CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 14 . . . . March 7, 2008
False friendships, burgeoning sexual identity, family secrets, popularity, depression, loneliness, longing - the anxiety of being a teenager fills a reservoir that is at once toxic and life-affirming. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki traverse the turbulent landscape of high school with tenderness and a keen eye for the yearning of adolescent girls with their latest graphic novel, Skim. Skim, aka Kimberly Keiko Cameron, does not belong to the popular clique of girls, nor does she want to, and she rejects the typical initiation processes. Skim is introspective and full of teenage angst; yearning to define herself to the outside world as the unique individual that she is - though this proves difficult as she craves to feel comfortable in her school and desires to connect with people who are positive and trustworthy yet not superficial.
Setting their graphic novel in a private girls’ school in Ontario, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki render this world in its stomach-turning palpability, taking readers through the hesitations, frustrations, and strange awakenings which render these years in life so defining of character. Skim’s school life reflects the conflict she experiences between needing to march to the beat of her own drum while also feeling accepted and appreciated by the immediate world around her. As is the situation with most teenagers, Skim’s daily life is both mundane and thrilling, intimate and superficial, yet full of revelation. More than anything, Skim longs for meaningful connection.
Skim is an only child with divorced parents. Her mother is career-driven, pragmatic, and non-sentimental, holding that love is a myth and that Skim’s father is a pathetic dreamer. Skim’s father’s girlfriend is a potter who makes mugs incongruously featuring frivolous sayings like “Teen Drama Queen!” for Skim. Lisa, Skim’s supposed best friend, is manipulative and two-faced and offers Skim little comfort, enjoyment, nor loyalty. The two “friends” explore witchcraftry and Goth culture, dressing in full black and competing with each other as to who is more naturally and genuinely “Wicca.” Skim knows that she can’t fully trust Lisa, but the two seem to have a mutual need for each other for some period of time.
A suicide of one of the popular girl’s boyfriends - a social jock- sets a wave of panic and reaction from the school staff (e.g. the archetypal school counselor who teaches the students about the cycle of grief) and exposes the long-existing social and cultural schisms within its student population. Skim and Lisa refuse to write consolatory cards for the abandoned girlfriend and reject anything to do with the superficial “Girls Celebrate Life (GLC) club”- a flippant gesture co-made by teachers and some students in response to the school tragedy. The true crux in the story, however, is Skim’s special relationship with her hippy/artist drama teacher, Ms Archer. Ms Archer claims to be keenly aware of Skim’s special talents and insight and is compelled by her outcast status. She reaches out to Skim by joining her for cigarettes just outside the school grounds. A strange and intense dynamic forms between the two, and soon readers see Skim and her teacher kissing, a scene poignantly rendered in its own silent double-page spread.
Skim, awakened and vulnerable, becomes obsessed with Ms Archer who apparently sees her for who she really is, but who also seems to have problems of her own to sort out. Ms Archer stops showing up at school, and, despite Skim’s growing disappointment, she is constantly being replaced by substitute teachers. Initially Skim retreats into her world, philosophizing on the meaning of love, and then she soon decides to find her way to her teacher’s home to visit her. When Ms Archer tells Skim that she should stop visiting her, Skim falls into depression, clinging even more so than before to the darker pockets of her fragile teenaged mind and soul.
Lisa, estranged by Skim’s despondence and now accepted by the popular girls, distances herself from Skim, and the two eventually part ways. Serendipitously, Skim finds an unlikely friend to be more genuine, the girlfriend of the jock who had taken his life.
Skim is poignant because it captures the psychological landscape of a lonely teenaged girl with accuracy and compassion. Skim confides in her diary, revealing various dimensions of her character, with passages like: “Dear Diary, When I was six I was in the school play and they ran out of parts for people. And so I was the Night Sky.” She is also the same vigorous girl who writes: “My Wicca book says witches take responsibility for their own actions. So these are my actions. They aren’t hurting anyone. So be it.”
From the particularities of slang to the bigger concepts like fear and isolation, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki capture the subtle details that comprise this understated part of life. The reader feels Skim’s nausea at keeping secrets, her sense of degradation amidst Lisa’s presence, and also her vague but deeply-rooted knowledge that she is capable and complex, and smarter than the trivialities and superficiality around her. When Skim and Katie befriend each other at the end of the story, the reader feels butterflies at the excitement of the burgeoning friendship. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki create a very real high school world which anyone who has ever been a teenager would be able to relate to at some level. The ending rings in tune with the rest of the story, a strange mix of solemnity and wonder.
Visually, Skim is intriguing for its artistic style. Jillian Tamaki’s use of line and shadow is effective in rendering the psychology of characters and the moody spaces they find themselves in. At times, Jillian’s sophisticated sense of composition lends a poetic quality, calling to mind Craig Thompson’s work in Blankets. Formally, Skim is interesting for its varied approach to panel-use. Some pages flaunt over 10 similarly sized and shaped panels while others reveal only one (often silent) borderless image. The overall effect reveals impressive artwork and many powerful scenes, though, at times formal decisions seem arbitrary and slightly stunt narrative flow. Overall, Skim is a unique piece, one not to be missed.
Danya David is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature program at University of British Columbia.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.