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Creators on the Cusp: Mariko Tamaki makes and curates LGBTQ-focused graphic novels

Cover images from Surely Books.
Meghan Collins Sullivan
/
NPR

Our Creators on the Cusp series brings you writers, artists, editors and publishers who are revolutionizing the world of comics and graphic novels. We'll introduce you to the troublemakers and boundary-pushers who're taking comics in once-unimaginable directions.

We start with Mariko Tamaki. She's won the Eisner Award, the Caldecott Honor and a slew of other awards for such graphic novels as This One Summer (co-written with her cousin, Jillian Tamaki) and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.

Unlike many writers of graphic novels, she's also made her mark in mainstream comics. She's helped shape the destiny of characters such as Spider-Man, Batman, Supergirl and Harley Quinn. Now she's teaming up with editor Charlotte Greenbaum to co-curate a new imprint from Abrams Books. Called Surely Books, it focuses on LGBTQIA creators and experiences. Surely Books' first titles, Lifetime Passes came out in November. Two more Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith and M Is For Monster are set to publish soon.

I reached out to Tamaki to find out how comics publishing is changing, why she likes to write for preteens and young adults, and what we can expect from Surely Books.

When I heard you were heading up this new imprint, one of my first thoughts was, "I can't imagine what Tamaki's picks will be like!" After all, you've written so many different types of books, from mainstream franchise comics to more idiosyncratic graphic novels. What makes a book a "Tamaki pick"?

There is no Tamaki pick! Or, I guess, any book can be a Tamaki pick! I think it's probably because of the wide variety of genres [in which] I've written that that's true. Actually, one of my favorite things about the list of Surely Books is that they cover so many different genres and styles, all created by LGBTQIA+ artists and writers.

Were there any creators whose work you planned, or hoped, to include in the imprint from the beginning?

Yes and no. I am a huge fan of so many artists. Artists/writers like Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre and Grace Ellis and Hannah Templar, the teams behind our first two books, were very high on my list. But really, what I wanted was to find artists and writers I didn't already know. We spent a lot of time asking people about artists they were excited about — trying to look outside the circle we already knew.

What about creators you only just learned about since you began planning Surely Books? Are there people who've taken you by surprise?

Two creators I did not know before I started working with Surely Books are Olivia Hicks and Emma Oosterhous, who are — right now, as I type — working on an amazing graphic novel called Grand Slam Romance, which is like the most magically hilariously queer book ever.

Why do you think the books you want to publish haven't already made it into print? After all, there's been a huge upsurge of publisher interest in both comics and graphic novels and LGBTQ themes in recent years. Why are the big publishers still falling short?

There are so many amazing queer books being published by amazing publishers big and small right now. I think we [at Abrams] are pretty lucky to be some creators' choice to work with. I take it as a huge compliment, given the options, that people do want to work with us.

It's always true that some books are easier to get published than others. There are stories that publishers think will make more sense to a broader audience. I would say that there is always room to broaden our sense of what books we think readers want. Like, the readership is as diverse as the creators trying to get their books made. People love comics and will read comics they wouldn't necessarily predict would be their thing. So, let's expand!

You've long had an interest in preteen and teen stories. Why do you like writing for those age groups?

I have a bunch of answers to that question, I think the one that rings the truest right now is that writing about teens is a form of writing about adulthood. Teens are trying to understand what it means to be an adult. It's a specific kind of anthropology I am interested in, the anthropology of grown-ups.

Are you including a lot of middle-grade and Young Adult books in the Surely lineup? If so, what author or authors are you most excited about?

I am excited about them all! I adore Talia Dutton's M is for Monster, a YA modern Frankenstein story about family and monsters. It makes me cry every time I read it. Hopefully, it will make you cry too. On the adult side of things, we just got the last pages from Kaitlin Chan's Homecoming, a kind of ethnography of identity and queerness in Taiwan. Really, it's such an incredible book.

Is this your first time working as an editor?

I have taught comics workshops, which is a little editorial in nature. This is my first chance to work with artists [from] start to finish on their books.

What's the hardest part about editing?

Mostly, it's knowing when to get out of the way. The thing about creating books is, it's all in your head. It's your world, your creation. The editor is there to understand your world, live in it with you and help you fill in all the things you need to fill in — [all] while making sure it's still the artist's world that's prioritized. You have to be able to look at things from the outside, think big picture and details, but then you also need to be able to immerse yourself in what the artist is creating.

Did the process of evaluating manuscripts for publication change how you think about your own work? Did it give you any new ideas for projects you want to do?

I feel like I have an appreciation for what people are going through [in] trying to make a graphic novel. It's definitely inspiring seeing them all achieve that.

Are there any nifty future plans you have, on your own or with Surely Books, that you can give us a hint about?

I have a new graphic novel with my cousin, Jillian Tamaki. I have a novel I'm working on. I've got a few comic book projects in the works. So, yes, lots of things!

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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