On Contradictory Emotions, Complexity & Time: A Conversation with Jillian Tamaki

by: , March 30, 2023

© Jillian Tamaki. Photo by Anne Marie Coultier

Jillian Tamaki is a cartoonist and illustrator of nine books, including Skim and This One Summer, both co-authored with her cousin Mariko Tamaki. This One Summer became the first graphic novel to be awarded a Caldecott Honor. Her own works include several picture books, Boundless, a collection of short comics for adults, and SuperMutant Magic Academy, a collected webcomic about a school of weird emo kids who happen to be mutants.


Shoshana Magnet: Do you want to get started by talking a little bit about your process?

Jillian Tamaki: That’s a really hard question even though it’s the go-to question. It varies so much between my commercial illustration practice, my picture book stuff…the comics I do with Mariko [Tamaki] are really different from a comic like SuperMutant Magic Academy, so it really depends. Frankly, I get bored of my process. They’re so involved that it’s often a year or more of intense repetition. So, I feel like it’s always changing from project to project and of course, evolving over the years.

SM: Is it an anxious thing for you?

JT: Just boredom. I want to do things differently and see the results. If the process changes, then the result will change as well, naturally.

I’ve said this in other places, but my process for any given thing is often a response to the project I’ve just completed. For example, This One Summer took years: it depicted a real place, realistic space, was heavily referenced with photography. It’s very environmental. The process of doing the final art was a straight year of penciling, inking, scanning into the computer, because it was done traditionally. Once I was done with that book I wanted to do the complete opposite. So, that was where SuperMutant Magic Academy came from, which was so spontaneous and freeform, fleeting ideas jotted down in a half hour and then put up online. Very spur of the moment and no plan for any arc. The art is so sketchy and loose, I gave myself permission to not make anything look ‘neat and tidy.’ Hopefully that illustrates the spectrum of processes.

I was interested in seeing: by changing that process, how do the result differ?

SM: Right, because, it feels at times like Boundless and SuperMutant Magic Academy are almost collections of short stories, or that you’re not wedded to a narrative through-line. And maybe that feels different for you as an artist drawing that or writing?

JT: Yeah! Boundless was a result of building off of [that].

SuperMutant was a conscious attempt to improve writing and find my voice. I had worked with my cousin for two books and those were long projects that take years. It can be a weird experience to be obsessed with a project for three years and then like, pop! It’s it out there. ‘Here it is like, hope it’s good!’ I wanted something that was much more repetitive and almost like doing calisthenics, you know? Strips are great for that. It was also incredible to have a more daily relationship with readers. It felt almost interactive.

And then after that project ended, I wanted to do longer stories, but of course, since it’s from my brain, some of the same themes remain. Boundless is more related to SuperMutant Magic Academy than This One Summer in my mind. I’m working on another book now with my cousin. Previously, she had written the scripts alone. This one we’ve written together. And while there’s still so much of me in the books she wrote, this one I feel is just as spiritually related to Boundless as This One Summer. So, it’s interesting. We’ll see what people think. And as you enter mid-career it can feel much more risky or intimidating to fuck with the formula.

SM: Yeah, like you’re changing instruments.

JT: And there will be people who prefer the things you did in the past. That’s just inevitable. It takes a little bit of gumption and ego and fearlessness or whatever… screwing up the courage to like jump off that ledge and try something different. But it also feels risky to not change. People get bored so easily.

I mean, that’s being a commercial artist. I feel like you cannot stay static because the world gets bored, but then to change also feels risky and very hard and exhausting sometimes.

SM: For sure, this constant fetishisation of the new maybe feels hard too.

JT: And youth. Because you’re also ageing as a person. So, you’re like, ‘God, at some point, my view of the world is going to maybe be out of fashion.’ This comes up in commercial illustration: it’s a very trend-driven fashion industry that we’re in. Publishing is not that different. It’s not just the ‘sacrosanct’ objects … it’s an industry.

So yeah, it’s always on your mind. Maybe it’s also my age too. Being a millennial, an elder millennial, you cannot ever relax. Right? There’s never, ‘I’ve made it.’ It’s always like, ‘well, this could all go away.’

SM: [It’s easy to feel] a lot of discomfort. I mean, maybe that gives us a chance to talk about politics and political influences too. As you know, we don’t talk enough about feminist artists as what Jenny Offill calls ‘art monsters.’ [It seems to me] in your shared work with Mariko [Tamaki] and also in your own work, [there is a] feminist take on white supremacy, on fat politics, or in Skim, a work that is speaking back to anti-Asian racism.

