A number of years ago, Jillian Tamaki contributed a comic to Strange Tales II, a Marvel anthology in which indie cartoonists were given free reign over some of the publisher's most-famous characters.
Tamaki, who admits she "knows nothing about that genre," chose a particularly overlooked character, Dazzler, a pop starlet able to channel sound into energy beams and who was created as the result of a marketing tie-in between Marvel and a music label in the late seventies.
As she worked on the strip, Tamaki quickly discovered she wasn't interested in Dazzler's superhero career, but what happened when she took off her mask – her relationship with her boyfriend, for instance, and her struggle to make it as a singer.
"I was more interested in her regular life," says Tamaki, sitting in a Toronto coffee shop one afternoon earlier this spring.
Drawn to the idea of the ordinary lives of extraordinary people, Tamaki began drawing a strip about a group of unusually gifted students and posting them on her blog. SuperMutant Magic Academy, which was recently published by Drawn and Quarterly, includes almost all of the Ignatz Award-winning webcomics she produced during the following four years.
Art School Confidential meets X-Men, SuperMutant Magic Academy chronicles the drama-filled lives of a group of teenage students as they try to make sense of both their emotions and, to a lesser extent, their superpowers. Her students aren't worried about saving the world, but getting a date to prom. There's a reason why so many comic book superheroes are teens – it's the perfect metaphor for puberty.
"Your body is out of control, and your emotions are out of control, and you don't know what's happening to you," says the 35-year-old Tamaki. "You're going through monumental changes, but on the outside you look like an awkward, bored kid."
Using the fantastic as a prism through which to filter adolescence isn't a particularly novel idea – see Potter, Harry. Tamaki, however, wasn't just influenced by the likes of X-Men, whose Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is a far cry from Tamaki's own mutant academy.
Rather, her work draws on that most Canadian of educational institutions, Degrassi High. ("I watched a lot of Degrassi: The Next Generation, too," she adds.) In fact, SuperMutant Magic Academy's climactic scene – taking place, of course, during prom – was inspired by the Degrassi made-for-TV movie School's Out.
"Degrassi is in all my work," she says. "It was on every day after school … I just loved it. I loved how it was simultaneously corny and earnest."
Unlike her teen creations, which include an immortal boy and a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast who can also shoot lasers out of his eyes and hands, Tamaki, born in Ottawa and raised in Calgary, had a fairly normal school experience.
"I hated it at the time, but I really didn't have a difficult time," she says. "I wasn't bullied or anything like that. But I just was ready to be done. I couldn't wait to have some sort of agency, where you could choose who you wanted to spend your time with, and how to spend it."
After graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and spending a couple of years working for the Edmonton-based video game developer BioWare, Tamaki moved to New York, where she spent the next decade. When she left Canada in 2005, she was still a young artist trying to establish her career; she's now one of the most-celebrated Canadian cartoonists of her generation.
Her breakout came in 2008 with the publication of Skim, about a Japanese-Canadian teen goth who falls in love with her English teacher. Created with her cousin, the novelist Mariko Tamaki, the book sparked a minor controversy after Mariko was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award for her writing, while Jillian was overlooked for her illustrations.
Last year, the pair reunited for the remarkable This One Summer, a coming-of-age story about two friends caught between childhood and adolescence, which earned them both a Caldecott Honor (the first graphic novel to do so) and a Printz Award. (And, in a bit of redress, Tamaki's illustrations for This One Summer earned her a Governor General's Literary Award.)
But comics represent just a portion of Tamaki's creative output.
"I have many irons in the fire," she says. "I'm very against putting all my eggs in one basket."
Tamaki also works as a commercial illustrator and a freelance book designer. (Her cover for a new edition of Les Misérables, which arrived in bookstores earlier this year, is particularly striking.)
The reasons, she says, are "mostly economic." Comics just don't pay very well, though she concedes they do seem "more glamorous, because you get a book out of it at the end. But it's not a very lucrative endeavour. They're more of an investment, in various ways – that's how I view them. Illustration and commercial work is obviously more lucrative. I think it's really important for artists to talk about the economics of it, and talk about how to sustain an artistic life, and the realities of that, because I think that people come into it thinking just because you've had a book published, you've made it, or something like that."
The question, she says, is, "Would you do the thing if you had to get a quote-unquote 'regular job?' It's a good question. And I fully think there's a possibility I might need to teach in high school some time in my future. Life is really long, and success today doesn't meant success for the rest of your life."