If creating inclusive graphic novels were a relay race, writer Mariko Tamaki would be taking the lead baton from Raina Telgemeier for creating comics for younger readers. What Tamaki has done is show how comics can provide stories about identity-searching and other mature themes for readers graduating to young adult material. Together with Mariko's New York Times cartooning cousin Jillian Tamaki, they produced two powerful original graphic novels, Skim in 2008 and This One Summer in 2014. Each won a variety of literary awards, including Ignatz and Joe Shuster awards for Skim and a Michael L. Printz and Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association for This One Summer.
Among her long list of works, Tamaki has also written two Lumberjanes graphic novels, with a third one scheduled for the fall, critically acclaimed young adult novels in Saving Montgomery Sole, and worked on licensed comics such as Adventure Time, Tomb Raider, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
That made Tamaki an interesting choice by DC Comics in 2016 to write a four-part miniseries, Supergirl: Being Super, with superstar artist-writer Joelle Jones, inker Sandu Florea, and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick, re-imagining Supergirl's origin as a modernized Smallville-Friday Night Lights type story. This week, DC Comics is releasing Supergirl: Being Super in trade paperback. SYFY WIRE spoke with Tamaki and breaks down the big beats of her story. There is a 13-page preview at the end of the interview, along with sneak peeks at some bonus character sketches by Jones and an unused cover by Tula Lotay.
Warning: Spoilers will be discussed for those who have not read it.
Supergirl and her origin have been rebooted and revisited many times, like many of DC's characters existing in their multiverse. Perhaps that's why Being Super was created. Instead of focusing on her superhero indoctrination, it simplifies and invites readers of all kinds to the coming-of-age story of a modern-day Kara Zor-El.
“I really wanted Being Super to be this idea of the superhero story where adolescence sneaks up on you when you’re a teenager," explained Tamaki. “Where you just wake up one day and look at your face and say, ‘Oh my god, what happened to my face? It’s different!’ I wanted to fold that into a superhero story where Kara's this girl in a small town, she has friends, she can fly and kind of keeps it to herself."
In the interest of holding it all together and maintaining the status quo, what teenager hasn't tried to internalize their problems, or kept a secret? Tamaki's pitch established the common ground before things get weird.
"She’s got this secret, everything is fine, everything is great, and then something happens and then nothing is the same. You have to adjust to the new reality and change things about yourself because of what’s happened to you.”
When DC Comics called her back to tell her that they accepted her pitch, they also told her that she’d be paired with artist/writer Joelle Jones (Lady Killer), assuring her that this was going to be a good-looking story. Tamaki was obsessed with Friday Night Lights and In Cold Blood at the time, and her girlfriend made her watch an old movie about track and field. Tamaki and Jones created an artboard of their obsessions, which included those uniforms and varsity jackets.
“Once I knew we had that visual together, I just tried to be very clear about what was happening but open to how (Joelle) would portray it. Like in the scenes about Kara’s parents in the kitchen, I had no idea Joelle was going to do this insanely elaborate kitchen around them, and that’s the best part of comics and one of the few things as a creator where you can be surprised in the process."
Unlike the Kents who molded Clark Kent into believing in truth, justice, and the American way, building up his confidence for Metropolis, the Danvers were very different. They’re socially awkward, they try to reach out to Kara but don’t pry too much and remain distanced.
“I have a fascination with grumpy men,” Tamaki admitted. “I have a father who would say strange things that weren’t really true [laughs] and liked having weird rules.” The Danvers show that they're good people but are probably in over their heads.
“Who was going to pick a kid up from the middle of a cornfield and be like, ‘Let’s take this kid home and make her our daughter and not report it to the authorities’? The person who would do that would say that it’s their land, and it’s nobody else’s business and so we’re going to take care of this ourselves.
“The more I developed that person, the more he became this person who would bury money in their property. He would hide money in jars and would be counterbalanced with this woman who has a perfectly good office job and is the social connection for the family. That would make sense for me, for the series of events that would lead Kara to be adopted.”
When asked about the event that would forever change Kara, Tamaki responded, "I wanted it to feel like you’re watching this girl go about her daily business and has these great friends and have the floor fall out from underneath you."
Which is what literally happens to Kara when an earthquake rocks her small town of Midvale and opens up the ground. One of her best friends, Jen, is clinging to her life with what seems like a bottomless pit ready to devour her. Kara didn't hesitate to help. For self-preservation and a lack of understanding to that point, Kara had rarely used her powers in public, but something wasn’t quite right and her super-strength comes in and out. While holding onto her friend, her grip was loosening fast ...
“It was devastating! I felt that (raw emotion) and I wrote it, I felt bad," Tamaki explained about putting her lead through an emotional wringer. "My girlfriend could tell you that I was an emotional wreck writing parts of this story. Writing the really sad, horrible things, really felt sad and horrible. But I thought, that’s good.”