I wish we had a word, there’s such a great word for anti-black sexist, racism, ‘misogynoir’ from Moya Bailey (2018), but we need a word for the way racism and sexism come together for Asian Canadian women characters… It is its own thing, like the way in which women of colour ask not to take up space.

And I feel like sometimes you’re trying to illustrate that like [the male characters] in SuperMutant Magic Academy, characters that are trying to take up space in different ways, I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about that or if that interests you…

JT: I don’t think I was raised in a very political household. I feel like sometimes my understanding is only after the fact: I was an alternative kid but too young for riot grrrl when it actually happened. But I was very interested in that when I was like a teenager. I feel like my work is informed by some of that very flawed, indie, alt strain of thought. It’s very limited, I see that now. The concerns were very middle-class and not intersectional. I did not have any words for anything beyond, ‘feminism is important to me’ and ‘women are capable’ or ‘women are treated like shit by society’ or whatever. My baseline understanding of feminism and wanting to buck up against [Patriarchy] and see representation.

SM: Isn’t that the core though, too?

JT: It is, it’s a place to start. Right. It starts with a feeling. I’m much more driven by feelings and trying to interpret those feelings and connect those feelings to the world. I work from a very instinctual place, not a particularly academic place. And in the past, I felt somewhat insecure about that. When I was starting out, I felt more pressure to fit into some sort of lineage. You should know the ‘Masters.’ Revere the people who have come before. And I have never, ever been that person. That’s not a snide comment on the quality of the canon, even. I simply have always come from a place of creation and wanting to create things and wanting to write things and wanting to work with my hands and express myself. It’s actually quite basic. Releasing yourself from the canon and the scene is very liberating.

In terms of political statements in my work, I think I just try to trust that they will emerge in the process. I’m mining for emotions and feelings and experiences first. I’m reminded that ‘the personal is political’ all the time, because politics will often flow out naturally.

I’m often surprised by the depth of readers’ interpretations. And I often agree with them. But if I’m honest, I usually start writing with only half-formed thoughts. I’m often driven by anger. Anger is such an animating force for me, always has been. It’s often after the fact that you come to some sort of sober understanding or contextual understanding, or other people do it for you. That’s been a crazy thing to come to understand as a creator —that you put things in the world and people will put their own things on it, you know?

SM: It’s so great to hear you talk about anger. I mean, to me it seems like a really feminist practice, not to only think about the canon. I mean, I heard Lynda Barry speak a long time ago, and I remember her saying that she was taken to some gallery to see a whole bunch of paintings [the ‘Masters’]. And all of her classmates were weeping and she was trying to get one tear out of the corner of her eye, [but] she didn’t feel anything.

JT: And it’s the right Masters too, you know? I feel like so many of my influences are junk. I guess there’s more appreciation for junk culture [now], but I have felt in the past a little inadequate. Clearly I admire and have learned from the Masters of comics. But I think my work is just as influenced by junky pop culture.

SM: I’m tempted to ask you if you want to speak more about anger, just because I don’t know how many therapists I’ve had who’ve been like, ‘I don’t know how many women I’m going to have to tell that it’s okay to feel angry.’

JT: Yeah. I mean I guess it’s just who I am. I don’t think that that’s like a good or bad thing. It can be good sometimes. And it can be bad. Often it’s a total waste of energy. I think that it ties into ego and I think you absolutely have to have an ego to be an artist.

Why would what YOU have to think about the world be particularly important? Why should anybody care? We’re not entitled to anybody caring. I shouldn’t say that. I just feel that it takes some ego to think that your opinion is worth more than anybody else’s.

I’ve tried to harness anger and put it to positive things, but it is absolutely a driving force in my life. Or discontent. I feel like there’s also a lot of melancholy in my work. Those can be twinned emotions.

SM: I feel like I really see that through Boundless and SuperMutant Magic Academy. I mean that a lot of your characters are feeling that kind of … coming from a place of rage, and also a place of deep, maybe cynicism, or like, feel fear or despair . . .about the world.

JT: I was thinking about this interview and thinking a little bit about my work… I feel like there’s a thematic strand in my writing—and my work with Mariko—of change. The transitional, liminal time and being a teenager. Yes. This whole thing.

