Jillian Tamaki, who grew up in Calgary and graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design, is perhaps best known for her illustration work in magazines and books, including much-lauded graphic novels such as This One Summer, written by her cousin Mariko Tamaki. That book won a Governor General’s award and an Eisner, the top prize in the comics industry. In Boundless, a new collection of graphic short stories, we find Jillian Tamaki wholly in her own voice, which many of her fans may not have heard before.
The result is memorable, highly varied and often terrific. Tamaki is comfortable with a quickly pivoting style—her work has taken her from commercial illustration to TV storyboards to video game character work—and most of the stories in Boundless were originally published as stand-alones elsewhere. Although the loose, fluid lines and limited colour palette are clearly hers, the stories are only loosely bound by a theme of becoming, of characters pushing against the boundaries of reality—economic, social, physical and metaphysical.
The closest cousins to this work might be TV shows such as the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. While the stories appear mundane, they are charged with just a hint of the supernatural: a struggling couple faces down invisible bedbugs in their apartment; a woman finds herself slowly but inexorably shrinking; a music file of indeterminate origin called SexCoven is uploaded to the Internet, where it passes through the phases of teen craze, moral panic and spiritual cult.
As with all of Tamaki’s work, the stories share a lazy pace and
a sense of impending dread; they linger in the mind, continuing to percolate hours after they’re finished. The opening and closing stories are printed sideways, forcing the reader to turn the book to continue reading. This forced movement echoes the feeling of a meditation walk through a labyrinth, encouraging the reader to engage fully in the work.
The result is a book that feels more like philosophy than fiction. The title story, which closes Boundless, reflects on the limits of freedom and flits between the perspectives of various urban creatures as they go about their day. A housefly quotes Hobbes—“Life is nasty, brutish and short”—but also waxes lyrical on the ephemeral nature of its existence. “Sometimes I allow myself to think differently, envision a different life and set of conditions. I can imagine a feeling of optimism and safety, perhaps even lightness or pleasure,” muses the fly, moments before being crushed between the pages of a book. It’s a fitting end to the collection: unsentimental, desolate and yet somehow, oddly moving.
—Miranda Martini is an essayist and musician in Calgary.