“I think this idea of consequence is a weighty thing, especially in superhero stories, where there are people who are affected outside of even the immediate group of superheroes, by what happens with superheroes. As much as I want to have superheroes saving kittens from trees, which is fun and awesome, I wanted there to be real-life stakes involved with being a superhero.”
When Kara had to be her amazing self, she could not, and while superpowers are indeed great gifts, they rarely do anything to help on an emotional scale.
“Right. That’s the thing,” Tamaki agreed. “I was on a panel once, talking about the greatest superpower, and I was thinking that the problem with any superpower is that you’re still vulnerable. Even when you’re invulnerable because of the Earth’s yellow sun, you’re made incredibly powerful, there’s always something that will weaken you.
“Even if it’s your own self-doubt -- that makes it a relatable story for readers.”
Sorting through the emotional fallout of a tragedy could easily be dismissed in a common superhero story, but that's why Tamaki is special. She's willing to explore the honest places those emotions can take you.
“The idea of walking around and nothing affects you must be really nice, but it’s not something most people can understand or share in the experience. Versus having the feeling that the whole world is against you, and even though you have these abilities, that you can’t make something better, is a very relatable experience.”
In the final chapter of Being Super, Kara realizes she has been under watch by someone she trusts and stumbles on Tan-On, another Kryptonian, who can not only identify with her but answer many of her burning questions.
"I wanted to make sure there were multiple takes on the different themes in the book, and I wanted to show multiple influences on characters," Tamaki shared. "Tan-On and Kara connect in a lot of ways, in terms of where they’re from, also that they’ve both been betrayed by Earthlings,"
But the predicament that Kara and Tan-On find themselves in forces the two to make hasty decisions and trust one another before knowing the other's intentions.
"Kara’s ultimate take is very different than Tan-On’s. I wanted Kara to have a choice to make, I wanted her to have some context for her decision to be a superhero, and Tan-On is like a discordant voice in her head, telling her one version of what her destiny might be in relation to Earth."
"Also, you know," Tamaki adds, "Superheroes need enemies, and some of the best enemies are the people closest to you."
Connecting to Kara
Tamaki has a penchant for the coming-of-age story for the young adult reader, often braving territory less traveled. Whether it was Skim in Skim, Rose and Windy in This One Summer, or Kara and Dolly in Being Super, Tamaki's writing always leaves the reader wanting to know what comes next. That may have to do with the works of Daniel Clowes, Vittorio Giardino, Will Eisner, and Hergé being a big influence.
The beauty of that slice-of-life base and Tamaki's own approach to making comics is that she earned the chance to write a large profiled character such as Kara, while bringing to Supergirl her diverse heritage as a Japanese Canadian and Jewish Canadian as well as her voice in the LGBTQ community.
Connecting with one's characters that intensely makes it tough to let those voices pass, but that might be why she works on more original graphic novels and miniseries instead of ongoing series. "I don’t think you ever let go of a character," Tamaki shared about her creative process. "I do think it’s good to get away from a character for a bit, so you’re not just writing that one person endlessly. But that’s me." However, if DC Comics is interested, Tamaki already has a sequel to Being Super mapped out. They just have to give her the green light, or better yet hear the demands of those readers wanting more.
As far as who is currently occupying Tamaki's head, she is writing Hulk/She-Hulk, Hunt for Wolverine: Claws of a Killer for Marvel and a 2019 Harley Quinn project for DC's young adult imprint, DC Ink, called Breaking Glass. It is Harley's coming-of-age story and is about how the decisions teenagers make can determine the path their lives take.
"The mind of Harley Quinn is a weird and wonderful place. I’ve loved working on this book, and working with (artist) Steve Pugh (Flintstones), who is so incredibly talented, and I think that’s just about all I can say, aside from the fact that it includes a supporting cast of drag queens."
It's a story that Harley Quinn fans will not want to miss. Again, taking concepts and themes that may be foreign to the reader and finding ways to connect with the characters on a personal level. There's no telling how she'll do that with Harley, but there's no doubt that she'll find it. For Supergirl, she found many ways to make her a universal character.
"I tried to focus in on the very specific details of the individual. Kara is not like me. I don’t look like her [chuckles], and I did not have that experience in high school. I was the slowest person in the 800-meter dash when I did it. But I think that idea of feeling alone and alienated is something, regardless of what you look like, a lot of teenagers have."
"The idea that you can’t communicate something about yourself to other people, I think I always felt like something who was a queer, chubby Asian, I always felt like nobody understood where I was coming from. That feeling of alienation is something I can infuse into a story about an alien."
Whoever and wherever the baton goes to next had better keep this blistering pace up.