I still feel like maybe it’s because we live in a time where things are changing so quickly, our dreams that we were raised with feel increasingly out of reach for many of us. How you thought your life was going to look is slipping away. And we have to re-envision what life will look like and our place in society, all these things. For good and bad, you know? But that is hard. That is really, really hard for me. The idea of Change and the things you leave behind when you change is just so sad. That you have to leave things behind. It’s really upsetting. I feel like that is tinged in all my work: things can’t stay the same and things change. ‘It will never be the same again.’ ‘You can’t go home.’ All those themes are in there. And that’s not an intentional theme.

That is the amazing thing about having a body of work come together: themes emerge and they’re not intentional, they just have become a motif. Because clearly there’s something in you that is interested in that.

SM: But it’s true, a lot of your work has these places that are ending, like This One Summer—they’re at the beach and then they’re leaving, or SuperMutant Magic Academy and the high school. And they’re never going to be able to go back to that again.

They kind of remind me of mothers who are holding babies, who can’t wait to put their baby down. But at the same time, they are already imagining the future in which [the babies will be grownup] and feeling sad they won’t need to be held anymore. And your characters are feeling that … there’s so much musing in the moment, and already looking forward to when they’re going to be nostalgic for the moment. And they can’t wait to get out of it at the same time. [In some ways your work strikes me as a meditation on time and its attendant feelings/affects].

JT: A hundred percent. And I’m still like that. I really feel like a lot of my preoccupation when making work—and I’m thinking about this with the current graphic novel—is trying to convey extremely complex emotions like that. And is that even possible? How a contradictory emotion or a layered emotion works. How can I make you feel it too? That’s really what I’m trying to do with almost every panel.

SM: Do you feel like paradox or contradiction are themes for your work? Because sometimes I feel like your characters are expressing two [contradictory feelings] at the same time.

JT: Yeah! And I think that emerged from working with Mariko, I mean, both of our first comics were with each other. Skim particularly, really laid the template for both of us. At least I feel that way. What I learned from Mariko, and what she does so well, is that words and actions don’t always mirror. I hope that I’ve heightened that in our work. I’m saying one thing, but I’m feeling another thing and it might be even doing a third thing. They don’t always align. It’s one reason I feel comics are so perfect for her voice.

It’s really intriguing, that dissonance between what one says and what one does.

SM: That is so interesting. I know that I’ve highlighted a lot, like at one point, I’ve got it as page 32 of Super Mutant Magic Academy (2015):



JT: And it’s a high-low [culture] thing too, which I find very funny. On the one hand, there’s an intellectual understanding, you know, and then also the gut feeling. Those are in conflict too. Because they are always in conflict … or not even conflict: complement. It’s so human to be interested in the grand philosophies of life but also in little, tiny details. For example, ‘why didn’t he call me? Surely there must be a cosmic reason!’

And ‘I know I’m supposed to have a grand philosophy of life. I’m a teenager.’

SM: I feel like something that’s so beautiful about your work is that it feels like a feminist kind of sensibility that, you’re not suggesting that grand philosophies are only about metaphysical sweeping statements, but they’re also built like the everyday details of who calls you back and who’s interested in you.

And I think they are like that. It seems like an intersectional feminist theory argument to value the everyday interests too … and the small details of peoples’ lives, what Allyson Mitchell (2001) has called ‘nothing big and nothing small.’

JT: That’s very interesting. I mean, I think some of that is influenced by manga. Not necessarily that philosophy, but that sense of the everyday small details. I’m a huge, huge manga nerd that knows everything and has read every manga, but I think I am really struck by the attention that is given to environmental details and small things, everyday things. That they are very profound and they’re worthy of attention. The time and effort that it takes to capture that detail is very worthwhile and meaningful.

SM: Yeah, because in Skim, there’s so many small details, like time passing so slowly, or a particular address on a receipt, like Ms. Archer’s address, kind of highlighted in a particular way…

But those small details, to me are also about queer love as potentially a theme in your work. Like those little details are also signaling queer love. And it’s not just these grand coming out narratives, sometimes your ends are kind of incomplete or impartial. And that also feels like a treasuring of the details to me.

JT: Time is a huge. I mean, Time is the fourth dimension in comics. There is manipulation of time in comics as a medium and I’m acutely aware of how I’m dealing with time within passages and overall. If you’re compressing time … if you’re decompressing time.

