An Interview with Jillian Tamaki

[Originally published in April 20 2011 for Sequential (Canadian Comics and Culture Blog). I’m posting it today, Dec 21 2022 but backdating the post date to coincide with the time of the interview]

Graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2003, Canadian ex-pat Jillian Tamaki has since become a hugely successful New York illustrator, as well as a much respected comics creator. Her first graphic novel, Skim (with writer Mariko Tamaki) won the 2009 Doug Wright Award for Best Book the 2008 Ignatz Award for Best Graphic Novel,  make the 2008 Best Illustrated Children`s Books List with the New York Times, was nominated for four  Eisner Awards,  and was noted as the one of the Best Books of the year for 2008 in both Publisher`s Weekly and Quill and Quire. 

This year she is nominated for the Doug Wright Awards’ Pigskin Peters Award, for her petit livre Indoor Voice, a collection of informal comics and drawings published by Drawn and Quarterly. I was very fortunate to have a short email interview with Jillian last week about her approach to art and her influences.

Did you have any favourite comics growing up?

I read a lot of Archie comics, plus the comics that were in the newspapers. My parents really liked The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Herman, so we had some of those anthologies in the house too. I copied the “Punk Accountants” Far Side cartoon for my dad’s birthday (he is also an accountant). When I was a teenager, my sister and I liked to cut up Archie comics and make collages with the balloons or sticking them on new images. It’s still a fun thing to do.

Growing up, were comics a kind of guilty pleasure, was it something you embraced openly, or not that important to you.

I didn’t really analyze it. In fact, when we were promoting Skim in 2008, people would ask what comics I read as a kid and I was just like, “Eh, I didn’t really read comics”. I had completely forgotten that I read a TON of comics and I really enjoyed them. I just didn’t view them as important or significant at the time.

I’m sure there are many, but am there any particular cartoonists or artists or designers or illustrators or writers or directors you admire, whom you can say had some influence on your work or approach?

I became interested in comics at the very end of my degree at the Alberta College of Art and Design, where I was studying Design and Illustration. I became obsessed with Tomer Hanuka’s work and that included Bipolar, the comic he makes with his cousin Asaf. Later, when I made the conscious effort to educate myself on making comics (2004), I learned the most from Chester Brown, Michel Ragabliati, Julie Doucet, Will Eisner, and Dan Clowes. I got most of those books out of my local library branch.

When you signed on to doing Skim, was there any prep work you did, any comics-related research or other artists you looked to for inspiration or guidance? Any artists you went to or whom you read when you found yourself in a jam?

I was never “signed” to doing Skim. Skim started off as a 24 page collaboration between myself and my cousin… there was no book deal. It was initially released by a Toronto zine called “Kiss Machine”. But to answer the question… probably, but I can’t remember now. My ignorance and lack of formal training was probably a good thing, actually. I just did the best I could, and approached it with the skills as I had… as a designer and an illustrator. I just read tons, as I mentioned. That was my education.

Skim is a master achievement – Seth has said in the past, much ‘Writing’ that is credited to the ‘writer’ actually comes from how the panels and pages are laid out on the page – it is this graphic language that often conveys as much of the story as the dialogue – can I ask about your collaboration with Mariko, your balance of who does the layout the storyboarding? Not to take away from Mariko in any way, so much of the story comes graphically, it feels as if you should – and more comics artists in general – get a credit as writer too.

Mariko and I are a good pair because she’s an amazing collaborator… she trusts my instincts and lets me build upon the foundation of her story. She’s never dictated to me or insisted upon a change because it didn’t fit the image on her head. She will also suggest visual images. To call myself a “writer” is potentially confusing–we learned the hard way that these words are actually quite powerful. Anyway, I’m in favour of the term “creator” or “co-creator”. It’s the most satisfactory term that encapsulates the comics-making process… ours, at least.

Can I ask about your use of photo-references in the production of Skim – did you take pictures and draw from them, especially in Scarborough [a suburb of Toronto]? Your work is wonderfully flowing, is there any advice you can give about drawing from photo-references?

I mapped out generally what I wanted to do, then traveled to Toronto to shoot specific reference. Most of it is from around the St.Clair-Christie area, where my sister was living at the time and I was staying. That trip was pivotal to my own mindset and I’d never attempt to do a book about a specific place without visiting it. Photo-referencing should support the story and make the details vivid. That said, too-heavy reliance on photo reference is very bad and should be avoided.

