Roaming, the latest graphic novel from Canadian cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, is a study in contrasts: While it might appear daunting at more than 400 pages, readers can speed through its spare, elegant narrative in a quick sitting. Even its title is a play on words – its college-aged protagonists are roaming through New York circa 2009, but they’re also worried about the roaming charges they might get hit with when forced to turn cellphone data on.
Their first collaboration in a decade, Roaming marks the Tamakis’ return to their pioneering style of comics that resonate with young (and young at heart) readers, thanks to nuanced storytelling that evokes the liminal spaces between childhood and adult life through Jillian’s emotive ink illustrations and Mariko’s keen ear for realistic dialogue.
After finding success with the award-winning bestsellers Skim (2005) and This One Summer (2014), both cousins went on to solo work of their own, but decided to join forces again when Jillian realized her idea for Roaming was just the kind of tale the duo excels at telling together.
“This story was almost accidentally the perfect project for our next book,” Mariko says from her home in Los Angeles during a joint Zoom interview with Jillian, who is based in Toronto. “We’ve written a lot about key transitional periods of people’s lives – our first book was about falling in love for the first time; our second book was about the discovery of adulthood; and this one is a key change where you step out of this thing you’ve grown to understand, which is high-school life, and stepping into another one that you’ll struggle with for decades to come, which is adulthood.”
Roaming follows three first-year university students – two old friends, Dani and Zoe, and newcomer Fiona – as they meet up in New York during spring break to take in all the sights and sounds of the big city, sparking an unexpected crush between Zoe and Fiona, and throwing Zoe and Dani’s bond off-balance.
“I knew I wanted to do something on travelling with your friends when you’re young – and how your horizons are being expanded and you’re changing really quickly – and then to be taken out of your context and into the world, it’s a very heady time,” Jillian says.
To capture what it’s like to be a tourist in the Big Apple, in all its massive, eye-widening glory – not to mention what the city was like back in 2009, long before Google Maps and other apps irrevocably changed the travel experience – Jillian, a onetime resident of New York, turned to online resources such as Flickr and Google Street View and made sketches during a prepandemic trip in 2019.
“For me, New York has always stood as the grown-up place to go,” Mariko says. “There was never a point when we felt like there wasn’t enough for a story here, because the best thing to write about is the thing that produces almost too much to work with.”
The pair has never lived in the same city (Mariko grew up in Toronto, while Jillian was raised in Calgary), so they collaborate mostly by e-mail and Zoom, sending pages back and forth as Jillian draws panels and Mariko writes dialogue to match as the imagery and story evolve.
“There’s a very clear division of labour for us, naturally,” Mariko says. “There’s a part of the process where Jillian is doing the monumental labour of actually drawing a book, and we e-mail the script back and forth. So we world-build together instead of having things be two separate ideas. Our collaborative work is really at the front, and then again in the editing process.”
In addition to their joint work, both Mariko and Jillian have kept busy in recent years – Mariko writing for Marvel and DC Comics and running the LGBTQ graphic novel imprint Surely Books, and Jillian writing and illustrating several of her own books and comic strips.
Their focus on ensuring an honest portrayal of youth, including the experiences of LGBTQ characters, has won them acclaim – but also made their books a target. This One Summer, a coming-of-age story about two teenage girls discovering themselves during a summer in a small beach town, was one of the most-banned and most-challenged books in the United States in 2016. It continues to face similar scrutiny.
“It’s worth noting that [banning books] has nothing to do with anything literary,” Mariko says. “It’s clearly targeting books by specific groups and about specific experiences. It’s clearly wrong – we wish it wasn’t happening. And yet, it hasn’t affected our ability to get published or get our books out there, which I think is really important.”
“Sometimes you get inserted into a conversation that you don’t really anticipate. Our books are so much about messiness – not knowing, and figuring things out – which is totally a reflection of how I feel when it comes to identity, too,” Jillian points out.
“When it first started happening with This One Summer, my interpretation was that people want to keep kids bubble-wrapped and not talk about reality, even when it’s mediated to an age-appropriate conversation for kids. And that’s just not realistic,” Jillian adds.
Despite those frustrations, the two are heartened to see increased representation of LGBTQ books and writers in the publishing sector – a critical part of ensuring everyone’s stories are told.
“Even just to have queer people writing science fiction, horror, memoir – all these genres that didn’t used to have a proliferation of queer writers now do,” Mariko says. “So that means it’s harder to say something broad and stereotypical about any group of people when you have this diversity of experiences that suggests otherwise.”
Given its size and scope, Roaming readily sidesteps any ready categorization, and feels so true to life that it’s easy to assume the story is drawn from the cousins’ own memories. But, they say, in all their work, they’re trying to capture more of a feeling than any specifics and always leave room for enough ambiguity that every reader can find something of their own complex experiences amid the pages.
“It’s fictional – no real friends were hurt in this actual story,” Mariko confirms with a laugh. “There’s this feeling on the last page of everything we’ve done: We’re leaving a space that tomorrow something else is going to happen – it’s not a closing moment, but it leaves the door open to a small moment of peace.”