I often find that the endings are like… it’s funny, me and Mariko were laughing about this once. Like, the parents in This One Summer are going to get divorced, right? They’ve fought all summer! That’s not cured by having a nice moment of grace at the end. The moment of grace is important, but the problem isn’t cured. Not all is fixed. It keeps on going. But this moment of brief—even if it’s brief—understanding. It’s cleansing, or whatever.

SM: Those are moments, and then they go…

JT: and then you are fighting again on the highway back.

SM: Yeah, right! Okay, I feel like a lot of your work is really attuned to writing and drawing gendered forms of racism. And that there’s a way in which who gets to take up space is portrayed, like the everyday cruelty that, for example, Skim’s mean friend Lisa, [in] the way that she condemns her knowledge of witchcraft, and who’s allowed to be an expert and who’s allowed to grieve.

JT: That would be Mariko, just with that book, that was really her story, not her personal story, but she wrote that story. So, it would probably be more interesting to get her answer for that. But yeah, it’s definitely in there, but I think it’s a subconscious by-product of trying to be truthful about my experience. A lot of things are by-products.

And I’m so grateful that people find that meaning and those things, because it means that I’ve been truthful in the process.

SM: Can we talk a little bit more about time? Because it seems to me that time, and also thoughts on technology and the speeding up and slowing down of time are some of those paradoxes that you were talking about. For example, at times, a character, I think it’s Cheddar, who says he’s got to leave class because it doesn’t last forever, ‘only a few more years until the weight of the world crushes me bit by bit … the best I can explain is that I’ve got to go suck the marrow of my freedom now’ (SuperMutant Magic Academy, 2015), but then in the next paragraph, he’s looking through his phone and eating McDonald’s. We’re all kind of doing that, suited for these grand meanings and at the same time we’re scrolling on Instagram…

JT: I think there’s also maybe something about autonomy in that too. After all, it’s how I choose to spend a lot of my own free time. I’ve always been obsessed with the internet. I feel like we got our ‘good’ internet when I was14. I think we had something before that, but really it took off for me when I was 14, and I started chatting online, and [I] haven’t stopped since. Comics is such an online community, in the way that I’ve experienced it. So many of best friends now are people that I met online initially. So, I’m never one to sort of dismiss the online space or online friends or time spent online. It’s been incredibly important to me.

It can also be so bad and destructive obviously, but I feel like it’s silly to pretend that that time is less potent than ‘real life’…in fact it’s often more important or more potent than we like give it credit for. I guess I’ve taken my online life pretty seriously.

SM: I think that feels really good to hear, especially because we’re in this moral panic of . . . documentaries, including The Social Dilemma, where there is this fearmongering around technology but people have really profound [experiences online]. It’s through technology in your work, like in Boundless (2017), [the character] Jenny has a pretty big emotional narrative arc, like identification, disidentification, and cruelty watching . . . relationships unfold [online].

JT: That was definitely informed by my own personal relationship to social media. I had just gotten divorced and then left the city where I had been married.

My whole marriage was bookended by my time in New York—I was there for 10 years, so I had a lot of friends and my network there. When I decided to move back to Canada, I was Instagraming a lot of the process. I felt watched, you know? Because this big dramatic thing had just happened. And I’d sort of packed up really quickly and left for a totally new environment, whole new life. And whether it’s true or not—that’s a very big asterisk! —I felt that transition was being observed. I was aware of the way I was trying to present that transition too. Just the right amount of truthful, i.e. not scary, but also wanting to make it look like that was the right decision.

SM: Oh, absolutely. I’ve also been divorced, and I think a lot of us have had breakups and are aware of both inhabiting the moment and then performing it for a maybe imagined, maybe real audience.

JT: And to yourself too. Divorced people have like … it’s such a profound experience—at least it was for me—but in addition, you become a mirror. You are a mirror for others, and your relationship is exposed. And then that brings out many different kinds of reactions and responses. The losing-your-friends thing is real. There is this cascading effect, in addition to the mirroring effect—it’s hard to explain (laughs). That was very interesting to me.

Anyway, I was very aware that that was going to be very finite feeling. I knew I would develop a sense of normalcy again, that this would not be a new experience for very long, that I would rebalance, I would moor myself again. But those couple of years of being very unmoored were really awful and amazing. I was aware that it was an unusual experience with an expiration date.

SM: Sometimes I feel like you’re picturing … there’s so much disintegration in your characters or, for instance, them taking their skin off and seeing who they are underneath.

