Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novels make me feel secure. Her comics and artwork acutely illustrate feelings that we all have growing up but have trouble articulating: anxiety, wanting desperately to belong.
For example, her graphic novel Skim, written with cousin Mariko Tamaki, perfectly articulates teenage isolation and turbulent social surroundings. And in Supermutant Magic Academy, Jillian captures the ironies, conflicts, and body issues that plague every teenager – but in fantastical form.
Her graphic novels have been a security blanket for me growing up. They’re a reminder that everybody experiences messy and profound feelings no matter how old. And that’s why I was eagerly anticipating her newest book, Boundless (published by Drawn & Quarterly). It’s a collection of short comics, ranging from 2012 to 2017. Each story is rendered in muted pastels with strokes that convey movement and pure emotion.
At first glance, the stories collected here don’t seem to have much in common. What does a tale about the relationships between a city’s birds and insects (“Boundless”) have to do with a satire about a woman whose body starts to shrink (“Half Life”)? However, after letting the narratives bounce around in my mind, a common thread emerged between them. In each of Tamaki’s stories, the fear of isolation and our own tendency to get caught up in the details of our lives bleed through between the lines.
Tamaki’s tales here aren’t quite as literal as some of her other work. They tend to be more ambiguous, showcasing a slice of life without a tidy bow wrapping it up at the end. Although at first I felt left hanging, I started to appreciate the abstraction: the stories made my mind work, pushing me to fill in the gaps with my own individual meaning.
The story “The ClairFree System” is a perfect example of this. The black-and-white images of human faces and rituals in this story have little context (and are inspired by found images). However, the captions are familiar: it’s an infomercial-like attempt to sell a skincare system. The narrator makes promises of not only a pimple-free face but also a carefree lifestyle and a sense of acceptance.
It’s an uncomfortable story to read because we’ve all been in that situation: knowing that somebody is trying to manipulate you into a purchase but getting caught up and believing them because it feels nice to have attention. The way that health and skincare were ritualistically portrayed was also a reminder of how dependent on systems – of power, of institutions, of wellness – we are and how the logic of these systems often collapses the more you look at them.
Clearly, Tamaki is no stranger to the social media-influenced, pop-culture diet we all consume. She’s openly discussed the book’s underlying focus on “low” culture and technology (like in this Rookie interview). The stories in Boundless depict twenty-first century situations and millennial life but push them ten percent further to show how ironic and absurd our lives can be.
The story “SexCoven” is a highlight of the book, which illuminates these themes. The story focuses on how a 6-hour ambient music file circulates the internet and develops an intense online following. Rumours about its effects on young people take over the news: listening to this track results in extreme emotional reactions and poor decision-making by tons of young adults. The file develops a cult-like following, and society can’t quite figure out why it’s inspired such an audience.
This story perfectly encapsulates the feeling of getting caught up in a viral internet trend, something that we’ve likely experienced or at least seen. It explores how these rites of online passage – whether it be a risky video challenge or playing Pokémon Go – can be a bonding experience but also blinding.
After spending a couple of afternoons fully immersed in Boundless, I closed the book with a renewed perspective on millennial life. Some other notable stories include “Body Pods” (where the narrator’s ex-lovers are all caught up in the cultural impact of a cult film franchise) and “1.Jenny” (where a “mirror Facebook” showing an alternate form of reality reveals how easy it is to get self-conscious when we’re on social media).
Jillian Tamaki’s stories truly had my mental gears turning, reflecting on how ironic and nuanced modern-day society can be. Boundless encapsulates our current era, but the need for inclusion that Tamaki depicts throughout her stories is timeless.