Review: Skim

Artist(s): Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki.

Kimberly Keiko Cameron is a young, somewhat plump, would-be Goth girl whose everyday life as a budding adult is the subject of the excellent Skim1, set in 1993 in an all-girls private school around Toronto (and no, this isn’t a new version of Mädchen in Uniform, although we do get lesbian references, as with the street named “Deneuve”, where one of the main character lives).

Kim and Lisa

Kim’s best friend Lisa doesn’t understand her, one of their classmates finds grief very rewarding when her boyfriend kills himself, and Kim, or “Skim” as she’s nicknamed by her friends, might be falling in love with her English & drama teacher, a kind of post-hippie woman who remains something of a cypher throughout the book, appropriately enough, since this is Skim’s story, and she’s still discovering what the world is all about. And this is far from the only intelligent choice made by writer Mariko Tamaki.
What I really liked about her writing is the way she uses the literary device of having the story narrated by Skim herself through her diary entries, by scratching some words, showing partial rewordings, and the like. Used only sparingly, this technique greatly enhances the realism of the story and the involvement of the reader. The diary also gives us a glimpse of Skim’s inner life, while at the same time hiding very important things from the reader, who has to fill the void left by the unstated feelings and thoughts of the main character. The reader keeps his/her distance from the character, while the character tries to find a bearable distance from the overwhelming feeling of loss of control that a lot of people experience at her age. In a word, the reader doesn’t feel like a voyeur at all.

Kim meets her teacher in the woods

In fact, the void principle is also built into the plot, with the absence of the dead boyfriend, who might have been in fact gay. Whether this is the case or not is of no importance, but the possibility of it is. Between Skim’s secret crush, which she doesn’t share even with Lisa, and the boy’s death, which resonates throughout the entire book, the story could have lapsed into melodrama, but doesn’t. Instead, we get a sensitive and caring portrayal of youth at a certain time, in a certain place, and as with all good stories, the specific becomes universal.

Jillian Tamaki, who’s the cousin of the writer, is an illustrator who’s only done few comic works. Her storytelling is solid, with a balance of small panels and full pages, in a way that reminded me more than once of Craig Thompson’s work on Blankets. What’s funny is that her faces looked to me like early Chris Bachalo, a mainstream artist whose work I used to enjoy very much. But that’s just my imagination. Her art is very atmospheric, and easily draws the reader into the story, without manipulating his/her feelings.

Skim is in my opinion a complete success. Kim herself is an engaging character, with her qualities and shortcomings, her hopes and unsaid dreams, her life still in front of her. I hope we’ll have the pleasure of reading other books by this talented team.

  1. This 140-page graphic novel published by Groundwood Books is available at Amazon.

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