And I don’t know if this feels real for heartbreak for you, or if it just like that notion of, you know, your skin is peeled, and you can see the entrails underneath there for a discrete period of time.

JT: Totally. Yeah. Some of the metaphors that I kept during that time were … like opening the curtain and suddenly the sun is shining on everything.

Another one was an explosion. And once the dust settles, you see what’s left. And that was super-fascinating because—I don’t know if you found that this was your experience—but a lot of the things that were ‘left’ were things from when I was in my early twenties—the last time I was single. Who I was before marriage. Some of those things were even from teenage times.

There were so many ripe visual metaphors from that time that captured those feelings, which were very amorphous and changing. And, I mean, that’s grief, I guess. It changes day-to-day and it cycles, and all that stuff. Very interesting experience.

SM: I’ve never thought about grief as time zones kind of crashing into each other, not just time zones across the planet, but time zones of your life.

JT: I feel like we’re all in a grief cycle right now, because of COVID, climate change, and the upheaval that we’re all going through. It feels like processing grief.

I read an interesting thing once: that grief is not a ladder. You aren’t in the bargaining stage for X number of days, then proceed on to acceptance or whatever. You can feel all the emotions in any order, in quick succession, without rhyme or reason. You can feel anger in the morning and then you can feel acceptance in the afternoon and then you can bounce back and forth between them, like spokes on a moving wheel. So, that felt really interesting—simple, but accurate.

SM: That feels so much more intuitive. Almost like a pinball machine where you don’t have a whole lot of choice, you’re just ejected from one kind of overwhelming feeling to the next.

JT: Yeah, I mean, I really felt that that experience was useful to me in that it kind of exploded a sense of linear progression of ‘this is how life goes.’ You do this, then you do that. I feel like that was the way that I was raised: do the right thing and you’ll hit these life benchmarks. And then it just totally explodes. It’s actually very freeing to think that you’re not ascending a ladder. It’s brought this level of chaos into my worldview. That feels more accurate. Here’s the time to acknowledge that I have incredible privilege in so many ways, but even so, the idea of infinite growth is toxic for all people.

SM: I use an exercise in classes sometimes that I got from my colleague [Bill Kirkpatrick], and it’s getting students to illustrate their life stages. And what they’ll usually say is that they graduate from university—because it’s in a university classroom—and then they get married, and then they get a good job … and then they’ve got nothing after 30: it’s like death.

JT: I have a kid … and then I die.

SM: And it’s so interesting to think about this. Of course those ladders make no sense.

JT: They’re really dangerous actually. We all know some people who fall off that ladder, and it wrecks them. I’m at the bottom again. And it’s like, well, no, you’re not. You’ve learned, you’re a different person. We’re talking about failing at normativity, obviously, not dire material insecurity. The Life Benchmark ladder is psychic security. I absolutely get that. It’s ‘proof’ that you’re doing life correctly.

SM: Right. ‘How should a person be?’ in the words of Sheila Heti (2010).

JT: Yeah! So, it was actually very useful to me to fall off the ladder, personally.

I think another motif in my work is often seasons, or a process. Even Our Little Kitchen (2020) has that sense of a cycle … a beginning, a middle and end, but then a beginning again.

SM: Yes, and in your book, They Say Blue (2018), there are those seasons: it’s not like one quarter of the book is spring and one quarter of the book is fall … they move around, or even in a particular moment, like at one point the child in the book says, ‘it looks like floating yellow waves’ and then she says, ‘oh no, it doesn’t, it’s just grass.’ It’s just yellow grass—even in that same moment, depending on that season might really radically alter how you feel in it.

JT: And our interpretation. I feel like that book is about perception too, right? Our perception and interpretations of everything are based on many factors: your age, your experience, your mood, the hormones in your brain that day. What colour do you see?

SM: My plan is to use that book to teach in my university classrooms about postmodernism, because it’s such a profound work of philosophy [and unpacking capital ‘T’ truth]. Even the title and its repetition in the text: ‘They say blue, but it looks clear when I hold it’ (Tamaki 2018). Right: like there’s no truth. I don’t know if that speaks to you about your work … but just that there’s no capital ‘T’ ‘Truth,’ every observation is also temporal—they are moments in time.

