It's risky to incorporate fads into your fiction. It can be a lot like planting a delicate spring garden next to a busy sidewalk. At first the commuters, skateboarders and dog joggers marvel at the blooms, but soon the garden becomes a familiar sight — "NBD." By the time July rolls around, nobody cares that the blistering summer heat has shriveled the fragile flowers. It's all very depressing.
Unless, that is, you're artist Jillian Tamaki. She's familiar with the complicated business of writing about trendy topics — 2015's hilarious, Eisner Award-winning SuperMutant Magic Academy was one long riff on Harry Potter — but she insouciantly shrugs off trepidation. The comics in Boundless incorporate of-the-moment phenomena — one character joins a pyramid skin-care scheme, while another launches a porn sitcom called Darla! Others, inspired by a mysterious mp3 that's racing around the Internet, move to Joshua Tree and sell friendship bracelets. Even a couple battling bedbugs are clearly channeling the zeitgeist.
But though such elements drive these stories, they never seem to shackle Boundless to the present. Instead, Tamaki's existential wistfulness lifts text messages and memes into the realm of archetype. In "1.Jenny," a young woman discovers a "mirror Facebook" where duplicates of real users seem to live parallel lives. As Jenny gets hooked on her doppelganger's updates, she starts to question the value of her "real" life. "She felt acutely aware of some sort of lost momentum. Which was startling given that she wasn't even aware she had possessed said momentum in the first place," Tamaki writes. Instead of the familiar "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," Tamaki suggests you don't know what you lack until you realize you never had it — and maybe, like Facebook's promise of connectedness and validation, it wasn't have-able at all.
"1.Jenny" and the other stories here gain additional force from Tamaki's inventive, versatile art. Her playful experiments with the space of the page range from spreads that seem to overflow the edges to changes in orientation requiring the reader to turn the book on its side. In "Body Pods" and "Darla!" she gives literal weight to the characters' angsts with muscular lines and chunky shading. A page later she accomplishes a stunning transformation in "The ClairFree System," combining masterful figure studies, chiaroscuro effects and shapely masses of hatching.
"The ClairFree System" is one of the more unnerving and remarkable stories in the book. Tamaki cuts loose from literality, illustrating the main character's sales pitch for a skin-care line with disconnected images. "In the two years I have been involved with the program, I have attained Level 3 status," the narrator declares. Meanwhile, a beautifully figured mother and child float together in space, two girls sit side by side in a weirdly sterile landscape and hazy figures face off in an arena — or is it a graveyard? The circle of women holding hands — are they engaged in some sort of rite? While the reader wonders, the narrator drones on implacably. "Time and money. It's not hard to think of what we could do with a little more of both ... Ask yourself: What do I want?"
In contrast, stories like "Bedbug" and "Darla!" feel utterly familiar. Here, standard arrangements of comic panels carry wry dramas of intimacy and insecurity. Tamaki's graceful way with a line and knack for a striking tableau make even the "porn sitcom" storyline feel emotionally hefty. When Darla has sex with a guy who, for some reason, is wearing clown shoes, Tamaki's vigorous figures fill the page with a happy, hearty vibe. But just as elsewhere in Boundless, a sense of melancholy isn't far off. The creator of Darla! attends a fan convention ("Fans of what, I'm not sure exactly. Maybe the Internet in general") and is depressed to find that young people think of his show as a big joke. "There's nothing wrong with being sincere," he reflects plaintively. Tamaki sympathizes with him — and with all her text-messaging, meme-circulating, alienated subjects — even if she doesn't entirely agree.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.