Jillian and Mariko Tamaki Talk About ‘Roaming’
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Jillian and Mariko Tamaki Talk About ‘Roaming’

Jun 08, 2023


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Jillian and Mariko Tamaki have created award-winning graphic novels together. Their new book, “Roaming,” is an ode to the city that captivated them and the thrills of young adulthood.

By Robert Ito

In the new graphic novel “Roaming,” Dani and Zoe, best friends from a suburb of Toronto, meet up in Manhattan over spring break. It’s 2009, and the teenagers have dreamed of visiting the city together, seeing the sights and reconnecting after several months apart. Before long, they’re savoring their first slice of New York pizza (“huge, like a place mat!”) and getting hassled for cash by a creepy Times Square busker dressed as Elmo.

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, the cousins who wrote and illustrated the book, drew from their own memories of traveling for the first time to New York City. Mariko, 47, who grew up in Toronto, recalled being spooked by the subways, among other things. “I was afraid the whole time I was there,” she said during a recent interview near her home in Hollywood.

Jillian, who was raised in Calgary, remembered how electric the air felt in Times Square, and how the light was like nothing she’d ever seen. “Just the scale of looking down Broadway was mind-blowing,” she recalled. “You’d think, I’m going to walk all the way down there, and then it would take you, like, two hours.”

“Roaming,” which Drawn & Quarterly will publish on Sept. 12, tells the story of Dani and Zoe’s adventures in the city, complete with gloriously rendered images of the visual wonders of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum, along with equally captivating images of leafcutter ants, street litter, the M&M’s store and assorted eccentrics.

Five years in the making, the book reunites the award-winning graphic novelists nearly a decade after their last collaboration.

Unlike their previous projects together, 2008’s “Skim,” which won a New York Times/New York Public Library award for best illustrated children’s book, and 2014’s “This One Summer,” which received the prestigious Caldecott Honor, “Roaming” is the pair’s first non-Y.A. book.

The book also represents the first time the two have shared writing duties to this extent. For their other books, Mariko wrote the stories and Jillian (a former illustrator for the Book Review’s By the Book column) handled the art. This time around, the lines blurred. Jillian came up with the idea for the story and eventually illustrated it, but the actual writing process, which they began in 2019, was a collaborative effort. “We kind of kicked it back and forth, like a football,” Jillian said.

The process was so seamless that both struggled to recall who had written what, often giving credit for a particularly funny or moving line to the other.

They consider the book a love letter to New York, but also an ode to traveling as friends when you’re both young and carefree and every new experience is exciting and wondrous. (Until maybe, as in “Roaming,” a third wheel intrudes — in this case, the lovely and mercurial Fiona — and things go momentarily haywire.)

“They’re having adventures, and there’s this adrenaline of being in a new place and being in awe of a place,” Jillian, 43, said in a video interview from her home in Toronto. It was a time and a feeling she wanted to explore.

“That’s sometimes how you choose the work,” she said. “You think: This is the world I want to live in for the next few months or years. How do I write a story to fit that world?”

The two first worked together around 2005, after the Canadian novelist Emily Pohl-Weary came up with the idea of a series of mini-comics written and illustrated by women. Mariko had been working as a writer and performance artist in Toronto, but had never written a comic and wasn’t much of a fan beyond the stray “Archie.” “But I knew that Jillian was a comic artist, so I told Emily, ‘We should do one with my cousin!’” she recalled. (She hadn’t even asked Jillian first.)

The pair came up with a 24-page comic and subsequently expanded it into “Skim,” a debut graphic novel that drew rave reviews and won several awards.

Six years later, the Tamakis collaborated on “This One Summer,” a heartbreaking, evocative tale about two young girls who spend a summer at their family’s beach cottages in Ontario. It, too, was well received.

Kate Beaton, the author of the award-winning graphic novel “Ducks,” has been a longtime fan. “Everybody remembers being that age, being 11, and being so aware of what’s going on and yet so invisible and inconsequential to everybody else,” she said. “They were able to capture all of that, and to tap into these core memories with extremely powerful writing and visuals.”

In addition to all the accolades, “Summer” also became one of the most banned books in America, according to the American Library Association, because of its depiction of L.G.B.T. characters, drug use and profanity.

“It was because it won the Caldecott,” Mariko said. “I know books that had way more stuff in them than ours, but they’re under the radar, so people aren’t paying attention to them. Because the people who are banning these books aren’t reading them. They just know if it’s a best seller, or if it’s an award winner, or if it has two boys kissing on the cover.”

With “Roaming,” the Tamakis hoped to avoid that minefield with characters who are squarely college age. “We knew that we wanted to have the freedom to depict what we wanted to depict, talk about what we wanted to talk about, in ways that weren’t necessarily Y.A.,” Jillian said.

Not long after the two began writing, Jillian planned to visit New York to conduct research for the book. Although she had lived in the city for 10 years before moving back to Canada, she still worried about getting things wrong, because, as she said, New Yorkers would know.

But then the pandemic hit, and all of her visual research had to be done online. “Luckily, tourists have documented every single corner of that place,” she said.

In any case, the two weren’t aiming for a picture-perfect copy of the city. Indeed, many scenes are more like tone poems or fanciful dream sequences or the best sorts of memories; in one, Fiona and Zoe soar among the butterflies at the American Museum of Natural History, which suddenly became airborne. “If you hew too close to reality, it becomes a postcard,” Jillian said.

Both writers have enjoyed successful careers between their collaborations. Mariko has worked on several books for Marvel and DC, and won awards for her 2019 lesbian Y.A. novel, “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.” Jillian’s books include “Boundless,” which came out in 2017 and made several lists of that year’s best graphic novels, and the award-winning “SuperMutant Magic Academy.”

In a recent interview, Gregory Gallant, a Canadian cartoonist known as Seth (whose works include “Palookaville” and “It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken”), praised Mariko’s work for its creativity and sophistication. And Jillian “can draw better than anybody,” he said. “She might be one of the very best draftsmen in the entire medium at the moment.”

Today, both are busy with projects that stray far from their usual creative endeavors. In addition to heading up the L.G.B.T.Q. imprint Surely Books, Mariko is working on her first adult murder mystery. Jillian has taken up embroidery; recent works have included embroidered book covers for Penguin Classics editions of “The Secret Garden,” “Black Beauty” and “Emma.”

But both would welcome working together again. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over dissecting the sorts of things that are in this book: friendships and relationship changes and all that stuff,” Jillian said. “I’ll probably have more to say about that forever.”

As for Mariko, “I don’t think we’ve ever done a book and said, OK, let’s do another book!,” she said. “But I’m excited every time I get to work with her. Even when it’s hard, it’s good.”