The Outsider School for Outsider Youth

A review of Jillian Tamaki’s Supermutuant Magic Academy (Drawn and Quarterly, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Supermutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki takes on the recent cultural trend of portraying children just finiding the right school for their outsider status and then finally fitting in with all of the other students – a theme that has been played out in cultural phenomena like Harry Potter, which Tamaki heavily spoofs. Tamaki blends ideas from the Harry Potter universe with ideas from the X-Men universe (Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). These ‘outsider schools for outsider kids’ phenomena that continue to be popular unwittingly project the idea that the best method for inclusion of diverse youngsters is to create a school environment where they are not diverse, where everyone shares some trait with them, whether it be mutation or magical ability. This unintentionally suggests that what works best for kids is to keep the current system intact with all of its ideas of forced normalcy and associated exclusions, but to create special schools for those who don’t fit into norms so that they can finally find a place to be normal. This cultural trend favours maintaining the status quo of the school system, but imagining other schools with other norms to push on children – whether it be control of their magical abilities or their mutant powers. The message is still one of conformity.

This is what makes Tamaki’s Supermutant Magic Academy so clever. It challenges the idea that we can just create special schools for each person’s diverse qualities without changing the school system itself. Her characters, although learning about magic and their abilities are still teens. They are still just as disaffected as other teens about the school environment and the superstructure of controlled learning. No matter what they are learning about, the system still fails them in diverse ways and they still challenge and push the boundaries of that system. This is the particular power of Tamaki’s work, her ability and desire to push boundaries, to challenge the status quo and intentionally subvert it from the inside – by creating a story that is nominally about a school for diversity of magical and mutant abilities and then playing with the attitudes of the teens that attend the school and ensuring that they still engage with the school in their own ennui-shaped framework.

Tamaki illustrates that even when a school suggests that its curriculum is inclusive (in this case, of mutants and magicians), it still fails students when it fails to make changes to the ideas that underly that curriculum. 

Tamaki’s fun, brilliant, savvy critique of supernatural school lit is filled with students who don’t use their powers to fight epic battles and fight for all of the rules of normalcy of society… instead they continue being teens and use their powers in ways that real teens would – to get rid of acne, deal with the tribulations of attraction and sexual identity, deal with people misunderstanding them, and cope with school until they can get out at the end of the day and do something that isn’t state sanctioned. Like most teens, they recognise that the things that are the most fun are the ones that aren’t part of a state prescribed curriculum. 

To read more about Supermutant Magic Academy and see a few online images from this graphic novel, visit http://mutantmagic.com 

You can also visit the Drawn and Quarterly website to find out more at https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/supermutant-magic-academy 

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2 thoughts on “The Outsider School for Outsider Youth

  1. Ursula Pflug says:

    i love Jillian’s work! I met her at the Governor General’s awards in November at Rideau Hall and she is also a lovely person.

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