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Boundless

by Jillian Tamaki

boundless.cover-1400

The opening and closing spreads in Jillian Tamaki’s new collection of graphic short stories feature characters spilling off the edges of the page. The opener, “World-Class City,” is bookended by figures placed in directional opposition to one another, as though facing each other across the expanse of intervening pages. The title story, which closes the volume, is told from the perspective of various non-human characters – a bird, a squirrel, and a housefly that comes to a violent end at the hands of the lone human character.

Each of these elements lends nuance and shades of meaning to the book’s title, playing with the idea of limits and boundaries, whether they be physical – in addition to flouting the rules of framing in her images, Tamaki depicts birds in flight and a female swimmer cutting through the water – temporal, or existential.

Numerous stories in this collection eschew the psychological realism that typifies Tamaki’s acclaimed work with her cousin, Mariko Tamaki; here, the author-illustrator offers stories that, in some cases, cross over into the frankly surreal. “Half Life” features a protagonist who begins inexplicably shrinking, getting smaller and smaller until she is the size of a dust mote barrelling through space (and into the mouth of a panting, blissfully unaware canine). “Jenny1” focuses on a site that mirrors Facebook and provides users with glimpses of alternative lives. And “SexCoven” involves a computer virus – an “atonal drone” that “feels like a new tear in the universe” and has profound effects on its listeners.

“Body Pods,” “Darla,” and “Bedbug” are more closely aligned to a naturalistic presentation, but even in those pieces, the reader feels Tamaki straining against the confines of documentary or psychological realism. Mariko’s subtlety in manipulating written language in the graphic novels Skim and This One Summer is largely absent here: Jillian’s spare writing is less literary and more baldly communicative.

But at its core, Boundless is a showcase for Tamaki’s breathtaking versatility as a visual artist. She appears equally comfortable working in styles that resemble photorealism and abstraction, and is particularly strong at deploying sight gags that play off the text of her stories. “Well, obviously it is very interesting,” remarks the tiny woman in “Half Life,” standing on a chair at the kitchen table and using a straw to drain liquid from a bowl. (Elsewhere she is pictured taking a languid soak in the bathroom sink.) And the strategic positioning of the text in a full-page image of a couple having sex is a brilliant bit of visual humour. (The woman is depicted penetrating the man, and the relevant text reads, “It makes sense when I put it that way, right?”)

Tamaki revels in manipulating light and perspective: a gigantic squirrel dominates one spread; a death’s head figure holding a candle appears on another; and one stark image features a woman’s face in shadow, framed by long hair with only the tip of her nose visible. Angles are skewed and images combined in unexpected ways. In her technique and approach, Tamaki literalizes the implications of her title in a manner both startlingly effective and intriguing.