When I think of Mariko Tamaki, I think of adolescence. Her stories, which include the Caldecott Honor and Eisner Award-winning graphic novel This One Summer (drawn by cousin Jillian Tamaki), fully capture that most beautiful and awkward period of life. They immortalize the entrancing and inescapable magnetism of our earliest crushes. The utter fear everyone experiences when our bodies begin to change. The bittersweet realization that our parents are people too.
Adolescence is an incredibly fertile well for writers in search of conflict, but few portray this time with the rawness and intensity of emotion that Tamaki employs. It’s what makes her stories stand out from the countless other books about teenagers on the shelves today.
In Supergirl: Being Super, Tamaki and artist Joelle Jones (Lady Killer) have captured lightning in a bottle. The story focuses on a Kara Danvers who’s different from the one we watch on CW primetime TV. This Kara was raised on a small farm in a small town and was no knowledge of her Kryptonian heritage– she only knows she has a great power that she has to keep secret from the rest of the world. However, as her body changes and tragedy strikes, she’s forced to confront the fact that no matter how simple her life had been up until this point, they’ll never be that way again.
The book is a beautiful study about grieving, self-discovery, and even zit popping. With Supergirl: Being Super #3 releasing this Wednesday, the Comics Beat recently sat down to talk to Tamaki about the themes of the story and her personal coming of age.
Note: there are some light spoilers for issue 3 below.
Alex Lu: Mariko, last year, you started writing Hulk and now Supergirl: Being Super. Although you’ve had an extensive career in comics already, these are some of your first superhero comics. What was it that drew you to them?
Mariko Tamaki: Someone asked me to start writing them [laughs]—I was offered! Not that it’s not a job I wouldn’t want, but I never thought it was a job that anyone would give me. So, shortly after This One Summer came out I started getting emails from publishers asking me if I was interested in writing comics for them. At first, I was really intimidated because I didn’t think that I knew how to write comics [in a serialized periodical format]. It took me a while to learn how to write comics that way—it actually is a specific skill to write six 24 page issues that string together nicely into one arc and actually connect to each other. It’s really hard. I had the fortune of being able to learn how to do that with Tomb Raider, so I consider myself pretty lucky.
Lu: Before you started writing superhero comics, what was your relationship with them like?
Tamaki: It was kind of off and on. I was never somebody who read superhero comics as a kid and I was only someone who started reading comics in general after my first one came out in 2008. I was talking to someone and I told them that I needed to get into superhero comics and they said “oh, you have to read Matt Fraction’s and David Aja’s Hawkeye!” I had no real interest in the character but my friend insisted that “oh, no no no, this is really good!” That was the gateway book for me to become obsessed with superhero comics.
There really are so many interesting superhero stories. I actually feel kind of like I missed out, but on the positive side I now have all these amazing comics I can binge on. Now I’m reading superhero comics all the time.
Lu: What are your favorite comics?
Tamaki: Well, I am still a big Hawkeye fan. I’m also a big Gene Yang fan…I really like his Superman stuff. There’s a little bit of everything. Obviously, Saga. Also the new Doom Patrol, which I really like. And Shade, the Changing Girl—I’m a big fan of Cecil Castellucci so that’s been really fun to read. What else? Papergirls is amazing, The Wicked and The Divine, G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel. I’m also currently obsessed with Michael DeForge’s Richard’s Valley, which you can find on Instagram.
I recently finished Southern Bastards, by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, which is not a superhero comic but is incredible. It’s such a gut punch.
I am a big fan of A. M. Holmes, who writes these really dark, twisted portraits of American Life. I feel like people don’t give comics enough credit for being literary because I feel like Southern Bastards is as deep and dark as any book about America written by a celebrated writer like Holmes.
Lu: Absolutely. I feel like one of the wonderful things about coming into comics nowadays is that there is this sense of confidence in comics to explore certain themes in a way that is, in some respect, more mature.
Tamaki: I think that there are some themes that are becoming more common—things like regret and consequence—that have become more common in all comics and especially superhero comics. I think that there’s this diversity of people who are bringing really interesting things to comics nowadays.
And there’s a constantly expanding legacy factor, too. Something like Doom Patrol, for example, is a reboot. It’s an existing property that’s been brought back to life and I think it’s amazing that you can get new stories out of the same group of characters.
