts] for a long time, and kids already know they’ve wanted to be an illustrator since 15 or something. I didn’t even know that was a job. I always loved illustrated things. I didn’t know there was—I just thought that was for artists or something. That’s where I was introduced to, “Oh, this is a profession.” This is a job that you can have. [Laughs.] It was just complete serendipity. But it was a real hard decision for me to stop thinking that I was just going to be a designer. Not that I was that good at it. What life is for an illustrator seemed a lot more precarious, and maybe it is, especially for a freelancer most of the time, so it was a really big leap to make that decision when I graduated. I had a half in-between job where I worked at BioWare in Edmonton for two years while I was moonlighting as a freelance illustrator and just working around the clock, as you can when you’re 23. It was sort of like gradual half-steps, how I eventually became an illustrator. I needed small safety nets, I guess.
AVC: When did you start working creatively with your cousin Mariko?
JT: So, when I was working at the video game—again, 23, 24—I did my first comic, which was a mini-comic about the new city I was living in, and was futzing around with comics in general. And then my cousin, who is a writer, she had one or two books out at that point, came across an opportunity through a friend to make a small 24-page comic. We did not grow up with one another, but she was like, “Oh, I have this cousin that’s looking to start making comics. And I think that would be fun. Let’s just make this small thing.” So, that was the first time we worked together.
AVC: What do you appreciate about her as a collaborator?
JT: Well, she comes from a theater background. She comes from an activist background. There’s a lot of performance in her creative DNA. What comes with that is that she’s really great at collaborating and working with other people and bouncing off other people and accepting other people’s element that they’re going to bring to whatever work. I think that she’s a great collaborator in that she is not precious about what she brings to any sort of collective work and is very giving and very trusting, actually, and is willing to be surprised by an unexpected manipulation of ideas or characters or themes or whatever.
AVC: Is there a reason that your collaborations have focused primarily on adolescence, or is that a coincidence?
JT: I guess it’s the whole cliché of writing. We’re both extremely interested in the experience of being a girl and being a woman and feminist themes. That’s who we are as people, and therefore, it’s not like we sit down and are like, “Let’s write a thing about the female experience.” It’s clearly just what I find interesting, and that’s what she finds interesting, and therefore I think that’s where we overlap. There’s a lot in our individual personalities and works that doesn’t overlap, but that is definitely one that does. In terms of adolescence, we did not set out to make YA books or anything like that, it was just that I think we’re both attracted to that time because it is extremely vivid, and you’re making discoveries that seem—they are extremely important and extremely dramatic to you. She’s great at dialogue, and that’s just a wonderful—high school is a great little fishbowl to explore all those things.
AVC: It’s interesting how in the last decade there have been more graphic novels that specifically cater to female adolescents. And it’s a market that is largely untapped in mainstream comics.
JT: Yeah, I think that distinction is interesting. Are they catering to that audience, or are they representing that audience? I believe that one of the misconceptions can be that because a book is about a girl or a woman, that it’s for girls or women. You know? I believe that there are—I’ll just say it—there are a lot of men that are just not interested in women’s stories, and that’s a shame. I think now, hopefully, the proof is in the pudding—if you have a story about women or are reflecting a female experience, you can also make money. [Laughs.] You don’t want to be cynical, but that’s when real change comes in terms of a mainstream change. When people realize that something is actually not niche, but can make a lot of money. Maybe that’s a cynical thing to think.
AVC: How did it feel to be the first graphic novel illustrator to receive the Caldecott Honor?
JT: I mean, that was really surprising, only because I didn’t really consider—I wasn’t expecting to get a phone call, because I did not expect that I would even be in the running for something like that. I’m from an editorial illustration background, a comics background, more like a publishing background. Children’s books seem like a whole different world, a completely different facet that I know very little about, really. I know of so many people that do that full-time, and it seems like I know very little of that world. I had assumed it was for picture books. It’s a great honor, obviously. I am always really touched to know by work can extend to audiences that I didn’t expect or don’t necessarily even think about when I’m making work.
AVC: The character expression and environmental detail in This One Summer are really noticeable. How did you hone your skills with those elements?
JT: Well, I will just go back to ACAD to speak to that for a little bit, because that program at the time—I was there from 2000 to 2003—was very technical-based. It was almost like a trade school sort of thing. The second year—I had gone to another school for my foundation year—the first year I was there, was just anatomy, skeletons, muscle charts, life drawing all year, six-hour classes. It’s a lot of technical drawing, and then a lot of perspective rendering, architectural renderings, texturing where you have to just render a glass bottle with graphite. I think that there was a real emphasis on observation; you can explore your complex feelings and emotions later, you just need to learn how to draw properly first, which could get really tiresome, obviously.
