A brief summary of Super Mutant Magic Academy—heck, the title alone—conjures up images of an X-Man/Harry Potter mash-up. While there are allusions to those stories, SMMA goes in a totally different direction from being either a boarding-school fantasy or teenage superhero story. Told in a series of one-page comics, Super Mutant Magic Academy follows a group of magical and super-powered teens as they go through high school. If anything, its closest point of comparison might be Azumanga Daioh in that it follows a cast of weirdos over the course of their high school career, offering sharp but funny standalone observations along the way.
Of course, it’s also easy to compare it to Tamaki’s previous work. Jillian Tamaki was co-creator (along with her cousin Mariko Tamaki) of Skim, a 2008 graphic novel about a teenage girl whose body type, ethnicity, and Wiccan beliefs put her outside of the norm. Last year Jillian and Mariko released This One Summer, a graphic novel about two young teenage girls going through a turbulent season. Super Mutant Magic Academy also has teenage characters, but its take on teenage angst is a little more wry, the characters a little more cynical. The setting also differentiates it from Tamaki’s more grounded series. Anything can happen at Super Mutant Magic Academy and it often does, giving Super Mutant Magic Academy a sense of the surreal and oddball humor.
Despite the fantastical setting most of the kids seem like very real teenagers, even the ones that are part fox or dinosaur. The kids might be able to shoot laser beams from their eyes or turn into trees, but they still meet up after school to play Dungeons and Dragons or spend way too much time on the Internet. Their worries (about how others perceive them, about whether the person they like likes them, about what the future holds) all ring true. The teenagers in Super Mutant Magic Academy aren’t defined by their magic or superhuman powers but rather by their philosophical musing. A theme that comes up again and again is that they aren’t the first people to think the things they think, that maybe no one (including themselves) has ever had a single original thought in their lives. Rather than this being a crushing, nihilistic thought it’s actually freeing for the characters, allowing them to be themselves without getting bogged down by worrying about being unique or different. By owning up to their teenage angst they’re able to move on from it.
The main characters followed by the book are best friends Wendy and Marsha. Marsha’s cynicism clashes sharply with Wendy’s optimistic outlook—at one point, when Wendy chides Marsha for not recycling, Marsha goes on a rant about how if Wendy really wanted to make a difference she’d become president of an oil company and dismantle the system from the inside rather than just taking people to task for using the wrong trash can. Wendy’s angry reply is that she thinks it’s better to do something than nothing at all and she fishes Marsha’s pop can out of the trash. This strip not only encapsulates the clash between the two girls’ personalities but also drives home Marsha’s unspoken crush on her best friend. While Marsha might outwardly roll her eyes at Wendy’s idealism, it actually makes her fall in love with Wendy just a little bit more.
Marsha’s crush on the oblivious Wendy is the main recurring plot thread of the book. It’s painful to watch as she keeps her feelings under wraps, helping Wendy practice asking guys out and listening to her swoon over her latest boyfriend. It’s a painful dilemma for many closeted teens: just because you’re gay that doesn’t mean that you’re in love with your straight best friend, but sometimes it does, and in that case what do you do? Over the course of the series Marsha eventually builds up the courage to not only come out to Wendy but also attempt to tell her she likes her. The result is a mixed bag, not giving Marsha any easy wins. Even the way in which this storyline ends is ambiguous: Marsha seems to achieve some measure of resolution, though it’s unclear whether or not Wendy remains oblivious to Marsha’s true feelings.
There are other recurring characters, as well as some that show up just for one-off jokes. My favourite among the main cast is Florence, an accomplished performance artist who uses the mundane life of high school as her tableau. She directs bizarre student films, poses in a garbage heap, and has an after-school job working as a "human Kleenex," allowing a man to sneeze and wipe his nose on her ("I’m doing it for my memoirs," she explains [p. 87]). Through Florence, Tamaki gets in some jabs at ridiculous, over-the-top performance art; though most of the time the targets of the joke are people that disdain art just because they don’t get it. Florence’s art may be over the top, but it’s also designed to be accessible. When her fellow students express disgust and confusion or her lying in a pile of garbage, they are handed a card which assures them that all their reactions are correct.
The book is also willing to take on lowbrow humour, pumping every masturbation joke for all it’s worth. The mix of philosophical and scatological might not work for everyone but it accurately captures the teenage mindset.
Super Mutant Magic Academy was originally published as a web comic, making it a bit disjointed at times. It takes a few strips before the book really starts to feel like "Super Mutant Magic Academy." The first few comics feel more like vignettes showing us the wider world than the world of the school. The artwork in these early strips is rough and has a different energy from the rest of the book. The artwork often has a charcoal and pencil look to it, making it look like something someone might draw during a high school art class using the materials they had at hand. Everything is distinctive enough without losing its loose, vibrant edge. The art’s not beautiful like the artwork in Skim or This One Summer, but it fits the series’ irreverent vibe.
The one-gag-per-page format lends itself well not just to jokes but also to the characters’ navel-gazing, giving them just enough room to air their thoughts before the punchline comes. At times it reminded me of Peanuts at its most cynical, or Calvin and Hobbes featuring teenagers. In one very Calvin-like strip, Chedder, a teenage tough with hidden depths, walks out of class, telling his teacher that he’s not going to waste the best years of his life sitting in a classroom. The last panel shows him spending his hard-won freedom lying in bed, eating McDonald's while he surfs the Internet on his phone.
Technology is almost a bigger part of the characters’ lives than magic. The kids text, use laptops, listen to music on their iPods just as easily as they fly around on broomsticks or transform into animals. In one strip a stone-faced student sends one hyperbolic text message after another ("OMG!" "LOL"), only expressing her delight at the end with a tiny smile. What I liked about these strips is that they never seemed to be taking the characters to task for using technology. Tamaki might poke fun at her characters’ teenage pretensions, but she doesn’t paint their ease with technology as inherently wasteful or harmful as some authors might. Just because the texting student isn’t actually laughing out loud, that doesn’t mean her delight is any less real.
Another interesting aspect of SMMA is how strange it is willing to get. There are several surreal strips with no punchlines. Most of these center on Evan the everlasting boy, a young man unable to die, who instead just sits around, waiting out the years. These dream-like vignettes are where Tamaki’s art shines the brightest, allowing her to stretch out and draw some beautiful images; like Evan, now grown to the size of a planet, playing with a dog made of stars.
Near the end of the book an over-arching plot threatens to emerge and engulf two of the main characters, drawing them into an ancient prophecy about the battle between good and evil. It’s a jarring bit of high fantasy, brought into what is a pretty low-level magic world. Even the characters seem to realize that it’s wildly out of place and scramble to escape being sucked into some generic fantasy quest. Though it comes out of nowhere, it’s still a nice moment in that it reminds both the readers and the characters that there is a life after high school, a world outside their own heads. “There’s always more later" (p. 243), Chedder tells Marsha at one point when she starts stressing out about her post-graduation life. Good advice.
Shannon Fay is a freelance writer who has recently moved from Canada to the UK. She has also recently released a collection of short stories called Clever Bits. She can be found online at www.ayearonsaturn.com or @ShannonLFay.