JT: Yeah! And you know, there are these clichés and these sayings, but are they actually true? I believe I wrote that book in Trump time, when ‘truth’ was manipulated very spectacularly. But some of my own truths, perhaps about ideas of ‘progress’ or ‘things always getting better’ were also called into question. There’s that ladder again. It hadn’t occurred to me, but thinking about it now, the book was definitely borne out of that time of ‘post-truth,’ or whatever they call it.

SM: Yeah, ‘truthiness.’ Can we talk a little about your work and the displacement of the nuclear family? [I see a] real valuing of friendship [in your work]. To me, a lot of these books centre friendships, and I think I’m really hungry for that; where you don’t see romantic love at the centre of all of the narratives, like in Our Little Kitchen.

JT: I’m so glad you picked that up because I’m thinking about that so much with the graphic novel that I’m working on now. I definitely feel that relationships between women, as a subject, will always be present in my work. I’m thinking about mother and daughter relationships all the time in my own life. But also, the complexities of female friendship and the nuance of female friendship, and how frankly heartbreaking that can be at times and how difficult that can be.

To be honest, some of the friend breakups that I’ve had have been as much of a knot to untangle as romantic breakups. And I don’t think that that is something that we talk about a lot. There is some art about female friendships—My Brilliant Friend (2011) by Elena Ferrante comes to mind—but so much less than romantic relationships, you know?

It’s so complicated and really emotionally potent. I think about some of the women friends that I’ve had over my life They loomed so large in my imagination. Just as much as romantic partners.

SM: I’ve been saying for many years that they don’t write enough love songs about that kind of heartbreak, and we don’t read enough books [about it], but your books really seem to centre those things.

JT: Yeah. And again, this is not necessarily something that I’ve consciously made as a motif. I wasn’t aware that friendship was such a powerful idea to me, but it’s revealed itself on its own. It’s amazing [that] we’re often meditating on a complex idea over a whole body of work without knowing it. And then we’re translating those ideas into art, because we want to share those ideas with somebody else.

Every time I’ve tried to write something intentionally deep or meaningful, I feel like it doesn’t work out as well. It’s usually better to take something smaller, and meanings will be embedded.

We have fewer templates of how a friend breakup is supposed to go, and for that reason I feel like they can be quite disturbing.

SM: Yes, there’s no notion that you’re entitled to closure. We don’t have great templates. And I feel like this is also something that I’m so grateful you address: jealousy and friendships. Like jealousy of a person for having a skill, because basically the only acceptable places for heterosexual women to feel this is about their boyfriends.

But it seems to me that it’s really potent. In SuperMutant Magic Academy, for example, there’s a lot of jealousy of feminine [or] femme presentation, skill, or [in this case] of superpowers.

JT: Oh my God. I know that that’s been a thing that has been in my life and affected my life. And, it’s funny because it’s so unflattering, right? It’s so… I actually worry that I am too protective of my characters and not willing to go to dark places or whatever. I personally don’t believe I am explicitly exploring trauma. It is the warts in your psyche.

But I do worry sometimes that I’m too precious with my characters. I don’t want bad things to happen to them. I don’t want them to do bad things to other people! Of course, you need that to happen because that’s what a story is. Nothing would happen if everybody’s well-adjusted, and their bad personality traits don’t express themselves and impact other people. I guess there’s a lot of interiority in my work.

I work with a senior at an organisation here called Parkdale Project Read. I help her write stories from her childhood. Her stories are all full of action, like, ‘I was riding a bike and then nobody taught me how to ride the bike properly and I zoomed down the street and then I almost fell off and I was screaming.’ People are falling out of trees and cars are falling down hills… There’s so much action! I really admire that. I wish I could have such high stakes and drama. My stories are about feeling a micro feeling that just enters you, and then leaves (laughs).

SM: You do such an amazing job of picturing, of drawing introversion or quiet or rest or repose. That seems so challenging from the outside, because it often feels not really riveting, people lying around and time passing. I don’t know if that’s a struggle to draw?

JT: Oh, I love that … body language is so fascinating. I love drawing the figure. I love trying to communicate through them. There’s just so much you can pack into it. The minute your partner or friend walks through the door, you can tell within three seconds if there’s something wrong with them. We’re so attuned.

That’s a thing I try to remember when I’m drawing. People will pick up a character’s slightly hunched shoulder or defensive posture. People are really perceptive.

SM: Theresa Brennan (2004) has talked about the ‘transmission of affect’ [One example would be] being the only person of colour in a room full of white people … nothing’s being said, but there’s this affect transmitted of just feeling observed, or under the microscope, or—for women on a subway—picking up that somebody’s flirting or watching you.

