Back in 2008 when Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's graphic novel Skim was first published, the National Post, presumably recognizing the book's brilliance and potential, interviewed the Mariko Tamaki, the author. She is quoted as saying, "I just wanted to do this Gothic Lolita story. That's all I had. I just wanted to do a Gothic lesbian Lolita story." Furthermore, she'd wanted it told from the perspective of the Lolita.
This is what she set out to do. Interestingly, since that interview I've found dozens of articles that state that Skim is in fact, a Gothic-lesbian-Lolita story. Did, at some later point, Mariko Tamaki refer to her book this way, as Descant and others suggests she did? It might seem like a rather insignificant question, but it's not. Setting out to write a Gothic lesbian Lolita story, told in the perspective of the Lolita, is not the same as having written a Gothic lesbian Lolita story, told in the perspective of the Lolita. And most importantly, it is not what Mariko Tamaki ended up writing, even if it did make for an exciting and provocative tag-line.
First of all, telling a Lolita story from the perspective of the Lolita is, pardon my bluntness, stupid. Nabokov's Lolita is so shocking and daring partly because the title character doesn't get a voice. It makes her character all the more tragic. As nice a gesture it would be to allow her the opportunity to tell her story, it wouldn't have been as effective. Furthermore, 12 year old Lolita is raped over and over by Humbert Humbert. Her capture and subsequent abuse is the entire plot. In Skim, a teenage girl develops a crush on one of her female teachers and they kiss. That's it. Of course, it should go without saying that a high school teacher should not kiss one of her students, but the situation doesn't even come close to Lolita's horrific tale nor are there many similarities.
I think Mariko Tamaki just let her story take its course, and it very quickly veered off course from her original intentions.
All that aside, I loved where it went. The whole crush on a teacher bit is but one complication amongst many in the very existential drama that consumes many teenagers, boys and girls alike. Hell, I even found myself thinking back to my high school experience and relating to Skim at some points. Surrounded by apparent pettiness just as you want to start thinking serious-- I'd forgotten how overwhelming being a teenager can be. The book deals with faith exploration (wicca), suicide, homosexuality, friendship, cliques, and identity to name just a few themes. If it all seems a bit Degrassi, I suppose it is, but it doesn't feel as heavy handed as that (and yes, I used to watch Degrassi way back in the days of the Zit Remedy).
It's partially saved from superficiality by Mariko's writing (the characters are believable, there are imperfect resolutions, and thoughtful but authentic introspection) and partially by Jillian Tamaki's artwork. I have to confess, when I first glanced at the artwork I wasn't overly crazy about it. I thought some of the faces in particular looked grotesque, overly simplified and inconsistent. But, I grew to appreciate the illustrations more and more. I never did really grow to love the faces, but I realized they were stylized and much more consistent than I gave her credit. There was a sort of fluidity that I have to admit, gave the characters life. But what I really came to appreciate was the backdrops. They look like sketches that have been added to and retouched rather than abandoned for a final copy. Somehow this fits beautifully with the story of a teenager working through who she is and what she wants from life while writing in her diary.