But I’m so glad I went through that boot camp because, I don’t carry everything forward from that, but it was great to just have somebody sit down with you and tell you, “Here is how you draw something in perspective. This looks wrong, here’s how to fix it.” I feel like I got a really good foundation. And then I think the second part of that question is, especially being an editorial illustrator, you’re just drawing so much, especially those first couple of years when you’re really hustling and you’re doing a lot of jobs all over the place. You just really become comfortable with your own vocabulary and your own skills, and that means your strengths and your weaknesses. Practice makes perfect, the old cliché. I did have years of drawing continuously, which just brings you up to a comfort level, which can help you a lot when you’re dealing with a comic, which is a crazy amount of drawing. Stamina alone is huge.
AVC: What inspired the creation of SuperMutant Magic Academy?
JT: I had done a Marvel Strange Tales that was dipping my toe into superhero comics, which to be honest, I did not know anything about and I’m not that interested in. I realized when I did that comic I was more interested in my character’s daily life and her relationships with her boyfriend and stuff like that. [Laughs.] I also was looking for a project that was not polished, just for myself, sort of like a diary. I had gotten bored with putting my sketchbook up online of drawings. I wanted something that would let me practice writing. Again, it’s sort of an intentionally stupid concept that I just want to use to drape things over and move around with them. It’s the time-honored thing of using high school. It’s not a new idea to explore different types of people. Again, like I mentioned earlier, it’s a very vivid time. All emotions are new. For a kid to remark upon them is not so unusual.
AVC: What was your high school experience like?
JT: I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and I went to a public high school that I hated. Not because I was terribly bullied or anything like that, it was just so—I always felt like I was 30 years old or something. “I’m done being around people you’re forced to be around. Where are the like-minded people?” I always wished I went to a place where there were uniforms because I always thought it would be so great to have one less thing to differentiate people. I’ve since learned that, even within groups of kids with uniforms, there’s ways of differentiating yourself and transmitting “I’m cool” or “I’m not cool” or whatever. This comes through in Marsha especially, where I was just like, “If I just keep my head down…” It was a matter of surviving, you know? To just get through and bleed it out.
AVC: Which of the teens would you say is closest to who you were when you were in high school? Marsha?
JT: Yeah, I think some of the characters are directly people I know, but I think that there are parts of me in all of them. But Marsha did end up being a character that, if there is a main character, it’s probably her. But maybe not necessarily because I identify with her more. She just ended up being a more flexible character. Certain characters seem to be able to be easier to manipulate, and she ended up being one that I could put into different situations. I was sort of learning new elements of her all the time, so that was more of an organic process versus any sort of “She’s me!”
AVC: If you had a superability, what would it be?
JT: Oh my God… to make more hours in the day. [Laughs.] To slow down time or something.
AVC: Why did you take SuperMutant Magic Academy to Drawn & Quarterly instead of First Second?
JT: Well actually, I had one book with Drawn & Quarterly before this, so I already had a relationship with them. It was funny, because I was only five strips in or something, like ridiculously early, and [Drawn & Quarterly creative director] Tom Devlin was like, “Oh, should we be paying attention to this? What’s this about?” It is nice to have relationships with various publishers. This publisher could be great for this type of project, this publisher fits this project a little bit more. In the case of this, it was that he just called dibs on it.
AVC: The surreal Everlasting Boy interludes are fascinating. What was the purpose for doing those as part of your artistic exercise?
JT: He’s obviously the most poetic character. He’s kind of a thought experiment, in terms of how your gift or your superability or your thing that might be enviable can actually be a curse. I think what I like doing is following things to the extreme end. That’s a very common thing in our culture, like, “I would love to live forever. I never want to age, I never want to get old, I never want to get ugly, I never want to die.” So here’s a kid that is that, and he’s miserable. What do you do with all that time? I guess I just completely contradicted what I just said about wishing I had more time. So yeah, he’s a thought experiment. I do like following a thread to the very end, and I think that that’s really fun, so that’s where he came from.
AVC: There’s a shift toward the end of the collection where it switches from the self-contained one-page strips to something more serialized, especially in those last scenes. Was that something that just naturally happened, or did you have a feeling that you needed to tell a bigger story?