JT: I actually asked my boyfriend about that. I was interested if, when he’s walking down the street, is he aware of being perceived in 360 degrees? When I’m walking down the street, I feel like I am constantly aware of what I look like from the back, the side; aware of if there’s somebody behind me … I feel like I have a 360 projection of myself, in my mind. And he was like, ‘no, I do not ever think that.’ And I was like, ‘wow, okay, that seems nice to not be constantly self-perceiving.’

SM: I don’t think I have the same 360—probably [because of] my white middle-class neighbourhood and my whiteness. I’m kind of wandering around in my own academic head to some degree, but then always at the same time perceiving risk.

JT: I think it’s a personality thing: not necessarily gendered, but maybe there’s a gender element to it? I think it’s also often safety. You’re aware of everybody who gets on the bus—like if they’re going to sit near me or look at me, or whatever.

SM: The 360 thing [as an idea] . . . is also super-interesting. I don’t think I’ve thought about the side of myself, I don’t have a Google map in my head. I wonder if it’s partly privilege: I am just wandering around with that kind of freedom, right?

JT: I think partially it’s a little bit of personality too.

SM: Yeah, both! I mean, I love … that you’re constantly thinking about both of those things.

JT: Yeah. I find it very hard actually to ascribe racism or sexism to things that happen to me. Racism and sexism are there, they’re pervasive and they are absolutely in play, but I guess because I’m racially ambiguous, I never know totally how I’m being perceived. And if somebody is treating me this way because I’m a woman or because they’re an asshole or…

SM: I think that’s the mindfuck of systemic inequality.

JT: Yeah, for example this year, when there was a lot of anti-Asian hate, when people would be weird to me, I’m like: is it because there’s this hysteria in society and you’re perceiving me as Asian? Or is it just because you have a mental illness and are unable to access adequate care? Maybe there’s something else about me you don’t like? Or it’s just something else that I can’t even predict? I really have a hard time pointing my finger and saying it’s because I’m like this that you’re treating me this way.

I suppose I have a hard time with that because it’s a really big thing to put on somebody. I think I come up against it most professionally as a woman, more than [as] a racialised person.

SM: Your work is amazing Jillian, and it does so many things … I also see in it a seething critique of capitalism—including of pyramid schemes. Do you mind talking about that?

JT: Yeah, that was inspired by friends actually. Someone was telling me about a friend that was involved with skincare Multi-Level Marketing. And this was several years ago. Now I feel like MLMs are more in the air. So, I was a little bit less familiar with some of the modern MLMs at the time, but as she described it to me, I was thinking, oh my God, we’re our parents now. We’re the Avon women. We’re the parents that need to make a little bit extra money, to support the kids’ extracurriculars, or whatever. So, that was crazy, first of all. And then, exactly as you say, why are women often involved with these schemes? Because they have tight social networks to exploit, right?

People will buy stuff just to support a friend. Stuff they don’t even want. They just know that that person needs some money, and so they’ll support them. I mean, we do this in our comics community all the time. It’s just like, ‘sure, I’ll pick up whatever you make because you’re my friend and you know nobody has any money.’ That concept of ‘we’re just passing around the same $20 bill.’

That corporate exploitation of human relationships is so fucking gross and awful, and becoming so pervasive because that’s the one thing that people do have: they have a Facebook page, and they have a network and friends. When you don’t have other things to exploit and you need the money, that’s a thing to which many people can turn.

SM: It really tells you so much about … the erasure of social democracy. Where is the [safety] net?

JT: I keep on reading stuff and it’s always like, ‘so, for the past 40 years public housing has been in the decline…’ Neo-liberalism. I’m 41, so that’s my whole life. So, I’m like, ‘wow, some of these policies that started when I was a kid have frayed the system to a point where [it’s] breaking now.’ That’s the span of my lifetime.

SM: Just like Reaganomics, and the destruction of public goods and privatisation.

JT: And that’s been the spin. So, it’s actually so hard because we remember a time when things were not pushed to this extreme, but I also don’t think I can ever remember a time where we thought things were . . . going to get better. Maybe Obama, briefly.

SM: Everything was being destroyed and dismantled in the eighties. So, it’s ongoing, but at the same time in the eighties, it hadn’t yet been dismantled.

