SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
SuperMutant Magic Academy is a difficult book to review, but it is certainly an easy one to recommend. You need to get a copy, and you need to put it next to your HARRY POTTER collection on your bookshelves. It’s funny, shocking, goofy, light, and surprisingly more endearing than a book like this one should be, since at first it seems to be a mere spoof — not always lovingly, thank goodness — of the HARRY POTTER novels.
Jillian Tamaki wrote, drew, and posted online these little one-page visual gags. I didn’t know about it until it was collected and published as a single volume. To be honest, the first time I saw it, I picked it up at the comic shop and was not hooked. The drawings did not impress me, and I didn’t think the jokes were that funny (at first!). But then I visited the comic shop again about a month later, and I saw SuperMutant Magic Academy again and decided to give it another chance. I am very glad that I did.
The art certainly grew on me, and I’m now embarrassed that I was not initially able to appreciate the style Tamaki used. I also was mistaken in thinking that the pages were unrelated, throwaway gags. The story builds, and we get to know the characters over the course of the almost three hundred-page book. I wouldn’t call SuperMutant Magic Academy a graphic novel, since I reserve that term for books that form a tight thematic narrative, but there is enough connection between the stories to pull the reader along and to feel a sense of closure at the end.
The book is comprised of black-and-white art with four to six panels per page, which means that Tamaki is actually mastering the art of the comic strip, of putting lightning in a bottle, much the way a poet employs a sonnet, to see what can be done within a seemingly limited format. Her sense of humorous timing is excellent, and she varies that humor, sometimes depending solely on the visual, sometimes solely on the verbal, and sometimes on a perfect mixture of the two.
What really makes this book great is Tamaki’s set of characters. There is a funny young student, Frances, who likes to shock her peers with her performance art; a student, Evan the Everlasting Boy, cursed, of course, with living forever; a team of D&D players; a Hogwarts-type professor, Ms. Grimdorff, who seems capable of the most incredibly kind but unwanted advice ever offered; and Marsha, my favorite, a young girl with an endearing crush on her very kind, very cute, but hopelessly oblivious, heterosexual girlfriend, Wendy.
The pages with the two of them created the narrative I was most interested in, and they added to the book a little needed suspense, which made the collection hard to put down. Tamaki rightly relied on this rotating cast of characters to hold the book together, but the love-tension between the two girls did the most to tie together this series of vignettes. At times, the stories about Wendy and Marsha were just plain funny, but at times, their story was quite touching, and Tamaki allowed their relationship to evolve over the course of the book.
Of all that I have written, the most important information I can give you in deciding whether to read SuperMutant Magic Academy has to do with the type of humor used. Tamaki is a writer with an edge to her humor, and if that’s not to your liking, then you should not read this book; however, if you like satire, this book is for you. For example, on one of my favorite pages, two homophobic boys don’t want to read Oscar Wilde for their assignment (One boy asks his teacher: “This is some sort of gay book, inn’it?”). After showing the boys reading the book in the second panel, Tamaki, in the remaining four panels, shows the boys’ lives together as they grow up and fall in love, from school to the grave. In six hysterical panels, Tamaki both skewers homophobic men, implies that books might actually change the way one thinks, and suggests that the fears people have about the manner in which books change us are ridiculous (Opening our minds about the different ways people live and experience the world we share? Yes. Actually changing our sexual orientation? Um, No.).
After the scenes with Wendy and Marsha, my favorite moments are the ones with Frances, particularly when she has come up with some type of new performance art. But Frances pretty much steals the show whenever she’s on the page: She’s got a deadpan look, and we never know what she’s going to do or, better yet, where she’s going to do it.
Tamaki’s humor is expressed with great variety: Though she will run through some standard and not-so-standard D&D jokes, she is endlessly creative throughout the book, really having fun spoofing the conventions of the campus novel. There’s vandalism to be dealt with and bad grades that students try to get out of, and just about anything and everything you can imagine. It’s great fun.
It may not be a perfect five-star graphic novel, but it’s also far better than a series of vignettes written over a long period of time should be. The reader feels that the book is complete by the last page: You’ll finish the book happy you spent time with the characters, and you’ll want a copy because you will have favorite pages you will force your friends to read. SuperMutant Magic Academy is not to be missed. In fact, I suggest purchasing two copies — you will have trouble getting back the copy you let your friends borrow.