I first met Mariko Tamaki at the "Queers and Comics" conference a few months ago in New York where she was leading a panel. I was quite surprised. I didn't know that Tamaki was an LGBTQ graphic novelist. I already knew Tamaki's work in her wonderful graphic novel "This One Summer" which she wrote and Jillian Tamaki illustrated. "This One Summer" still remains one of the most beautiful, touching and effective graphic novels I have ever read in my life. Tamaki's stories mostly involve teen girls coming to terms with their sexuality, both straight ("This One Summer") and gay ("Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me," "Skim"). Tamaki as a writer has an uncanny and affectionate way of capturing the deeply human moments of our lives. Tamaki in person is loud and funny as hell. At the start of the panel, Tamaki turned towards the audience, winked, and said "Hello homosexuals!" The audience, almost all LGBTQ college students holding newly-purchased graphic novels and art supplies, laughed loudly. I realized that I was probably the only straight person in the room. Feeling deeply dowdy and uncool, I slumped into my chair a bit. At that point Mariko Tamaki made eye contact with me, shot me a skeptical look, and then turned towards the panelists. I thought "Oh shit! I've been made! She knows I'm not gay!"
I felt a little guilty about invading this LGBTQ safe space. Fortunately I was not asked to leave. I very much enjoyed the panel. Mariko Tamaki talked about how she went to her high school reunion. Her former high school classmates and even former teachers were very curious about her book "Skim." They wanted to know which teacher Tamaki was referring to in her book. Which teacher romanced her when she was a teenager?! Tamaki states that she was surprised by the question because "Skim" is a work of fiction and not based on her teenage years at all. Still, after reading "Skim" I can understand why Tamaki's old classmates believed that the book was a memoir. The main character of Skim very much resembles a teenage Mariko Tamaki. Any reader can see Tamaki's old teachers raising an eyebrow while reading the story.
"Skim" is a lovely, hilarious, endearing and uncomfortable story. The eponymous main character, Skim, is very easy to like despite her generally irritable attitude towards life. Skim is a high school student and aspiring Wiccan despite the fact that she's starting to suspect that witchcraft may be bullshit. Skim attends a witch's coven in the middle of the forest with her friend, only to discover that the "coven" is actually an AA meeting. Skim sets up an alter in her bedroom full of Tarot cards and candles. "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." When one character asks Skim- real name Kimberly Keiko Cameron- why her friends call her "Skim" she replies "Because I'm not." Plump and cynical Skim is a pretty normal teenage girl. Skim is drawn by Jillian Tamaki in a way that's reminiscent of the Japanese 18th century okiyo-e woodblock style. Still, Skim is no demure beauty delicately clutching a fan. Skim is fiercely intelligent, resentful, sullen, and unaware of her own loveliness. Skim is thrown for a loop however when she finds herself falling in love with her female English teacher Ms. Archer.
In Mariko Tamaki's story Skim's words may be grumpy but her world is beautiful. Jillian Tamaki's illustrations in "Skim," like in "This One Summer," are quietly stunning. Jillian Tamaki excels in portraying beautiful, realistic details like weeds and flowers growing up against the cluttered of porch of Ms. Archer's house. Oaks and maples and tall waving grasses are silhouetted against the evening light as Skim and her friend Lisa walk home from school. The lovely tree groves and 20th century clapboard houses of the small Toronto suburb where Skim lives stand in peaceful contrast with Skim's adolescent resentments. Skim's resentment, however, gives away to happiness (and some confusion on Skim's part) when Ms. Archer catches Skim smoking behind the school. Ms. Archer lights up too and they start meeting regularly in the woods behind the school. Their relationship advances to the point where Skim and Ms. Archer share a long romantic kiss underneath the willow trees. Skim is blissful, but the relationship is obviously problematic. Skim is underage while Ms. Archer appears to be in her late twenties to early thirties. There is an implication that the school gets suspicious of their relationship. After their kiss (they don't appear to go beyond that) Ms. Archer suddenly starts to keep her distance from Skim. A new teacher appears in Ms. Archer's class. When Skim finds Ms. Archer's house and asks to visit, Ms. Archer remains cool and keeps Skim at arm's length. At the end of the school year, Skim looks at the note Ms. Archer wrote on her term paper. "Kim, 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 devastated. It is a pretty brutal "Dear Jane" letter.
"Skim" has a happy ending. You get the feeling that Mariko Tamaki loves her characters too much to leave them unhappy for too long. Even Ms. Archer is allowed to bow out of the story with her dignity intact and her reputation untarnished with whispers of sexual predation. And who can blame Tamaki for loving her characters? The actors in Tamaki's stories are very lovable. You feel like you know them already, that they already inhabit your life. "Skim" is a lovely, sweet and beautiful debut effort by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. I love their team efforts and can't wait for more from them in the future. "Skim" is a definite recommend from me.