Arts·Q with Tom Power

Cousins and collaborators Mariko and Jillian Tamaki on their new graphic novel Roaming

Roaming centres around three 19-year-old friends who take a trip to New York in 2009. Q's Tom Power speaks with Mariko and Jillian about illustrating the city that never sleeps, and how they went from rarely seeing each other as kids to becoming successful collaborators.

The award-winning Canadian cousins talk to Q's Tom Power about their third project together

Portrait of two women (creators and cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki) standing against a white brick wall.
Jillian Tamaki, left, and her cousin and collaborator, Mariko Tamaki. (Submitted by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki)

Given that they work in the same industry and have collaborated on three graphic novels, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki have been working together since childhood. But that's not the case.

"We spent no time together," Mariko says in an interview with Q's Tom Power. "Two funerals and a wedding was the extent of our hanging out when we were kids."

The pair grew up in different cities — writer Mariko in Toronto, illustrator Jillian in Calgary — and it was only when they teamed up to work on a piece for the feminist zine Kiss Machine in the mid-'00s that their creative partnership began.

That said, Jillian does acknowledge that, in some ways, older cousin Mariko indirectly inspired her to be an artist.

"[Mariko was] starting to do things as I was still younger," says Jillian. "Just doing all this cool stuff, getting tattooed, being part of performance art groups…. I remember [her] being interviewed about all this cool art stuff, and I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, my cousin's an artist.…' And that was really foreign to me…. Maybe that's even encouraged me to follow a creative route too, because it's very scary choosing to go and try to be an artist as a teenager."

While Jillian, Mariko and Jillian's sister Lauren — also an illustrator — are all artists, they come from what Jillian refers to as "a family of tax accountants and lawyers." But it's not a total mystery where the creativity comes from.

"My dad is the most charismatic, dry, funny accountant you'll ever meet," says Jillian. "He's an amazing writer, but he just doesn't do it [for a living]. I remember we had a Jack Russell terrier, and when the dog died at like, 16, he sent out an obituary for this dog, and it was so funny. So you know it's in there somewhere, and it's just a great reminder that people can be immensely creative and it doesn't necessarily mean that that's their profession."

Roaming by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki. Illustrated book cover of 3 main characters, a butterfly and the statue of liberty in the distance.

The pair's new graphic novel, Roaming, is their third together. The previous two were 2008's Skim and 2014's This One Summer, which was the first graphic novel to win the 2015 Caldelcott Medal, the prize awarded to "the most distinguished American picture book for children'' as determined by a jury.

Roaming is about three 19-year-old friends who take a trip to New York for reading week in 2009. Mariko says they were interested in exploring that time in a person's life because "you suddenly have this possibility of reinventing yourself." In the book, two of the pals are longtime friends from high school, while the third is a new addition.

"We really love the idea of the two friends who were sort of like The Fox and the Hound," says Mariko. "These two friends from high school who have gone off to different universities. One has changed a lot: she's shaved her hair off and adopted kind of a new aesthetic, she's sort of moving more into her queer identity. And the other just sort of, you know, she still has her Moomin bag. She's kind of status quo from who she was in high school…. And then we really just like the idea of the third friend, this X factor, this chaos agent, who was just very fun to write."

In the nine years between This One Summer and Roaming, Mariko's bibliography has grown to include both of the big mainstream comic houses — writing Supergirl and Harley Quinn for DC, and X-23 and She-Hulk for Marvel, as well as working on other titles. Still, she says that working with her cousin is still special. Beyond familiar bonds, they have a collaborative process that's been honed over almost two decades, and that's hard to beat.

"I think there's something uniquely Canadian about the works that we do," she says. "I feel like it's not even really the characters themselves that's interesting to me, but it's the way these characters move through the world. It is so site-specific, it's so time-specific. The things that we do, it is so much about us observing these characters together and, like, building drama and building all these complications together. I love that process."

The full interview with Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Mariko and Jillian Tamaki produced by Cora Nijhawan.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.