After winning the prestigious Caldecott Honor Medal for her graphic novel “This One Summer” and gaining a spotlight few cartoonists ever attain, Jillian Tamaki opted for a surprising follow-up — a print collection of her webcomic “SuperMutant Magic Academy.” The webcomic already has a pair of Ignatz Awards in its back pocket, so it arrives with noticeable pedigree of its own.
“SuperMutant Magic Academy” appeared online over a four-year period, chronicling the ins and outs of students at a supernatural prep school. Readers familiar with Tamaki’s work may not be surprised to find that the teenagers’ coming of age remains the focus of the strip rather than their magical shenanigans — although there are magical shenanigans.
Drawn in a looser, more immediate style than “Skim” and “This One Summer,” “SMMA” allowed Tamaki to focus on the immediacy of her cartooning rather than her own illustrative prowess and thus kept the experience of the characters at the forefront of the reading experience. CBR News chatted with Tamaki about “SMMA” and the often-surprising themes that magically appeared in the lives of its students.
CBR News: Although “SuperMutant Magic Academy” is ostensibly about kids at a Hogwarts-style fantasy school, you don’t focus heavily on the fanciful elements. Most of the strips in the book maintain a very clear focus on the humanity of the characters and their travails on the road to adulthood — even the characters with animal heads. Was that a specific choice or did the strip develop in that way as you got deeper into it?
Jillian Tamaki: The webcomic was a reaction to a few things — firstly, doing a Marvel “Strange Tales” comic. I did a comic with Dazzler, who does use her superpowers — fights a gang of glittery dudes, etcetera — which was fine, but I didn’t find myself particularly engaged with it. I was more interested in Alison Blaire’s day job and what her relationship with her weird older lover would be like.
Secondly, I wanted a project that would allow me to engage with comics in a more immediate way, versus a graphic novel, something that didn’t have to be polished and nice-looking.
One of the big themes in the comic is giving up childhood and figuring out how to handle the life of a responsible adult, along with the mini-apocalypses that come with not having it all figured out. Was it challenging to juggle each character’s specific hurdles within the group setting?
Well, they don’t really even engage with one another. It’s more like they’re various reflections of a single organism — or a single id. I wonder whose?
A few other themes recur a few times to good effect. You take a moment to remind us that even kids from different social cliques often have surprising things in common — like Marsha and Cheddar’s stamp collecting, for example.
The beauty of being a teen is that things feel so powerful and visceral and the beauty of being an adult is having insight and experience, so I like when those clash.
We also see Cheddar’s desire to be free subverted when you see how little is done with his freedom. His ambition for freedom isn’t the same as having ambition to accomplish something, right?
Yes. I think sometimes there is struggle against constraint or perceived constraint and the struggle itself is the so-called heroic part, versus what is done with the resulting freedom.
Some characters face more general aspects of growing up. Everlasting Boy, however, seems dominated by daydreams of isolation and death. We’re all trying to make some sense of mortality at that age, so how did you approach the idea that we’d see a character who doesn’t experience those concerns?
The grass is always greener on the other side. Everlasting Boy is someone who has existed forever and holds the “wisdom” of the entire universe within him, so understandably he’d perceive time and space and relationships and death in a different way, I’d imagine.
The characters who are teased or taunted are often revealed to be hypocrites. They themselves taunt just as meanly — sometimes teasing their tormentors, sometimes random other kids. It seems that everyone remembers being bullied as a kid, but you remind us that there were other kids that we looked down on ourselves.
Yeah, it’s funny to read these strips and see recurring themes, because I would only do one every one or two weeks. Any themes that arised were unintentional. Regarding bullying and hypocrisy, yes — it speaks to self-mythologization and the desire to create our own narratives, which we have to do to even survive. Also, we can’t see two inches in front our own noses sometimes.
You don’t spend too much time on the volcano of sexual awakening, but the explosive ending of page 139 was the perfect gag for every kid’s fear of sexuality.
The webcomic ran over four years, but the new content that wraps the characters’ journey as students and sends them into the adult world hasn’t been seen before, correct? Was it important to give their story some sense of conclusion?
I don’t see it as a crossing-of-a-threshold. I don’t think “SMMA” holds very many moral or philosophical conclusions, and that’s on purpose, but it is a narrative conclusion.
With all the acclaim for your last few books, particularly the Caldecott for “This One Summer,” does that change how you approach packaging “SuperMutant Magic Academy” or your thinking on future projects? Does this add pressure to your new works?
That stuff is usually the purview of publishers, thankfully. I think of comics as my personal work and illustration as my “business,” just because that’s always been the case and, frankly, comics are too un-lucrative (relatively) to allow me to think otherwise. I guess there’s always a lot of pressure to do good work, but I will want to continue making things that vary in scope and scale and content. For example, my upcoming 30-page story with Youth in Decline, “SexCoven,” is definitely not for kids.
“SuperMutant Magic Academy” is in stores now.
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