I had the great pleasure of meeting Mariko Tamaki at the "Queers and Comics" conference last May. I didn't know Tamaki was an LGBTQ cartoonist. Finding out that she was leading a panel at the conference was a wonderful surprise! I only knew her as the writer of the excellent comic book "This One Summer," one of the most beautifully drawn and written comic books I have ever read. "This One Summer" is not LGBTQ but Tamaki's other comic books ("Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me," "Skim") are part of the gay graphic novel genre. Mariko Tamaki as a writer has a beautiful, meditative and wonderfully human way of narrating the moments of people's lives. Mariko Tamaki in person is bold, loud, and funny as hell. When I sat down in the audience to listen to the panel which Tamaki lead, Tamaki, kicked off the discussion by turning to the audience, winking, and saying "Hello homosexuals!" The audience, almost entirely LGBTQ college students holding some form of sketchbook or freshly-purchased graphic novel, laughed loudly. I then realized that I was probably the only straight person in that room. Feeling deeply dowdy and uncool, I slumped down in my chair a bit. At that point Mariko Tamaki briefly made eye contact with me, shot me a skeptical glance, and then turned back towards the panelists. My only thought was "Oh shit! I've been made! They know I'm not gay!!!"
Fortunately I was not asked to leave. I felt a little guilty about invading an LGBTQ safe space, but the feeling soon passed. The panel with Tamaki and other panelists was a delight. During the panel Tamaki described how she went to her high school reunion after she wrote her first book "Skim." She described how all her former classmates and even former teachers eagerly asked her which teacher she was talking about in "Skim." Which teacher romanced her when she was an underage high school student?? Tamaki said that she was surprised at the questions because the book was not about her high school years. Tamaki states that the book is fictional. Still, after reading "Skim," I can understand Tamaki's teachers' curiosity. The story of "Skim" really does appear to be about Tamaki's own teen years. The eponymous main character resembles Tamaki strongly. "Skim" is a delicate, beautiful, uncomfortable, and quietly funny story about a year in the life of Skim, a plump high school girl and aspiring witch who finds herself falling in love with her female English teacher Ms. Archer.
Skim is a very appealing character. She is devoted to becoming a Wiccan while uncomfortably aware that witchcraft may be bullshit. She attends a witch's coven in the middle of the woods with her friend, only to find out that the "coven" is actually an AA group. She builds an alter full of Tarot cards and candles in her room. "I sprinkled some glitter over my alter and then realized it looked stupid. It took me an hour and two rolls of tape to get it off again." Skim is sullen, cynical, and is generally pissed-off at everyone but at the same time very likeable for the reader.... or at least to me. She's a pretty normal teen girl. Undercutting Skim's sour viewpoints is Jillian Tamaki's beautiful illustrations. Skim may be unhappy but she lives in a beautiful world. Jillian Tamaki is especially skilled at drawing those lovely, realistic touches of plants and leaves and trees crowding against 20th century clapboard houses that make up the Southern Canadian town where the story takes place. Weeds pop up against the porch of Ms. Archer's appealingly cluttered house. Silhouettes of oaks and maples tangled with long grass wave in the evening light as Skim and her friend Lisa walk home from school.
The generally unhappy and irritated way that Skim lives her life is interrupted when her teacher Ms. Archer discovers Skim smoking behind the school. Ms. Archer immediately lights up too. Skim and Ms. Archer start to meet regularly in the beautiful wood grove behind the school. Skim becomes infatuated with Ms. Archer and they share a romantic kiss. There is no indication that the relationship goes further than that but after the kiss in the woods Ms. Archer immediately starts to keep her distance from Skim. The reason for this is pretty obvious. Skim is underage and it is clear that the school is getting a little suspicious of their relationship. A new teacher appears in Ms. Archer's class. A school therapist asks Skim questions. Ms. Archer disappears from school entirely and coolly dismisses Skim when Skim finds her house and asks to visit. When Skim gets her term paper back at the end of the semester, Ms. Archer's words keep their relationship at the teacher-student level. "I'm glad to see you have developed an appreciation for Romeo and Juliet, as your work here clearly demonstrates. Excellent work. -Ms. Archer" Skim is heartbroken.
"Skim" is a story with many layers, emphasized both by Mariko Tamaki's words and Jillian Tamaki's drawings. Jillian Tamaki imitates the 18th century okiyo-e Japanese woodblock style when she draws Skim, however Skim is no demure beauty delicately clutching a fan. If Chobunsai Eishi were to draw a grumpy unhappy schoolgirl whose loveliness is finally revealed, his painting would probably look like Jillian Tamaki's two-page illustration showing Skim and Ms. Archer's first (and last) kiss. No worries though, "Skim" does have a happy ending. "Skim" may not be the amazing masterpiece that "The One Summer" is but as a debut graphic novel it is fantastic. I thoroughly recommend this beautifully drawn, romantic, and endearing story.