Lu: What do you think it is that draws you to the comics you love?
Tamaki: I really like a good character, so if I really like their voice I’m pretty much sold no matter who it is. I’ve come to realize that the thing I love most about comics is—I really love writers, so, for example, I love Jeff Lemire. So if he writes or illustrates something, no matter what it is, I’m game. There are a lot of people I’ll follow no matter where they go in comics.
I’ve taken the same approach to my own work, as well. I’ve realized that no matter where I go and what I write, I’m still me, so I’ve decided to be the writer that I am no matter what property I’m working on.
Lu: In some respects, Supergirl: Being Super is unlike any superhero—or at least Supergirl—story that I’ve read before. This is very much a story about a young girl discovering her true self for the first time and feeling even further alienated from the people around her by that knowledge. It’s a feeling that I think most teenagers can identify it—I know that my own teenage self definitely could. What were your teenage years like?
Tamaki: Oh, they sucked! I hated being a teenager. I think I was this kind of teenager who had this notion that when I grew up, everything would be super amazing. I thought the world of adulthood would be completely different from that of being a teenager—which it’s not, curiously enough. I was this fat Asian lesbian at a private all-girls school in Toronto, so you can sort of paint the picture from there, I think!
Lu: Your perspective on what it’s like to come into adulthood and grow up is interesting to me. You discuss traditionally difficult or even taboo topics in your stories on a regular basis. This One Summer, for example, dwelled on a miscarriage. Now, Supergirl: Being Super deals with what it’s like for a teenager to lose someone very close to them at an age where most people are still convinced that they are invincible—her more than anyone. What was it that made you want to tell this story with Supergirl?
Tamaki: Well I think the thing is that when you get a call or email to do a project, you try to think of the first story that pops into your head. In this case, the first thought that came to me was the story of this girl in this small town who seems to have a very simple life but actually has an incredibly complicated one. That journey from innocence to experience and using superpowers as a metaphor for adolescence all seemed like it was just…there. I think that most superheroes have a tragic moment in their lives because the stakes are so high—they’re always life or death. It seemed fitting to have something really notable happen to Kara that would force her to reevaluate what she was doing on Earth, amongst other things.
I didn’t immediately think that I was going to write a story about a girl who loses her best friend—spoiler alert. I was watching a lot of track and field documentaries and movies, like Prefontaine, and old movies, like The Bad News Bears, at the time (because my awesome girlfriend Heather Gold has great taste in old movies – I usually resist because I have this thing about movies made before 1985) I liked this idea of using a team, track and field, the relay race, the chain—this idea that your connection to your friends is part of your identity, so what happens to you when that connection to these people is not there anymore. It all just kind of came together from there.
I felt really sad when I realized that a character was going to die. I don’t think I’ve ever written a death before, so Supergirl: Being Super was actually really hard to write. Working on the story was incredibly depressing at times. That said, I really like this book. Like I said, I think the main theme in a lot of superhero stories right now is consequence—this idea that even someone who is heroic can do things that have a negative impact on the world around them. What does that mean for them and the world?
Lu: This story hit me quite hard because when I was a teenager, I lost my grandmother and she was the person in my family that I felt closest to. I saw parallels in the story between my life and Kara’s—these ideas of innocence lost, the death of immortality, and what it meant to reevaluate one’s place in the world following such a profound loss. In a way, this story is a sort of roadmap for grieving, which I would have killed to have at the time.
Tamaki: In general, grief is this missing piece. There’s no great roadmap for how to deal with it—especially if you’re a younger person. I think that what’s happening in this comic is that you’re seeing various peoples’ different ways of handling something like this. Even Kara’s parents have drastically different ways of talking to her about this terrible tragedy in her life.
I think emotions, in general, are something that is not [well mapped]. That said, I watched the Pixar Inside Out movie with everyone else and yeah, no matter what, accepting sadness as a part of life is a really hard thing to do. But I think that is also part of this character’s journey—to go through something horrible. She doesn’t necessarily have to overcome the tragedy, but it will always be a part of her life. It’s something that happened to her and she’ll never forget it. It will absolutely impact, and not necessarily in a negative way, how she moves forward.
