It’s easy enough to think of intermittently published webcomics as completely ephemeral, the kind of transient media designed to get a cheap laugh, resurface on various Tumblr accounts a million times and then be forgotten forever. The other end of the webcomic spectrum offers complex, long-form narratives planned out years in advance. But Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy, newly published in a paperback compilation by Drawn & Quarterly, is something different. Apart from an extended story that takes up the last chunk of the book, Academy revolves around single strips that present isolated snippets of story. Tamaki dips in and out of the lives of superpowered teenagers who attend a boarding school designed to foster their talents. But, in the process, the strips build a beautiful and complex world that’s equal parts melancholy (or ennui, as Tamaki puts it) and comedy.
Though the superpowers and genre staples provide many whimsical and fantastic moments, they’re rarely the point. Instead, these vignettes focus on the three-dimensional adolescents who lust after one another, pursue creative goals, play unorthodox D&D, annoy their teachers and demonstrate their disarming insecurities. SuperMutant Magic Academy is far more Freaks and Geeks than X-Men.
Along with her cousin Mariko, Tamaki also co-created the nostalgic graphic novel This One Summer, which garnered her a Printz Award and Caldecott Honor, as well as ink ribbons of acclaim. Conversely, SMMA is wry and raw at the same time, unafraid of a dirty joke and impeccable in its timing. Tamaki answered some emails about SuperMutant Magic Academy.
Paste: What was your process for creating SuperMutant Magic Academy? It seems like some strips were painstakingly worked over and others are just quick sketches.
Tamaki: It was originally a webcomic on Tumblr. So a “new installment” was posted whenever I felt like making one, or was inspired to do so. So yes, some are rough and some a little more polished. They are all done in Photoshop on a Cintiq (which is like a monitor that is also a tablet you can draw on), except for if I was on vacation or if I only had a pen and paper on hand.
Paste: Being that it was a webcomic, you could have done almost anything, format-wise. Did you hold yourself to a fairly standard-size page (and panel format) on purpose? Is it determined by the Cintiq screen size/shape?
Tamaki: Well, actually, I would say it’s pretty limited. Specifically, the size of a Tumblr dashboard. I wanted to make something you could read comfortably in that format.
Paste: Okay, so how about color? Some pages have it. Others don’t. Was this option just determined by what the story needed? Was SMMA a way to experiment within its limited format?
Tamaki: Exactly, yes. I tried to do them without color, generally. The color is only there if absolutely necessary, either for story or legibility.
Paste: One of the things I find interesting is how the strips come together to create a fairly complete picture of the school, even though I assume the strip was created episodically. Did you have that picture in your mind to start out?
Tamaki: I started out only with an intentionally thin, silly conceit and hoped to hang bigger things off of it. The book grows from a very rough seed of an idea to a more fleshed-out world (albeit one that is still pretty narrowly focused). I think some people will find that interesting while others might prefer a shiny, polished graphic novel. But that’s not what this is.
Paste: How is working on SMMA different from your other work?
Tamaki: As an illustrator, most of my work is commissioned. I liken SMMA to my sketchblog, which I updated pretty frequently between 2007 and 2009-ish. Eventually I wanted to practice writing and making comics in a lower-stakes way than graphic novels, so my webcomic kind of replaced the sketchblog: little updates of personal work.
Paste: One of the differences I see is a greater freedom and range of reference in the jokes. True?
Tamaki: Sure. The seeds of SMMA are in my little books of personal work: Gilded Lilies (2006) and Indoor Voice (2010). The graphic novels I make with Mariko I consider different beasts entirely.
Paste: Here’s a comparison that you can feel free to shoot down: Charles Schulz. There’s something about the existentialist outlook and the blankness with which the jokes are delivered that makes me think of Peanuts. Yes? No?
Tamaki: Well, that is a huge compliment, obviously. I always read the funnies in the newspaper when I was a kid, although I didn’t get Peanuts at all. I would guess there is more Calvin and Hobbes in SMMA’s DNA, as my parents had many anthologies of that strip in their house. Calvin is very existential but then, in turn, slapsticky. But I think the characters themselves more physically resemble Peanuts kids. By the way, I have been told that in the Peanuts universe I am Lucy van Pelt.
Calvin and Hobbes makes lots of sense. It’s fairly philosophical, too. But it’s not as sad as SMMA is at times. Everlasting Boy, for example, is a strange pace-breaker to include, but one that makes the full picture of the school a lot richer.
Tamaki: Yeah, but there is a melancholy to Calvin. I don’t view much of SMMA as very sad, except for maybe the character of Trevor. It’s more melancholy or ennui.
Paste: If you’re Lucy from Peanuts, which character are you in SMMA?
Tamaki: Teen Jillian was probably a lot like Marsha.
Paste: Frances: is she Lena Dunham or what?
Tamaki: I’ve only seen one episode of Girls! Or read Lena’s book. Maybe more like Fran Lebowitz. And what I wish Topanga was.
Paste: Talk to me about your own high-school experience. Where’d you go? Is it an influence on the strip at all?
Tamaki: I went to Dr. E. P. Scarlett High School in Calgary, Alberta. It was a public school. The walls were built with cinder blocks. It was rumored that the same architect that built all the prisons built the schools, too. My actual experience in high school is only a partial influence.
Paste: Would you want to go back and be a teenager again?
Tamaki: Ugh, no. I always felt like I was the wrong age back then. I’d rather be in my 30s, even though they suck in different ways.