Ang’s Artists: Jillian Tamaki

Art Director Rachel Ang does a series on some of her favourite artists.

Like most kids, I grew up reading a lot of Tintin, Asterix and Peanuts, and as a teenager, I got more into Dan Clowes and Frank Miller. After high school I stopped reading comic books. I’m not sure why, but it’s probably because I started studying Painting and thought I was going to be a fine artist, so it was best to only read stuff like Obrist and Baudrillard – or something like that. I’m joking, but honestly, I remember trying to talk about books to a boyfriend during that period.

“Oh,” he said, “I don’t read fiction.”
I guess he was too serious for that kind of thing.

I worked in public libraries for about five years (which is another story, which has within it many stories) so I was reading a lot (pretty much constantly). I didn’t really read comics, though – until I saw a copy of Skim, which I had to read. The cover is just so uncommonly beautiful and alluring, and I saw something of myself in it. I read it on the train between Williamstown and South Kensington, and I think during that time, something small but complex moved deep within me.

Now, I wanted to be a comic artist.




I don’t want to give away too much, because hopefully those of you who haven’t read Skim will now run out and grab a copy (or, more likely, add it to your Book Depository wishlist). It tells the story of Kim Keiko Cameron – called Skim because she’s not-slim – a fifteen-year-old witch attending an all-girls high school in 1990s Canada, who falls in love with her English teacher, Ms Archer. This plot, on its own, might not be enough to set it apart from any other Young Adult fiction, but Tamaki’s artwork draws the tale into the realm of poetry. Her lines, so spare, swooping, confident, elegiac, are like threads, weaving an entire, beautiful world together.

I was completely seduced. Looking at her lines on the page was like being violently kissed by someone with very long eyelashes. And, you know, perfect constellations of freckles, which hint at ever deeper pleasures. As soon as I finished it, I opened it up at the beginning and began reading it again.




I would say that all good art and writing has a quality of unknowability, of being infinitely captivating. I find Tamaki’s drawings to be so elusive and in a way, not unlike a foreign language. I think I could gaze into her world forever, and I would always continue to find something different and interesting. But I don’t think this is a language I could speak. Her visual language has a different grammar and phonology to mine – it’s seems crude to even call what Tamaki does, and what the rest of us do, the same thing. We draw. Her work is so transcendental that I don’t have the words to describe it.

Having said that, it was reading Skim that really sparked something in me, that made me think, “this is something I want to do. I can’t draw like Marvel but I could draw like that. I could tell a story like that. Huh.”

Another thing that appeals to me about Skim, and, frankly, gives me hope for my own career, is that it could easily have been just a comic book, just a piece of Young Adult fiction, just a queer story, or just a coming-of-age story, and it would have only appealed to a small audience. But it is told with such beauty and empathy that it becomes a human, universal story. It convinced me that comics were a machine for empathy.




Another thing about Tamaki is that she sounds like a very cool, very grounded, and self-aware. I remember listening with great attention to her interview by Sam Ware (her ex-husband) on his radio show about illustrators. A caller rings up (Tamaki is audibly really pissed: “WHAT IS IT, RANDY?”) to ask whether Tamaki has ever taken a shower with her cousin. “SCREW YOU RANDY!” There’s something about her (justified) anger that really makes me smile.

I am very, very excited about her new book, Boundless, a book of short stories which comes out later this year, from Drawn and Quarterly. Boundless is a good way to describe Tamaki’s work.


Featured image source:

Leave a Reply