Lu: I think a book like Supergirl: Being Super could have easily been a breezy read that focused on hitting action beats and having fun. What do you think it is that makes you want to push the envelope and tackle stories like this one, exposing potentially developing readers to themes like this?
Tamaki: I don’t know! I don’t think of myself as exposing, really. But, when Supergirl: Being Super #2 came out, I had a moment where I thought to myself “oh, you know, maybe this wasn’t what people were expecting from this series.”
But in the end, I’m going to write the story that appears in my brain and makes sense to me. For whatever reason, a fun romp or adventure is just never going to be my thing. I think that’s because I was raised on Canadian fiction so I have no mental picture of what that carefree story looks like.
It’s funny because I’ve always wanted to ask Jeff Lemire, who’s also Canadian, what he read as a teenager because he also has that sort of darkness in him. I’m not sure if we share that because we both read too much Timothy Findley as teenagers or what!
Lu: I feel like you’re saying that Canada is this dark, joyless place!
Tamaki: Noooo! It’s not that we’re joyless. It’s that…the kind of character that makes the American hero is not the hero of Canadian fiction. Margaret Atwood wrote this great book—I think it’s called Survival [it is called Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature] —and it’s about the central themes in Canadian literature of surviving the elements, the wilderness, the COLD. I think that there’s a part of Canadian literature that’s very interested in the depiction of struggle.
It’s not to say that Canadian fiction is joyless—it’s just intense.
Lu: Jeff Lemire recently released a new book—Roughneck. Have you read it yet?
Tamaki: No, I haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet, but I really liked his last series, Plutona, with Emi Lenox. I loved that. I think that that’s the kind of superhero story that I relate to most. That superheroes are complex.
Lu: That they’re people, too.
Tamaki: They are people, too! They’re people, but they’re not. And that’s a fascinating thing to write. Think about Kara—she’s a teenager who has the ability to move mountains and has laser eyes so she can cut a building if she really wants to. However, she lives in this small town with these parents who tell her her life will be much easier if she doesn’t tell people she can do that sort of thing. What does being a superhero mean in that context?
Lu: What are some of the challenges that you faced when coming up with Supergirl: Being Super’s story?
Tamaki: I think the challenge for every project like this is figuring out how to pace the story out over the number of pages and issues you’re given. In this case, I had 4 issues and 48 pages per issue. Figuring out the timing, which is a huge part of storytelling, and to try and work it so that it isn’t obvious to people how you’ve spaced things out—that’s a challenge. Additionally, I like each issue to feel like its own thing. It should feel like a significant part of the story but should also stand on its own instead of feeling like just a part of the whole.
This was also my first time really working with superpowers, so I had to sort through how I thought about them and how I wanted to use them. I knew I wanted an alien zit from the very beginning—that was the clearest thing. Kara’s developing superpowers here are like a metaphor for adolescence. Adolescence truly is when your body completely turns against you, right? All the things you had control over in your body, you don’t have control over anymore. Your face explodes. Your body aches. Your limbs grow at different speeds so that your hands grow faster than your arms or your feet grows faster than your legs. All of that stuff is fascinating to me. I had to figure out what those obstacles would be.
I have to give full credit to my editors, Paul Kaminski and Andrew Marino. They were amazing and incredibly patient with me. They had to school me on what powers Kara would have and how she could use them—they were my incredibly supportive resources. It’s interesting because whenever you write superhero comics, you’re working with mega nerds who know so much stuff about the thing you’re writing about—more than you do, really. So it’s fascinating when they say something like “well, Kara’s mother would really act like this.” I actually sent them a bunch of questions about Krypton and they answered them all.
Lu: What do you think was the hardest part about learning how to write serialized comics in general?
Timing. Timing or pacing, using the space you have, were the things I actually worked on figuring out when I started writing serialized comics. With serialized comics you have a given page limit. Which you don’t have with graphic novels or prose. So it was a new thing for me. I got a great note early on from the editor Joan Hilty, she said, “Make sure you have a ticking clock.” You know? Suspense. Tension. It took me a while to find my own groove with that.
Lu: I had never thought about what it would be like for you to work with Joelle Jones before, but now that I’ve seen the pairing in action it makes a lot of sense. How did her work first come to your attention?
