Women’s History Month: Mariko Tamaki by Sara Century

Mariko Tamaki’s first published works were novels (Cover Me, True Lies, Fake ID, etc.) but when she broke into the world of comics with books like Skim and This One Summer (both illustrated by cousin Jillian Tamaki), they were instant hits among indie comic readers. It’s no stretch to see why; both stories are coming-of-age tales with relatable central figures and moody subject matter that makes them feel like real life, told via perspectives that still so often go unheard in comics. More recently, Tamaki’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me won hearts by following much the same general tone of her earlier comics while exploring the queerness and complicated relationships of its protagonist.

In the last few years, Tamaki has taken her keen eye for character-building and deeply-felt emotional journeys and brought them to the world of mainstream superhero comics. From giving Supergirl a more workable origin story to exploring trauma with the She-Hulk and even taking on Wonder Woman after critically-acclaimed runs from G. Willow Wilson and Steve Orlando, Tamaki has been out here challenging the medium left and right and using some of comics’ most beloved icons to do it.

Tamaki’s first mainstream series was Supergirl: Being Super, in which Tamaki retold Supergirl’s origin story, introducing a compelling supporting cast that we sadly may never see again. By giving us a nebulous threat rather than a mustache-twirling villain, Being Super showed us that, more often than not, the Super Family’s biggest challenges tend to be rooted in their own feelings of cultural displacement. Perhaps most importantly, this story acknowledges to Kara that she is always going to be different, but that need not mean she is alone. A character that is often reduced to being simply another member of the Super Family, this take on Kara got in touch with what makes her such a relatable and aspirational character, and remains one of the greatest Supergirl stories ever told.

She would later bring much the same formula to Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass, which, like Being Super, starts with feelings of being an outsider that lead to finding a larger sense of community. Everyday problems like gentrification are in the spotlight while Tamaki introduces a very queer supporting cast to Harley, something our girl has been sorely lacking. This reimagined Poison Ivy’s interest in social justice and Harley’s interest in Ivy become character-defining traits. As we watch Harley prioritize Ivy at every turn, we get a greater sense of who she is and what matters in her life.

Tamaki’s “indie style” has adapted to mainstream comics with surprising ease. The embrace of complicated emotional themes has only brought more depth to some of my favorite characters, but it hasn’t entailed a lack of old fashioned superhero brawls. In fact, perhaps what Tamaki does best is to merge chaotic superhero hijinks with a sense of genuine understanding of their characters that makes them pop right off the page. One primary example of this is her run on She-Hulk, in which we find the generally jovial Jennifer Walters struggling with residual trauma from any number of prior events. Still, the awe-inspiring might of the She-Hulk is never absent from the page, and her battles, both interior and otherwise, here are some of her most iconic.

Meanwhile, her run on X-23 felt like a faithful continuation of Tom Taylor’s All-New Wolverine series, but it added new elements that made it a classic take all on its own. The story featured many heartwarming and hilarious moments between Gabby and Laura Kinney as sisters, but the merge of weird sci-fi elements is what makes the story live. Tamaki brings in the Stepford Cuckoos as sympathetic antagonists, and not since Grant Morrison introduced them in the pages of New X-Men have they been so compelling. Capturing what makes them so funny, tragic, and weird while pitting them against the bawdy Kinney sisters made for an unforgettable X-Story.

More recently, in the Spider-Man & Venom: Double Trouble mini-series, Tamaki teamed up with the art team known as Illustrator Unit Gurihiru for a delightful out-of-continuity romp that reimagined Spider-Man and Venom as two roommates trying to make it work in the big apple. When Venom prankishly swaps their bodies a la Freaky Friday, the two of them have to try and navigate life as the other. This story leaves the soul-searching at home for the most part, making it one of Tamaki’s more light-hearted works.

At the other end of the superhero spectrum, her recent run on Wonder Woman has brought the action to the forefront, and we’ve seen Diana take on some of her greatest challenges yet. While this stint has yet to run its course, it’s been a heck of a ride.

It’s no stretch to say that Mariko Tamaki is one of comics’ greatest assets, and her ability to get to the heart of her characters while giving them exterior threats that tie into and directly challenge them is nothing short of stunning. Each character reads with new life, and it becomes easier to see what it is we love about them. The bizarre, the overwhelming, and the quietly personal all share equal space in Tamaki’s stories, and that is part of what makes her one of comics’ must-read writers.

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