Grace under pressure

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A debut graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

Skim is hardly the average coming of age story. Set in Toronto in the early 1990s, Skim is a character study of 16-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron (a.k.a. Skim).

The debut graphic novel for young adults, by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, is also an accurate portrayal of the irony and hypocrisy that often characterizes adolescence.

An aspiring Wiccan, Goth and visual artist, Skim is thoughtful and articulate, though the other students at her all-female private school would never know it. She spends her school days observing the popular crowd from afar, and then filling her journal with words and sketches that express her loneliness and isolation.

Struggling with her sexual identity, Skim sparks a close relationship with Ms. Archer, her freckle-faced teacher. It is during stolen moments with Ms. Archer that Skim is able to open herself up in a way that she cannot, even with her best friend, Lisa. When Ms. Archer mysteriously leaves the school, Skim is forced to digest her heartache alone, as she hangs on to the memory of the one kiss they shared.

Mariko Tamaki's narrative is witty, honest and at times heartbreaking. She seamlessly weaves together difficult issues including love, sexuality, friendship (or the lack of friendship), and suicide. She draws on her own experiences as a high school student to create dialogue that will seem strangely familiar to readers: "My stomach feels like it's popping, like an ice cube in a warm Pepsi" and "All day today I was rubber. My eyes felt like bathtub plugs" are just two expressive examples.

Tamaki subtly explores the delicacy of being sixteen, stressing how the slightest act of diversity can be social suicide. When a classmate's ex-boyfriend kills himself, rumours begin to spread that his suicide was fueled by his love for a male volleyball player. Still, the students at Skim's high school begin mourning en masse, romanticizing his failed relationship with Katie, who is both popular and beautiful. They plaster the walls with his picture and start a club to reach out to those who might be suicidal.

In contrast to her superficial peers who appear to act sad, rather than feel sad in the aftermath of the tragedy, Skim maintains that she couldn't care less about the ex-boyfriend's death, despite the possibility that they were both dealing with similar issues of sexual identity.

Jillian Tamaki's drawings cleverly capture Skim's internal strife. A budding graphic artist whose work has been featured in magazines such as The New Yorker, Maclean's and The Walrus, Tamaki pays careful attention to detail, especially through Skim's facial expressions. With puckered lips and heavy eyes, Skim's insecurities are revealed through the characters' body language: while the tall, slender popular girls hold their heads high with a look of authority, Skim is often drawn staring at the ground as she shuffles through life.

Tamaki also has an obvious talent for drawing nature, whether her subject is a moonlit park or a cluster of trees that seem to be bending in the wind.

Though graphic novels for young women have been a largely unexplored medium, more and more titles are appearing on shelves. In 2007, DC Comics introduced Minx, a line of graphic novels aimed at female teens. What sets Skim apart from other graphic novels on the market is that it is both written and illustrated by women. A far cry from the scantily-clad heroines that often grace the pages of comic books, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki pay homage to the individuality and intelligence of Skim.

Skim is a wonderful example of the potential of graphic novels to be both gripping and heartbreaking, proving their ability to act as social commentary on issues such as race, gender and sexuality amidst the callous backdrop of high school. This first collaboration proves that Mariko and Jillian Tamaki undoubtedly have the potential to mould the future of graphic novels, providing young women with thought-provoking and visually pleasing fiction.—Jessica Rose

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