Tamaki: I had seen her work around—Lady Killer, for example. I’d also seen some of the covers that she’d done so she was always on my radar as this really talented artist. I love the feeling of her work so whenever I would see something that was hers, I really liked it. And then we were paired up together by the DC editors.
Lu: When you write for her, are there any particular types of scenes you try to craft so that she can play to her artistic strengths?
Tamaki: Well, I think that Joelle’s drawings of Kara—and all the characters, really—are incredible. I’m always surprised by the amount of detail she manages to work into each page. There are scenes in the first issue that are so complex and are so detailed in the backgrounds. I was really blown away. I really like the way she visualizes Kara’s dreams as well.
I try not to think too much about what I think someone is going to draw because my descriptions in my scripts are very loose. I try to focus on what is happening in the scene rather than what someone should draw. I try to actually leave those decisions to the artist.
Lu: Speaking of those dream sequences—I think that the part of the plot that those moments are playing towards really hits on a core theme of Supergirl and Superman: this idea of being all-American and also being an immigrant of sorts. And I think, after having read the third issue, I feel like Supergirl: Being Super is starting to pose this question: what is our true home? Is it where we’re born or where we’re raised?
Tamaki: Yeah, I think that Kara is ultimately someone who has two homes, right? She is absolutely the child of her parents. She loves her high school and loves her friends. At the start of the book, she has this idyllic situation. She kind of has it made in that she has everything you would want in terms of people who would love and care about you. However, because of who she is, the situation is really more complicated than that.
I think the core idea is that identity is layered—you’re never a singular thing. To say that you’re an immigrant or anything else…you’re a multitude in any moment and who you are greatly varies depending on context. There’s a part of Kara that’s completely different when she’s alone because she’s able to acknowledge this other side of her life that doesn’t fit into her small town high school world.
But I think part of growing up is facing those differences. For me, as a lesbian who came out in university, you’re not a different when you come out, but in acknowledging something that is ultimately going to be a big part of your life, you don’t stay the same person, either. It’s never simple and part of growing up is dealing with that complexity. In this book, it means learning to say “I am Kara Danvers but I am also something else.”
Lu: Hypocritically though, I think there’s a very basic human drive to reduce others’ complexity. Whether its by race or nationality. In Supergirl: Being Super #3, for example, Tan-On basically tells Kara “you are a Kryptonian and nothing else. This home you’ve made is not real.” What do you think motivates this drive to par others down to a single identity rather than trying to understand them in their multitudes?
Tamaki: Identity is really not a stable thing. If you think about identity in terms of gender, specifically, I think the more upset people get over something, the more unstable the thing really is. There is no real truth to what it means to be a woman because it is a construct. Femininity is a construct in the same what that masculinity is a construct. And if you’re pissed off about this it’s terrifying for you to think that gender really isn’t a stable thing.
I’m Canadian and I think the idea of what it means to be Canadian could be defined by a lot of people in a lot of different ways. In Canada this isn’t so much an issue because being Canadian is such an amorphous thing, but there are a lot of other identities that people are really protective of. People really want something to be clear cut and something they can depend on, but it’s not. Masculinity is something someone has decided it is and the closer you come to facing the fact that these ideas are subjective, the more worried you get.
Also, like I said, I think part of being a teenager is coming up against these things you thought were stable and clear and realizing that they’re not. That’s why people go bonkers in university, right? You’re going to all these classes and people are telling you that everything you thought was math is not and everything that composes your identity means nothing.
It’s hard to embrace something that is complex and unsure. We really want to be told that we are these five things and those things are stable and unmovable. The truth is, though, that no identity is unmovable.
Lu: What do you think our greatest tool is in combating peoples’ attempts to constrain others’ identities?
Tamaki: I think the more you embrace various narratives and different experiences, the more welcoming you become. If you can read different stories about what it means to be a girl, an American, or a Canadian—the more you can take in a multitude of stories with their complexities, the easier it is to live with those complexities in yourself.
Some people say that Superman can only be this one thing. He’s this guy. He looks like this. It cannot change. However, I think if you read a Superman story where Superman is an Asian guy and you see that the story is still ultimately one about fighting for justice, you’ll realize it’s not the end of the world. It’s an expansion of it.
Supergirl: Being Super #3 hits shelves this Wednesday, April 26th.