Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s discussion of their new graphic novel, This One Summer (First Second/Groundwood Books, 2014) at Politics and Prose on May 17 was introduced by what seemed like an unlikely choice: A young man named Frans. In his metal T-shirt and camouflage pants with long hair and a beard, he didn’t seem like someone who would be too into a young adult graphic novel about two girls created by two women. But that was the point: Frans told us that while he came into comics through ’90s titles like Cyberforce, he found a lot to connect with in This One Summer.
If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
For about an hour, the Tamaki cousins discussed their book and their work overall in an intimate chat, taking questions from the audience of a few dozen. The two had a playful, easy chemistry with each other, which showed why they are such effortless collaborators.
Many questions focused on their creative process. Mariko said she gives Jillian a script that’s written in a play format, but mostly trusts what Jillian will do with it. And the idea of “trust” was a big theme in how they work with each other. Jillian said she felt entitled to ignore some of Mariko’s dialogue and direction, and Mariko was OK with that, saying that most of those things were for her own understanding.
As opposed to their first collaborative graphic novel, Skim, this story was more complicated so there was more back and forth and more editing (and many Skype conversations). Both spoke of the strengths comics as an artform has — Mariko said that part of writing comics is writing very sparsely and letting the visual elements do much of the work.
Many people had questions about the editing process for this book and comics in general. The Tamakis did a lot of their own editing, but they did work with their publishers. They both said they were fortunate to have publishers who understand what they’re doing and because they did Skim, both publishers knew what sort of subject matter to expect.
That led to a question if they were ever forced to make changes. Mariko said they never felt forced to make any changes and Jillian said she didn’t know why anyone would be surprised by what they were creating. Mariko said that the things that define “young adult” literature have changed and Jillian added most kids aren’t going to pick up a book unless it has edgier elements in it.
When asked about writing about female protagonists, Jillian shrugged it off. She said she only wants to make books she wants to read and she doesn’t understand the trends. She’s more interested in realism and didn’t think, at the time, that Skim was really a YA book. Mariko commented that the subtitled on the mini-comic version of Skim was “This is the diary of Skim Takota. So fuck off” and she wasn’t interested in writing to market. She said she can’t write a dystopian adventure story and her characters would be “the first two characters to be killed off in the Hunger Games.“
Both talked about the hard realities of doing what they do. As much as Jillian loves making comics, it’s subsidized by the other things she does — teaching, illustration work and more. Because of that, she said “I should just make the comics I want to make.” Mariko laughed about having to teach a class about working as a writer and said it should’ve been a class on “Working four jobs.” But both felt their other jobs is what gives them material and depth and keeps them motivated. Jillian said she creates comics for comics audiences primarily, since they’re the ones who know the medium. If others like it, then that’s just a bonus.
They joked about the differences between U.S. and Canadian literature — mostly that Canada isn’t into that whole “hero” thing but instead, just surviving, and they liked that Canadian literature is full of “cranky, frustrated women.”
When asked about how she’s able to convey such subtle emotions, Jillian offered this advice: “If you want to learn how to draw, make a comic.” She’s someone who’s still learning and growing as an artist, despite her years of experience. Mariko offered her praise, saying that in anyone else’s hands, the moments Jillian draws would be melodramatic.
As a perfect summary to the talk, as the two discussed their expectations for This One Summer going forward, Mariko said simply “What I wanted this book to be, it already is.”
But if the reaction from everyone — including Frans — is any indication, it’s going to be much more than that.