Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reader's Diary #596- Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki: Skim

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.


B.Kienapple said...

By Gothic Lolita I think she meant more the aesthetic, not as a reference to the novel Lolita. And by this I mean the Japanese fashion of dressing in sweet but slightly morbid styles (more info here.
I loved this book. The art could be simplistic in detail but I loved her larger panels.

John Mutford said...

B.Kienapple: I considered that angle. having just gotten back from Japan I'd learned of it while I was there, and saw many girls dressed that way (not to mention seeing many stores devoted to the Gothic Lolita style). However, that doesn't really pan out either. Skim certainly doesn't dress in that style, and she acts more in the North American sense of the word gothic. And while Mariko certainly isn't responsible for how she's interpreted by others, I still think Lolita was an unfortunate choice of words for her to use on this side of the Pacific, where the Japanese gothic Lolitas are hardly known at all and Nabokov's Lolita is much more common. I think this explains why people, in the reviews I've read, seem overly hung up on the relationship with her teacher, which, as I've said in my review, is but one of many issues in the book.

John Mutford said...

B.Kienapple: You've certainly given me some pause for thought. Going back over the many, many reviews and news stories I could find online about the book, I think I overgeneralized that most people seem hung up on Skim's relationship with Ms. Archer. Now that I've checked, I don't think as many people as I thought were drawing any comparisons to Nabokov's book. However, I did come across this story where Mariko Tamaki is quoted as saying "It was kind of this idea that I had of this gothic Lolita type story . . . the story of this adult-teen romance, from the perspective of the teenager." The focus on an adult-teen romance suggests that she was, originally, thinking about Nabokov's Lolita (not that anyone but Humbert could call Lolita's story a romance).