And Two Interviews!

The Collaborating Tamakis

No, they’re not a circus family. They are, in fact, the creators of Skim, a new comic published by Ontario’s Kiss Machine magazine. Skim is the diary of Kimberly Louise Takota, a “chubby weirdo Asian chick” nicknamed “Skim” because she’s not exactly low fat. Kim is into Wicca and tarot cards; life is further
complicated by her passive-aggressive best friend, suicidal classmates, and a growing fascination with her art teacher. What might sound like just another tale of teen angst is rendered beautifully in this understated black and white comic. Skim offers a believable portrait of a time and place that may seem very familiar to former teenage misfits.

If this comic is a satisfying read, perhaps it’s because Mariko and Jillian are far from raw amateurs. Mariko is a published writer (her most recent book is 2005’s Fake ID), and has performed in activist/theatric troupes, including Pretty Porky and Pissed Off. She is currently a grad student in Toronto. Jillian is a freelance illustrator whose work has been seen i n The New Yorker, Maclean’s, Bust, and The Stranger. She has recently completed a second comic, City of Champions, a non-linear look at the city of Edmonton during its glory days and after. Originally from Alberta, she is now living in New York, where her least favourite place is the post office: “The people are unduly mean and they have bullet proof glass everywhere and signs reminding you that it’s illegal to mail guns.”

DiSCORDER asked the collaborating Tamaki cousins a few questions about their work, which they were kind enough to answer via email.

DiSCORDER: Who’s idea was it to collaborate? How did Skim come together?
Mariko Tamaki: Skim was born in a spare room in Ottawa—on the Perpetual Motion Tour. I was traveling around Eastern Canada and US with Emily Pohl-Weary, the editor and genius behind Kiss Machine. We were promoting a book called Girls Who Bite Back, about superheroes, specifically
superheroines. Somewhere on the 401 (highway) Emily had mentioned that Kiss Machine was going to initiate a series of comics. At the time, I had seen a lot of Jillian’s work on her website and LOVED it (was using it for the cover of my new book, Fake ID, actually). Jillian’s an incredibly talented person. And I just thought it would be amazing to write a comic about an Asian chick, you know, this chubby weirdo Asian chick. And I just liked the idea of creating something
like that WITH an Asian chick, er, woman, especially one as talented as Jillian. So I pitched that idea to Emily while she was trying to fall asleep at our stopover in Ottawa. I pitched it as a Goth-y romance. Emily liked it and offered us the comic that summer.

Like Kim from Skim, I was into Wicca as teenager, and this story rang very true to me. How much of it is autobiographical?
Well, I was definitely a bit of a weirdo in high school, in much the same way Skim is a weirdo. I was a witch, although more in university, and Skim is a witch (or at least a witch in training). I think there is certainly a lot of Skim in me and vice versa. But the story is not autobiographical. I think I gave Skim a bit of a ride in this comic that I never took at her age.

I remember reading in the now-defunct Good Girl magazine that you have been involved with various kinds of activism as well as writing.
My one activist troupe, Pretty Porky and Pissed Off is no longer. We all still hang out but have decided to retire from being performing fat activists. I am still involved in various sorts of feminist politics and as a performer, I think, a lot of my activism shines through. I do a lot of work with and at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is a queer theatre space.

Right now I’m also a graduate student at York University in Women’s Studies, and I think I’ve never felt as “active” as an activist since becoming a student. It’s really amazing to be doing something that means you get to constantly think about and talk about your feminism.

You’re certainly keeping busy.
I think I am one of the busiest people on the planet. One of them, at least. Of course I’m not a working mom. I see working moms at the grocery store and I think, at least the only thing I have at home that needs my attention is a cat, a self-reliant girlfriend, and a laptop. No babies! This summer I put out a comic and a book, I performed with my troupe TOA at various venues, I wrote a play, and attended my first conference for school. So yes, I’m a little road burned at the moment. But the thing is, when I’m not busy I feel left out. I know I’m really fortunate to be surrounded by a city and community that offers so many opportunities to work as an artist. I’m constantly looking for more things to do.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a play version of Skim for Nightwood Theatre’s Groundswell Festival of New Works by Women (which premieres August 25, 2005). Where it goes from there I’m not sure. I go back to school in September, so I’ll be pretty busy for a bit. And then hopefully I’ll get to work on something a little longer. We’ll see!

DiSCORDER: Visually, what are your infl uences? I’m sensing manga but I can’t get more specifi c than that.
Jillian Tamaki: Stylistically, I guess manga is an infl uence, yes. I like the drawings of Otomo, Miyzaki, Tatsumi , and Tezuka. From an illustration point of view, I’m mostly infl uenced by German Expressionists like George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann. There are other less specific things I find very inspiring, like graphic design (especially Paul Rand), Inuit Art and children’s book illustrations.

What are some other comics that you like?
I will admit to being a relatively recent convert to comics. Only once I was in design school was I really exposed to them fully. I won’t pretend to be an expert in the field (as I know quite a few of them, real and self-professed!), but I love Julie Doucet, Igor T, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Chris Ware, Michel Rabagliati, Hergé, Will Eisner, Mike Mignola and their ilk.

Why did you decide to do City of Champions?
After Skim, I wanted to try to create my own comic. My cousin Mariko had written the script for Skim, which was a great challenge for me because it required interpretation, but I wanted to try to teach myself about the medium. Hence I gave myself a project. It sort of came about because I had been keeping
sporadic sketchbooks and they were often about people and things I’d see around town. It’s a very funny little city.

Are you especially interested in telling “Canadian” stories?
It’s not that I have a particular interest but being a Canadian, perhaps it’s sort of inevitable? I actually have a fantasy project of doing a graphic novel about my maternal grandmother (an Egyptian who was a belly-dancer in Montreal) and my paternal grandmother (a Japanese-Canadian who was interned in WW2). At the risk of creating another needless “alienated Canadian immigrant experience” story.

On your website, I noticed a lot of drawings of women and girls. Is this a theme you like?
Well, I do like drawing women more than men. They’re easier to draw. I find their figures more expressive somehow. The best drawings and portraits are those in which you, as the creator, empathize with your characters, so perhaps that has something to do with it. That sounds really daffy though.