JT: Well, I think when something is already published—well, published online, or a webcomic—and then you’re putting a book out, there’s always going to be a component of people that will buy the thing because they’re happy to support you and stuff like that. But I think it’s nice to give more meat and more content when you’re trying to sell something to somebody. [Laughs.] And give them another reason to buy the book and expand upon it in hopefully a surprising way. I did feel like there should be some sort of sense of resolution or a conclusion. I don’t think every string is tied up at some point of the project or in the thing at the end, but if certain very loose narratives threads just stopped, it would have felt really uncomfortable and unsatisfying. I did want to just tie up some of the more important ones, and give a little bit of a hunk of meat at the end. It’s also somewhat inspired by the original Degrassi High, where they put out a two-hour movie at the end of the series. There was more sex, there was swearing. Everything was way more intense. They were outside of the school. Somehow, that particular little world got expanded slightly, and it was a funny feeling. So that was part of the inspiration for having this big chunk at the end. I wanted to have that feeling a little bit of the world getting expanded.
AVC: Is there anything you’re especially proud of over the course of the comic?
JT: No. Every project that you finish is a mix of satisfaction, maybe even a little bit of pride in following something to the finish. Doing these books is a big investment of time and energy. You’re never going to be happy with everything in a book, and it never ends up as perfect as you wanted, but it is really gratifying to see four or five years of work together. I think it’s a different experience reading them one after another versus the way they were originally parceled out, which is online once a week, or something like that. I think it’s a really different—and you’re encountering in a Tumblr feed or whatever, it’s a really different experience to see it put together. I was very surprised that there were that many comics that had accrued. Yeah, it’s pretty cool to see it in one spot.
AVC: I loved seeing the evolution from the beginning to the end.
JT: I think that’s a big part of the book that a certain type of person might enjoy seeing that process. It really is starting from something that’s just—you don’t even know what it is. It’s just a nugget of some idea. And then it goes off in various directions. Some dead-end, as well. I think that some people will find that interesting. Some people might find that confusing or unsatisfying. But, you know, it is what it is.
AVC: You’ve worked on two episodes of Adventure Time that aired this season. How did you get involved with the series?
JT: Well, I always think of those Cartoon Network shows and comics as being so tied together. There’s a lot of cross-pollination that happens, mostly because they tap the comics community because comics is writing and drawing. That way that they board the show creates something really unique versus just a storyboarder transcribing a writer. You have those two things within the same person, it comes out a little differently, right? So, they knew of me through my comics and just approached me about it. I have quite a few friends who work over there as well.
AVC: They’ve had some amazing people working on the show this season: Sam Alden, Sloane Leong, Brandon Graham.
JT: It makes me happy also to know that if cartooning and comics are not that lucrative—in some ways, it’ll always be a subsidized thing—it is really cool to—I mean, who knows how long it’ll last. This is a really special time for television and cartoons and stuff like that, but I’m really glad that my friends get to have jobs, and make some money, and save some money, and get a house and all this stuff, and have their work seen by a lot of people. And they’re shaping the minds of young children with their twisted perspective. I’m so happy for them.
AVC: What have been some of the challenges in writing and storyboarding? Has there been anything that has come surprisingly easily?
JT: Well, I think comics prepares you for the amount of drawing needed. It’s so much drawing. It’s crazy. But storyboarding and comics are really, really different. One thing I noticed was that time works very differently in a storyboard or an animated sequence than it can in comics, where you can really play with anything. You can compress it, you can expand upon it, but I was constantly being told, “You have to articulate this motion. You just can’t appear over there.” You need to get there and stuff like that. That was one of the—again, there are all these storyboarding rules you actually shouldn’t do in comics, because a comic isn’t a storyboard. You go the other way, where it’s like, “Oh, you have to do that, or it doesn’t make any sense.”
AVC: Do you have any episodes coming up in the future?
JT: Those two are the only ones I’ve worked on. There isn’t one in the pike or anything like that. Who knows? I’m not talking to them about doing anything else, but it’s just super busy right now with book stuff. You never know.
AVC: You work in a variety of different media. Which is your favorite?
JT: I love futzing around and just playing around, trying to be loose and free and not worrying about being a technical master. I do like trying new mediums, but I always come back to drawing. Whether that is pencil or ink, might be one of the two, is sort of my first love.
AVC: What’s the biggest piece of advice you have for an aspiring cartoonist?
JT: Make comics. [Laughs.] It sounds flippant to say, but it’s never been easier to make comics and publish them and get people looking at them. I’m always a little surprised when somebody says they one day they want to be a cartoonist. You can make them. Like right now. You need some white copier paper and a pencil. Start drawing. You’re going to be bad for a long time. But you’ve got start somewhere.
AVC: With the rise of digital, there are so many outlets. Anything you do can go out to the entire world.
JT: It was not hard before, going and photocopying pieces of paper, but it’s even easier now. There’s no reason not to if that’s what you’re interested in doing.