Empire State of Mind

Roaming

A review of Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

Published on November 1, 2023

A book’s acknowledgements section rarely makes for particularly illuminating reading. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, however, slip a quiet zinger into the last page of Roaming, their new graphic novel about three young women on a low-budget rite-of-passage trip to New York in 2009. “The events of this story are both too real and entirely fictional,” they write. While this might at first look like just a spin on the standard “any resemblance to persons living or dead…” disclaimer, it instead reveals the essence of what makes Roaming such a rewarding read: truth-telling but not beholden to mere facts, it’s a vivid record of its time and place, yet decidedly not a travel journal. 

Roaming
Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

Drawn & Quarterly
$39.95
paper
444pp
9781770464339

The Tamakis are cousins (not sisters, as is often assumed) whose early collaborative works Skim (2007) and This One Summer (2014) brought an Asian-Canadian LGBT experience and sensibility to young readers internationally. Roaming, five years in the making, sees them stepping out of YA and into full-blown A. Fans will be interested to learn that the new book sees a change in the authors’ usual division of labour: where formerly Mariko did all the writing and Jillian all the art, this time the writing is shared equally. Not that you’d ever guess – in the delicate and shifting triangulation at the heart of the book, all three characters’ voices ring equally true. 

Dani and Zoe are old friends looking to do something memorable for their first spring break as university students; Fiona, a new classmate, is the wild card in the group. They’re all at that fleeting stage of life where they can reasonably claim the respect due to adulthood while reserving the young person’s right to do stupid, reckless things. In this hothouse environment it’s hardly surprising that a romance develops (the two parties involved, and the one left out, clearly cannot be spoiled in a review), and in the resourceful way of late teens, its imperatives are enacted despite considerable logistical challenges.  

The New York the three friends enter is not one that tends to be glamourized on the modern Big Apple timeline. Times Square has long since lost its seedy frisson of yore; it’s now firmly in its late-capitalist consumer-spree stage – a time when a store devoted entirely to M&M’s can actually seem kind of cute – and headed for its present-day full-on Disneyfication. The disproportionately tall, surreally skinny “pencil towers” of Billionaires’ Row haven’t yet come along to mar the time-honoured twentieth-century silhouette of the midtown Manhattan skyline; downtown, One World Trade Center hasn’t yet replaced the twin towers. The place and its mythology feel up for grabs.

Even so, New York is New York, and a love for the city infuses every page. The narrative unfolds with the rhythm of life in the megalopolis: frantic activity alternates with down-time moments grabbed amid the chaos. If one were to pick an ideal period-appropriate musical accompaniment, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” would do nicely.

Roaming is over a hundred pages longer than either of the Tamakis’ two previous books, and the decision to work on a bigger scale pays off richly: Jillian’s draftsmanship is given freer rein than a shorter format could have accommodated. Consistently dazzling, her work reaches several downright giddy peaks. A thirty-eight-page sequence set in the American Museum of Natural History is a tour de force: images spill from page to page as if they simply can’t be contained, text and visuals entwine with the fluidity of a well-remembered dream. Elsewhere, the opposite end of urban reality gets its due when a double-page spread is devoted to a zoom-in tableau involving a pair of mating pigeons doing their business amid sidewalk detritus.

To capture the loving but volatile interactions of three young people in the process of discovering the world is no mean feat. To evoke an iconic setting in ways that do full justice to its magic without skimping on its flaws might be rarer still. To do both at the same time is to create a contemporary classic. Welcome to Roaming.mRb

Ian McGillis is a novelist and freelance journalist living in Montreal.

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