Welcome to SuperMutant Magic Academy – Where You’re More Normal than Weird

July 14th, 2015     by Kaitlin Tremblay     Comments

Image: Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy, PR Photograph

SuperMutant Magic Academy, written by Jillian Tamaki and published by Drawn & Quarterly, is a charming look at the quirks and nuances of high-school life – without complicating the realistic portrayals of relationships and growing up by forcing them to fit into the constraint of an over-arching plot. (Which sounds absurd – who doesn’t want a book with a plot?) The truth is, writing the book as a series of vignettes that span different characters, relationships, and interactions is a more effective way of portraying the reality of the students’ lives. Because, ultimately, that’s what SuperMutant Magic Academy is about: realistically showing what it’s like growing up as a teenager who may or may not fit in.

What’s gripping about SuperMutant Magic Academy is that while all the characters possess some magical or in/super-human trait, these traits are never the focus of the character. There’s Everlasting Boy, who cannot die, but then there are other characters whose abilities or special trait is never discussed or brought to the fore. Marsha and Wendy (who has cat ears) can ride brooms, but they’re never shown being witches or otherwise magical. Many characters, like Cheddar, aren’t depicted as anything more than traditional high school jocks. Their mutantness or magicalness is secondary to the fact that they are teenagers dealing with the sort of problems teenagers do: worries about their bodies, their relationships, their futures, their potential careers, their intimacy, peer pressure, grades, and, of course, existential woes about the world and their place in it.

Character development and the growth of relationships is beautiful to watch in the little vignettes that are scattered throughout the 274 pages. You see Marsha’s pining for Wendy grow naturally (and Marsha’s own internal process of coming out develop in some humourous and some heartbreaking ways), and as you see Wendy interact with various other students in different ways, you begin to see why she is a natural object of adoration and affection for Marsha and others.

The students at SuperMutant Magic Academy are shown being real people. Frances, a politically motivated and overtly feminist artist, appears tough and unapologetic in some pages, and then reveals herself to be vulnerable when faced with romantic and sexual intimacy. The way we perceive queerness amongst teenage boys is always discussed in multi-faceted ways in the book: there are pages dedicated to discussing homoeroticism in sports, countered by pages of young men learning how to mediate and understand same-sex desire through role playing in Dungeons & Dragons, as well as through literature, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. There isn’t just one thing happening to one character: multiple events happen to various characters creating a weave of snapshots of their lives. The range of the quality of art, while at times a major distraction from the flow of the vignettes, shows how long Tamaki has been writing these characters and their struggles.

Image: Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy, PR Photograph

Speaking of struggles: body issues and self-esteem in young girls is also addressed in both intimate and political ways. There is a vignette of Trixie, a young reptilian student, studying herself in the mirror, affirming her own beauty, only to be countered a few pages later by Trixie’s anxiety about wanting to be a model but feeling her modelling days are slipping away. Nothing about SuperMutant Magic Academy is trite: the struggles are portrayed as real, as dynamic, and are met with a mixture of sincerity and humour, a mixture that belies the way we try to deal with these struggles in the real world. Sometimes we are taken seriously and are victorious. Other times we are not and we are laughed at. That is the reality of growing up.

SuperMutant Magic Academy also doesn’t shy away from the tendency for teenagers to ponder big questions and philosophical concepts as they attempt to figure out themselves and their position in the world. Sometimes these thought experiments are met with a step toward understanding or self-actualization. Other times, though, they are met with abrupt humour or complete disregard from others. Not everything is cosmic and not everyone is brilliant. SuperMutant Magic Academy takes careful pains to validate the struggles people – especially teenagers – grapple with, but also tries to cushion this pain by showing that these struggles are universal: we are not unique in our pain. This does not come across as rude, but really just feels like a good, solid hug.

Throughout the entire book, there is this great theme of constant rebirth with the Everlasting Boy where he is seen going through the constant motions of destruction and rebirth. Growing and becoming whole is a process that cannot be accomplished in one day, and SuperMutant Magic Academy illustrates this perfectly. It shows students trying, tripping, picking themselves back up, and never giving up – even if they have to take momentary breaks on their journey.

Tags: body politics

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