On your blog you mention working with students – can you tell us what you are teaching and where you are teaching it? How has the experience been for you, does it interfere at all with your creative process?

I teach 2nd year drawing for illustrators at the School of Visual Arts in New York. It does not interfere with my creative process, in fact I have to admit that, as frustrating as it can sometimes be, it has made me a more critical, thoughtful, and inspired individual. To see people make discoveries about their own process (I try to stress that what one learns in art school is not a technique, but a process) is deeply rewarding. Plus, these are 19 and 20 year old kids… they’re showing you what’s new and cool before it becomes mainstream.

Are there any rituals or habits or processes or other things you go through in order to maintain your inspiration?

I have encountered this question often lately and I’m always a little confounded by it. Most of my creative friends are never at a loss for inspiration…. they are at a loss for time, resources, or struggle with the “business-y” constraints of the job. But if you gifted them a week of free time, they’d be able to fill it easily. It’s like that saying, “Only boring people are bored”. 

You say you are grateful your foundational year was spent in a Fine Arts environment, and has shaped the way you think about images, make images, and your understanding of Illustration — how is it you think about images, and illustration?

That’s a really huge question. I will only say that I do believe Illustration can be smart and have content, but Illustration is not Fine Art. They are different worlds, with different histories, communities, objectives, and constraints. The exist in the world for different reasons. I was trained as a commercial artist and I’ve long given up feeling conflicted about that. That’s my philosophy and that of my husband, Sam Weber. But we speak often about how that seems to be changing… the nature of Illustration and its place in society. Not even out of art school 10 years and it seems like our outlook is quite curmudgeonly and dinosaur-like.

Is there any advice you can offer other new cartoonists? Any experience you can share for even newly established cartoonists, maybe around contracts or keeping your vision?

I dunno, just make some comics! Seems like the best time ever to be a comics artist… think of all the ways you can get your work seen. If you want to be a cartoonist and are not making comics, you’re just lazy or crippled by fear. Which are two huge problems. As for established cartoonists, who am I to tell them anything? I’ve only been doing this for 6 years! 

Your Penguin Classic embroidered book covers are amazing, can I ask how you came about with the job offer, can I ask where the inspiration came from for the concept?

I did some embroidery, because it was simply something I wanted to try, and put it online. I’d worked with Penguin’s Art Director, Paul Buckley, as an illustrator before, and he happened to see my embroidery just as he was pitching the “Threads” project. So it was fortuitous. The inspiration was simply my love for those books, the freedom assigned by the project and the stitching effects I had been experimenting with in the medium. Again, similar to comics… I’m untrained in that medium, but I think that ignorance has been beneficial, in a weird way. You’re a little more fearless if you don’t know you’re committing cardinal sins.

Do you have any favourite contemporary cartoonists, anyone you’ve read recently who you liked?

I’m drawn to comics for different reasons. Visually, I’m excited by weird comics that look strange and unusual. I like Jungyeon Roh, Sakura Maku, Dash Shaw, Brecht Evens, weird manga and stuff. But as I get older, I become less impressed with drawing and am more deeply moved by more straightforward narratives. To be able to tell a compelling story is so much more difficult than being able to draw badass pictures. So I’m in awe of people like Chester Brown, Lynda Barry, Michel Ragabliati, Seth, Hope Larson, or Tatsumi. I still do love me a fucked up art comic though.

Looking at your wonderful petite livre Indoor Voice, it seems lovely and freeing to sketch unabashedly – do you keep a sketchbook with you at all times? Do you sketch often? How vital is it to you?

I don’t sketch every day. But there’s rarely a day where I don’t make something. Right now I’m trying to teach myself how to quilt. But yes, the sketchbook is completely essential. As I tell my students, you rarely will make breakthroughs –lateral steps– on projects.

You have a new project with Mariko Tamaki coming up, is there anything you can tell us about it?

Mariko and I are working on a new graphic novel, Awago Beach Babies. It is no way related to SKIM– sequel, prequel, or otherwise. Mariko is in the writing phase right now and I’m just patiently waiting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: