Check your high school diploma! See if the words “SuperMutant Magic Academy” are lurking (perhaps written in invisible ink) on that certificate of achievement. The feelings and “A-hah!” moments evoked by Jillian Tamaki’s recent publication are heartbreakingly familiar as well as funny. This talented Canadian author/illustrator’s ability to capture teenage feelings and experiences typical in 21st century Western society is even more remarkable because SuperMutant Magic Academy (2015) is set in a reality askew from our everyday life. Like the wizards of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, unknown by most “Muggles,” Tamaki’s supermutant teens have amazing abilities that are . . . well, just fantasies to ordinary young adults or oldsters. And yet, as Tamaki sharply conveys, these abilities by themselves do not remove the doubts and aches of adolescence or solve the additional layer of problems imposed by school life.
In fact, SuperMutant Magic Academy, which began as a web comic in 2010 and ran online until 2014, was created in part as a reaction to the Hogwarts phenomenon. In an interview, Tamaki notes that she began this comic soon after Rowling published her final Harry Potter volume. The author/illustrator wanted to explore the “humor in the tension between being a superhero and being a self-absorbed teen . . . .” (Several Academy teachers even have names that recall Hogwarts faculty, such as Professor Snortwaffle instead of Snape for potions, while the student known as “Everlasting Boy” echoes Harry Potter’s fame as “the Boy Who Lived.”)
Tamaki also used this series as a way to hone her own storytelling skills. Earlier, Jillian Tamaki had illustrated two award-winning YA graphic novels written by her cousin, Mariko Tamaki: Skim (2010) and This One Summer (2014, reviewed here in August, 2014). This One Summer is a great coming-of-age novel, accessible to tweens as well as teens on up. However, tweens still enchanted by Hogwarts adventures and similar works are less likely to enjoy their ironic debunking (or the many other ironies) in SuperMutant Magic Academy. This book will be best appreciated by teens already in the full swing of high school life—or by those of us who can look back on the routines, expectations, and experiences typical in public schools as well as exclusive boarding schools such as the Magic Academy or Hogwarts.
Its web comic origin—with episodes usually limited to lengths of one to six frames—means that most of SuperMutant Magic Academy is told as a series of mini-stories, linked by setting and characters rather than an overarching storyline. Yet the focus on a limited number of characters, along with the restrained, telling use of color in its black-and-white drawings, reduces the “choppiness” of the narrative. (One colorful instance is a teenager’s failing attempt to comment sarcastically about how U.S. 4th of July celebrations have wandered across Canada’s border.) By the time we reach the new material Tamaki created to conclude the book—a forty-page long account of how these characters weather prom and graduation, we feel well-acquainted with them. The one page epilogue—summing up each central character’s life after high school under thumbnail-sized, year book like “headshots”—is a welcome, satisfying riff on school traditions.
As Tamaki’s title suggests, these characters are not merely human—or even human at all. They include duck-headed Trixie as well as laser-eyed Trevor; attractive, popular Wendy, whose fox-ears suggest her shape-shifting ability but not her fox’s blood-thirsty hunger; and Everlasting Boy, whose ability to live forever would seem to be a blessing. Yet the numerous episodes where this depressed character attempts suicide only to return frustratedly to life show that appearances can deceive. Similarly, popular, handsome Cheddar, who appears to be a confident but shallow “jock” is shown in private to be worried and filled with self-doubt. The episode in which a teen returns to a dorm room, hanging up a “skin suit” to then fall blank-faced into bed captures this contrast between public and private selves perfectly. Other seemingly-human characters include Frances, an artist and intellectual-manque whose performance pieces often leave her blood-splattered, and non-conformist, heavy-smoker Marsha, whose crush on her best friend Wendy runs throughout the book and also features in the graduation-arc conclusion.
Like many almost-graduates, the seniors of Supermutant Magic Academy are filled with more questions than answers about the future. The wordless nighttime episode in which a minor character is playing hopscotch, only to discover before the last leap that her playground is being flooded, captures this uncertainty. Tamaki effectively draws this episode from different angles, using close-ups as well as mid and long-distance shots, which let us experience this ironic surprise along with the character. Like the tide, life for these teens is surging ahead and washing away familiar routines. Similarly, given what we have seen of dead-pan, intense Marsha, her surprised remarks during a school assembly—“WHAT? We GRADUATE? . . . . I guess I just figured we’d be stuck in here forever . . . .” –may be viewed as emotional truth as well as ironic commentary on school life.
Yet friendship, however bittersweet, survives and triumphs. Wendy does not recognize or later return Marsha’s romantic feelings, a situation Marsha ruefully accepts. Still, after Marsha’s phantasmagoric prom night adventure involving Cheddar and a deadly prophecy, and Wendy’s simultaneously dancing to strobe-lighted music and partaking in some highly-illegal underage drinking, the pair fall asleep alongside each other. Just before the snores begin, each tired or tipsy girl manages a sincere, sleepy “I love you” for the other. As Jillian Tamaki has shown us throughout Supermutant Magic Academy, even cool (mutant) kids have hearts. And—if enough care is taken and respect given—those hearts need not be broken. Perhaps the book’s back cover text best sums up this insight and the feeling the entire book leaves behind: “The kids of the SuperMutant Magic Academy want to be your friend.”