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Interview with Jillian Tamaki

Jillian Tamaki

Some intro. Her AFCC bio reads:

Jillian Tamaki is an illustrator and comic artist living in Toronto, Canada. A professional artist since 2003, she has worked for publications around the world and has taught in New York City at the undergraduate and graduate level. She has created books for people of all ages, from picture books to webcomics and adult graphic novels. She is the co-creator of Skim and This One Summer, which won a Caldecott Honor and Printz Award.

Her panel with Harmony Becker and local artist Nurulhuda Izyan is Drawn Narratives:

Illustrations bring a wealth of meaning with them. As an integral part of the graphic novel format, they serve a multitude of purposes in driving the story and communicating unspoken messages to readers. This panel will dive into the works of three illustrator-writers and look at how they have effectively employed the medium in communicating their stories.

It takes place on 28 May, Saturday, 9 am to 10 am.

AFCC takes place 26 to 29 May. You can buy tickets here:

A few years ago, I interviewed Mariko Tamaki, Jillian’s cousin and the writer of the books they did together – Skim and This One Summer. Both won many awards with the latter having the honour of being one of the most banned books in America ever.

You can find out more about Jillian and read her comics on her very informative website:

A final point that is relevant to SG Cartoon Resource Hub’s intent to promote comics-making as sustainable. What Jillian said about having an affordable place to live in and work is very true. The cost of living in Singapore is very high, one of the most expensive cities to live in. I have a friend in Jakarta who drew a weekly strip that paid S$200. So in a month, she gets S$800 and that is very comfortable in Jakarta. But hardly anyone can survive on S$800 in Singapore.

So what artists are facing are structural issues too.

1. I reread Gilded Lilies, which was your first book. Did you imagine you would have this level of success back in 2006?

No, I always assumed that comics would be a side-activity. Not a hobby, I always took it more seriously than that, but a thing I did with no expectation of ever making money. Though I didn’t have any expectations for my career in comics, I certainly felt like I had a lot I wanted to do with the form. Obviously I have more complex feelings about comics now, having worked in the industry for a while. I no longer think of it as “personal work” like I once did.

Gilded Lilies by Jillian Tamaki
Gilded Lilies by Jillian Tamaki

2. You grew up in Calgary, Alberta. What is it about the place that produced so many comic artists – John Byrne, Todd McFarlane, Fiona Staples, Cary Nord, etc?

Well, I believe all of us attended the Alberta College of Art and Design (now called Alberta University of the Arts). Interestingly, they didn’t really teach us cartooning specifically, but it was a very old-school technical program – lots of pen and ink, anatomy, figure drawing, perspective, tonal theory, etc. Graphic design was 50% of the curriculum. I think that emphasis on the basics is a fantastic start for comics. I obviously don’t know if everyone you mention would say the same and I don’t know if the program is still structured that way. I graduated in 2003.

3. What sort of eco-system and support system do we need to have a vibrant comics scene?

That’s a really good question. I have a lot of thoughts about it. Comics is extremely time-consuming and labour intensive. A place that has an affordable cost of living is more amiable for art-making of all types. If you’re working at your dayjob, or having to do more commercially-viable work in order to afford your expenses, that’s less time to make art.

I lived in the US for a long time. The difference between governmental support for the arts in the US versus in Canada is astonishing. We are very lucky in Canada to have organizations like the Canada Council which provides grants. They are not perfect institutions by any means. But it makes a huge difference for artists’ survival and is probably the reason Canada punches well above its weight in comics.

I think there’s also a certain alchemy that happens in art scenes. Oftentimes there are key figures in a city that generate a lot of energy – individuals that connect people, or organize an event, or are really good at getting people money. In Toronto, I would say Chris Butcher, Peter Birkemoe (founders of the Toronto Comics Arts Fair) and Annie Koyama (former publisher of Koyama Books) have been examples of those people. There are probably so many more.

4. I have 2 cats and they are sisters and they 14 years old. So Ned resonates with me a lot. Do you have cats?

Yes, I have a 19-year-old cat. I got her when I was 23, I’m now 42. Obviously Ned taps into my relationship with her, but mostly it was inspired by my friend’s cat going missing. They never found the cat.

(Note: you can read Ned here: )

Covid Hygiene by Jillian Tamaki
Covid Hygiene by Jillian Tamaki
Ned by Jillian Tamaki
Ned by Jillian Tamaki

5. Julie Doucet is one of your heroes. She just won the big prize at Angouleme recently. You must be pleased. Who else are you reading these days?

Julie is amazing! That reminds me, I have to pick up her new book. I am sad to say, I’m not the best reader. I’m currently chewing on “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’m also almost finished Michael DeForge’s “Birds of Maine”, which is utterly delightful. It’s about a bird utopia on the moon. It reads as if it was a newspaper strip that had a 40-year-run.

6. Back in the mid 2000s, I discovered your comics and Arcade Fire around the same time. They have a new album out. Are you a fan?

Haha – I’m not! I don’t know anything about them, really. Canadian music in the 2000s-2010s definitely had a Moment, though!

7. Comics is a tough business. What sort of outlook does one need to have if you want to work in comics?

I don’t think you need any specific outlook to work in comics. I think the idea of an “Artist’s Temperament” is kinda bullshit. Any personality type can be an artist.

8. You toggled between comics, illustrations and picture books. Would you want to do comics solely or do you enjoy wearing different hats? (for those who have not read any, Jillian’s picture books are beautiful)

I don’t think I’d want to solely do comics, even if given the option. I like solitude, but it can get very lonely. I like working with other people and every format has its own challenges. I enjoy those challenges. I guess I also have Freelancer Brain… I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket.

SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
Indoor Voice by Jillian Tamaki
Indoor Voice by Jillian Tamaki

9. Can you tell us more about the new graphic novel you are working on with Mariko?

Yes! It’s about the first time you travel alone with your friends (no parents) as a young person with limited worldly skills. Three freshman – two old friends, and one tag-along – meet up in New York and experience the city for the first time. It’s a bit of a travelogue and a meditation on tourism. To be able to travel is an immense privilege and you can be so incredibly enriched by being resituated in an unfamiliar place. However tourism has a cost to the place itself. And of course there is friendship upheaval as people grow from one thing into another.. and betrayal… and Big Emotions… because they are delicious and perpetual themes for both myself and Mariko haha.

10. You are appearing on the same panel as Harmony Becker. Her first book is They Called Us Enemy, which is about the Japanese internment in America during WWII. You have also touched briefly on this topic in your story about Ruth Asawa and Junban, which is about your grandfather, George Takakazu Tamaki. Race is still a fault line in North America today. Culture wars are still being fought. Can art (and comics) make a difference?


Hm. I don’t think art will “save” us or anything. Art has a part to play, along with personal engagement, money, education, mutual aid, protest, civil disobedience, political engagement, etc. The comics I have made that touch upon race are my attempt to understand my own feelings, or illuminate something interesting for a broader public. I think being involved in my local community has a more direct and material effect.

(Note: you can read these two stories on Jillian’s website)

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