JT: Yeah. And it’s just that slippery slope, I guess. Frog in the pot analogy. And now you can’t really deny it or turn away from it. It’s the water that we swim in, every day. It’s not a new thought and we’re all making art about this now and thinking about this and connecting the dots and all that.

I still think the core of the work that I’m making is going to be relational—about people. But I think that the environment around the people in my books will change and evolve. The graphic novel I’m working on now is about travel, about the first time you travel as a young person, without your parents and with just your friends. They go to New York. It’s set in 2009, so post-financial crash. And even though the book is not about the crash, I want it to inform the work environmentally. The book was written before COVID, but as I work on it now, I think a lot about how our attitudes towards travel and tourism have changed.

Of course, the kids are 18-year-old Canadians, so they’re not too interested in all that economy stuff. At least not intellectually. That’s the nature of it. You’re not going to be doing deep meditations on it. Though, 18-year-olds are different now than they were when I was 18, I suppose. But they seem more tuned in, in a lot of ways, but I still think you’re going to be like a little preoccupied with other stuff.

SM: Yeah. It’s a more self-focused time.

JT: Yeah. You’re learning these really core things about yourself. And that takes a lot of work. And energy. That’s work.

SM: That’s true. That’s a nicer way of putting it.

Well maybe that’s the place to end. I feel like your work really talks about how as people we’re all in the middle of each other’s story, but in this really generous, generative way, generosity actually seems to me like a really central theme of your work.

JT: I’m surprised! I’ve never thought about that as being a core theme, but that’s interesting that you’d say that.

SM: The people are kind of coming apart and coming together again. And there’s less of the kind of nuclear detonations of good and evil, and more of … it feels a little bit like people are doing the best they can often with what they have … and that seems like a generous vision of humanity that I really long for. I don’t know if that is how you see your characters, as just doing the best they can with what they’ve got?

JT: Yeah, I think there is even that moment in Super Mutant Magic Academy where the supernatural being wants the Harry Potter thing of anointing a Chosen One, and the two kids, Marsha and Cheddar, are like, ‘no, get out of here, leave me alone… I don’t want to be that person.’ Like, ‘don’t put that on me, man, I just want to live a nice life. I don’t need to be a fricking hero, or the main character.’

I feel like my characters are rejecting being the main character and just want to do their own thing. I just want to have a nice life—to satisfy my basic needs.

SM: There’s this great documentary called 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), about all the people who do backup singing and who don’t actually want to sing as the main singer on the stage, and I think that’s such a beautiful role to play in life.

JT: Yeah! We all can’t be the star. I think it’s tough enough to just to find the stability to have a nice, quiet life. That’s difficult enough. That’s hard enough. That’s intimidating enough, oh my God.

We live in a world where it’s very hard to find, for so many people, just basic stability.

SM: Thank you so much. I feel so grateful to you for making all this beautiful work. I appreciate that.

JT: It’s so nice to talk to somebody that really gets it. So, you know, I appreciate you.

SM: That’s so generous. We’re really lucky to have you in this world. Like, it’s been a tough few years and you’re definitely keeping a lot of us in the world. Thank you so much.


Bailey, Moya (2018), ‘On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism’, Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 762-768.
Brennan, Teresa (2004), The Transmission of Affect, Cornell University Press.

Ferrante, Elena (2011), My Brilliant Friend, Europa Editions.
Heti, Sheila (2010), How Should a Person Be?, House of Anansi Press.
Mitchell, Allyson (Writer & Director) (2001), My Life in Five Minutes, [Animated Video], Canada.
Neville, Morgan (Director) (2013), 20 Feet From Stardom [Documentary], Tremolo Productions.
Tamaki, Jillian (2008), Skim. Groundwood Books.
Tamaki, Jillian (2014), This One Summer, Groundwood Books.
Tamaki, Jillian (2015), SuperMutant Magic Academy, Drawn & Quarterly.
Tamaki, Jillian (2017), Boundless, Drawn & Quarterly.
Tamaki, Jillian (2018). They Say Blue. Groundwood Books.
Tamaki, Jillian (2020). Our Little Kitchen. Groundwood Books.

Tamaki, Jillian (2015), SuperMutant Magic Academy, Drawn & Quarterly.
Tamaki, Jillian (2017), Boundless, Drawn & Quarterly.
Tamaki, Jillian (2018). They Say Blue. Groundwood Books.
Tamaki, Jillian (2020). Our Little Kitchen. Groundwood Books.

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