Books·In Conversation

Why writing realistic teenage stories and comic books is important to Mariko Tamaki

The prolific author and comic book writer discusses her writing life and career.
Mariko Tamaki is a Toronto-born author based in California. (Mariko Tamaki)

Accolades and critical praise follow Mariko Tamaki. Her 2008 graphic novel, Skimcreated with her illustrator cousin Jilllan Tamaki, won the Doug Wright Award for best graphic novel, the Ignatz Award and the Joe Schuster Award. She has twice been shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award. She has written superhero characters such as Supergirl and is working on the forthcoming Harley Quinn for DC Comics and She-Hulk for Marvel.

Her latest book, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, is a graphic novel illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. It tells the story about a teenage girl named Freddy whose girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps stringing her along. 

The Toronto-born, California-based Tamaki spoke with CBC Books about her writing career.

What books did you read when you were younger?

"I was a quiet kid who wanted to stay home all the time and watch Transformers on television in my basement. My parents always preferred that I read a book, but I would watch films like The Secret of NIMH and then want to re-enact scenes later. Fantastical, imaginary worlds were a huge part of my childhood. That was the dividing line for me as a kid ⁠— between those who wanted to put on makeup and those who wanted to pretend to be a unicorn.

"It seems like no one else has ever heard of a lot of the series I was obsessed with when I was a kid! I was obsessed with the Trixie Belden books which was a 'girl detective' series, kind of like Nancy Drew with a horse. There's this Canadian series called Booky that I liked, which was about a little girl during the Depression. I was also a big fan of books like Constance C. Greene's Your Old Pal, Al,  E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I tended to read things I liked voraciously and many times." 

Canadian writer Mariko Tamaki was tapped by Marvel Comics to write the series, Hulk, a new take on classic character She-Hulk. (Marvel Comics)

How did you get your start writing comic books?

"I was writing for various weekly magazines and did a play for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. I used to write articles for an indie magazine in Toronto called Kiss Machine run by Emily Pohl-Weary. The magazine had this short comic book series written by and illustrated by women. Emily did one with cartoonist and illustrator Willow Dawson and then [my cousin Jillian Tamaki] and I did one, which was the mini-comic Skim.

"The thing about being an artist in Canada, in my experience, is that it's a place where you're encouraged to try new things. When someone offered me an opportunity to write a comic, it wasn't like I was stuck with one vision of what being a writer was. Doing that one comic is the reason I have a career in comics now."

How has your writing process evolved over the years?

"I started working as a writer and performance artist in theatre, where you are writing a script that is part of, but not the whole of, the final work. I wrote my first comic very much like a theatre script. I describe the action as opposed to describing what visually has to be on the page, which is what an artist like Jillian would handle.

All writing should be a challenge.

"I didn't have to start thinking about a process until I started writing for DC Comics and Marvel. I had to write a 20-page comic, which is very different. Having to fit something into 20 pages ⁠— you have to be much more specific. These days I spend a lot of time coming up with the basic structure and then populating it. By the time I start writing, I've spent a lot of time figuring out where everything is going to go, so the writing is a lot easier."

What draws you to writing comics for DC and Marvel?

"All writing should be a challenge. Writing a novel is a challenging thing. Writing within a limited page count is a challenging thing. There's a notion when you're starting out as a writer that you're writing only for yourself. But writing for a living is a combination of doing things for yourself and for other companies. 

"Getting to write for other companies and writing superhero stories is a pretty awesome job. I love taking existing characters and creating new stories for them. A lot of the mainstream superhero work I've done has been out of continuity, where I don't have to always connect to an existing storyline.

"In a way, it's like me returning to my The Secret of NIMH days — taking these known characters and playing with them in new settings I've created. You're responsible for something that is beloved to a lot of people; something like She-Hulk is fairly iconic to a large fandom. It's like getting paid to write the best fan fiction you can think of. I love sitting down and working on a story and figuring out how to fit it into five issues."

Canadian artist and writer Mariko Tamaki wrote a DC Comics' Supergirl graphic novel in 2018. (DC Comics)

What's your approach to writing these kinds of comics?

"People don't necessarily bring me onboard when there's intense and complex mythology stuff. Nobody thinks that that's my jam, which is probably good. Generally they call me in when they want a more character-driven storyline. In the case of writing X-23 — a female clone of Wolverine — it was fun and challenging for me to turn something that's known for action into something that is more character-driven. For Supergirl, who appears after Superman, the focus was to write her as a teenager as much as possible. If you're going to have characters that are not adults, it's worth kind of giving them a life that fits with who they are."

What did you want to say with Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me?

"I didn't want it to just be a story where the goal is just to find love and love is achieved, then that is the end of the story. I wanted to look at love and relationships and then complicate them. When I was a younger person, especially a queer younger person, all I wanted were stories about relationships. All I wanted were love stories.

"But a lot of the love stories I read were about people looking for the perfect person and finding that person. I didn't see that experience of being with the wrong person and how you navigate what it means to be with someone who is clearly the wrong person, but is the person that you are with and want to be with." 

Mariko Tamaki is the current writer of X-23, a Marvel comic book. (Mariko Tamaki, Marvel)

Your books often have coming-of-age elements — they explore the life and relationships of a teenagers. Why? 

"Identity is at the core of the stories most interesting to me. And stories about high school are awesome! The lessons you can get out of them are still interesting and specific and always changing. The hang-ups that teenagers have now aren't the same things they were when I was in high school.

"I love stories and books about teenagers. It's all about that understanding of identity as being flexible and a construction at the same time. You can explore the idea that an identity is something in progress, as opposed something that's fixed. That's a central concept for me in understanding the world, especially in terms of sexuality. There was so much intense homophobia when I was in high school. The idea of being called out or pinpointed as being gay or whatever is not a big deal today or it's a big deal in a different way. Which is a fascinating thing to look at as well."

How do you write stories that offer your perspective while still connecting to younger readers?

"When Jillian and I did Skim, we didn't originally designate it as YA. It was just a book about a teenage girl that was bought by a YA publisher.

"I have to have a specific sense of the story before I pursue it. There was a learning curve writing [Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me] because I was also working with an illustrator — co-creator Rosemary Valero-O'Connell — who is significantly younger than me.

"You have to be attentive and specific. You have to listen to input from other people. You have to get more input from more people, as opposed to assuming that because you tried very hard everyone's going to agree that it's a totally cool representation of something."

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a 2019 graphic novel by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. (Groundwood Books)

Is it easy to become jaded in your worldview and outlook? 

"It's day to day. When I see people online who are fighting the good fight for various things and people, it makes me feel excited. I think that being an activist — and being someone who is wanting to make the world a better place — is pretty great. I have a lot of admiration for it."

How do you define success?

"I look at my pocket of gold coins! Honestly, to be a working artist is a pretty great thing to be. It's certainly hard-won. You have to be working a lot to be considered a working artist. Judging the success of each individual book has to be determined by the author themselves, then you might have people with opinions you value greatly and who you are interested in hearing from.

"I don't like to spend so much time thinking about  how well I'm doing. I like to focus on the next thing I want to do."

When I was younger person, especially a queer younger person, all I wanted was stories about relationships. All I wanted was love stories.

Mariko Tamaki's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can see more interviews from the In Conversation series here.


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