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SYFY WIRE Indie Comics Spotlight

Indie Comics Spotlight: Surely Books founder Mariko Tamaki is tired of diversity panels

By Karama Horne
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Even before Mariko Tamaki (Dark Detective, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass) was known as a New York Times best-selling author, before she earned her Master’s degree in women studies, and before she founded her new imprint Surely Books with Abrams Comic Arts, she was a queer activist and feminist writer.  

Back in 1996, Tamaki co-founded Pretty Porky and PIssed Off in her native Toronto, Ontario, a fat activism and feminist performance art collective that used their bodies as “modes of resistance” to speak out against political, social, and cultural discrimination. Tamaki didn’t stumble into comics until after collaborating with award-winning artist and cousin Jillian Tamaki (Skim) on a series of mini-comics for a Canadian indie zine. After that, she was hooked. 

Her 2014 comic This One Summer, a sapphic indie coming-of-age graphic novel (another a collaboration with Jillian), is the only graphic novel to receive the Caldecott Honor in the 80-year history of the awards. It's also made the American Library Association's most challenged books list twice

In the summer of 2020, as Tamaki was being awarded a trio of Eisners for her queer YA indie hit Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, she finalized her deal to helm Detective Comics, becoming only the second woman ever to headline the iconic, long-running DC series where Batman first made his debut.

Tamaki, who is of mixed Japanese heritage and identifies as a lesbian (she/her), regularly includes queer and/or ethnically diverse characters in all of her work. Most recently, she contributed a Cassandra Cain story to DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, and she collaborated with artist Amy Reeder on “Another Word for a Truck to Move Your Furniture,” a DC Pride anthology story featuring Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in a relationship.

Needless to say, Surely Books, a graphic novel line launched in 2019 dedicated to elevating the voices of queer creators, is not only right on time, but a natural progression for Tamaki whose incredible career has yet to reach its final form. Surely will feature original stories, both non-fiction and fiction, across various genres dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ community. 

SYFY WIRE spoke with Tamaki about why Surely is so important and the daunting task of giving a voice to marginalized creators in genre spaces.

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You’ve had an incredible career as a novelist and comics writer. Especially in the YA teen market. Will Surely Books focus on that same age range?

Surely Books will be for a wide range of readers, focusing on YA and up. More “up” than YA I would say.  

Which has been more daunting, creating queer storylines with legacy characters or creating an entirely new imprint dedicated to queer stories? 

They’re both daunting. Writing for publishers like DC and bringing queer voices to those worlds is a unique challenge on top of the overall challenge of writing comics, in the various formats they come in. I feel a responsibility to the character and to the story. Trying to get both those things right isn’t easy.  

With the imprint, the opportunity feels like such a gift. And really I feel like I’m paying a pretty big debt with this imprint, or trying to, in that I owe so much to the queer editors and arts organizations and publishers that gave me space and a platform to tell stories. 

There are so many things to understand and at work in the world of publishing. So many details involved and I’m still getting used to the editorial and curatorial part. At the same time, it’s a uniquely joyful thing to work with artists and writers on their books.

I guess also I feel like these jobs should feel daunting. Because to me if it’s daunting I know I’m thinking about it. Possibly I’m just an anxious person.

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Did Surely Books come about as a result of your work with Abrams on Lumberjanes?

I had such a great time working with Abrams on the Lumberjanes prose adaptations with Brooklyn Allen. And I started looking into moving into editing. And basically, my partner, Heather Gold, came up with the idea. And then I took it to Abrams. I think I knew [Abrams] was in talks to do the Megascope imprint with John Jennings, which publishes speculative and non-fiction works by and about people of color, so it seemed like a possibility. And… it was!

Why did you choose to launch Surely Books with Flung Out of Space, which came out in February, and the upcoming Lifetime Passes?

Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith, by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer, is a historical fiction graphic novel inspired by the life of Patricia Highsmith and the events that lead to her writing The Price of SaltLifetime Passes, by Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre, [which comes out in October of this year] is actually set in the present day; I would say it brings a very real-life approach to a story about fantasy and fandom. 

We picked those two books because they kind of came onto our path as we were starting the imprint, and pretty much everyone involved in both of these are all people I’ve very much wanted to work with.

Will the imprint include more Intersectional queer voices and stories?

Really the goal here is to focus on LGBTQIA+ creators, and diverse LGBTQIA+ creators, without narrowing it to any genre or style. And actually, with our Surely Team — which is me and many amazing people at Abrams, especially Abrams editor Charlotte Greenbaum — we’ve found books that cover a spectrum of stories and styles from a diverse group of storytellers. We have writers who are new to comics, artists working on their first graphic novels, and experienced writers and artists. We have people doing stories that are more fantasy, and things that are historical. We have some new takes on some old stories.

For every book we acquire and search out, we always have an eye on our existing list and what’s out there, and who we haven’t seen, and who we want to see. It’s a constantly evolving conversation. Which it should be.

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Will you write any stories yourself? Or did you intend to only have an editorial role?

For the moment I’m focusing on editorial.

Which do you feel is more important? A commitment from mainstream publishers to highlight diverse voices? Or more opportunities for marginalized creators to tell their own stories?

It’s all important. We need more stories from more members of more communities. So that the stories coming from communities like the LGBTQIA+ community, which is HUGE and COMPLEX, can reflect the diversity within diversity. On top of that, we need more diversity in every area of publishing, including editors, marketing, designers, the whole bit. We also need diversity in the people who review works too. All of it.

I was listening to TV writer Cord Jefferson talking on the podcast On Writing a while ago, talking about how there needs to be more than one when we think about representation in these spaces. I think one is nice, but it’s not diverse. It’s working toward diversity.

I used to think the litmus was that when there were no more panels like “LGBTQ writers in comics” or “Women in comics” that would mean we’d hit optimal diversity. I’m not sure if that’s still accurate. Those panels still exist.

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We know you have I Am Not Starfire dropping soon from DC. Are there any other projects that you or your Surely Books team are working on?

Yes! I am Not Starfire, by me and Yoshi Yoshitani, is out this July! I’m also writing Crush and Lobo for DC as well with Amancay Nahuelpan. I’ve got a new graphic novel with Jillian Tamaki that she’s working on now, about New York. I have a new prose novel, a murder mystery, Cold, that comes out in February 2022.

For Surely, you’ll have to wait and see but we will be releasing information on a TON of new books very soon. All books that are currently… in the works!

If you could write one legacy character or story, who and what would it be?

I would love to write some comics about Amazon warriors OTHER than Wonder Woman. Like the Amazon who is a great equestrian but also has a dry sense of humor.