Superhero Highschool

Growing up is hard. And the microcosm of high school — with its changing expectations and responsibilities and the push-pull of social dynamics, while, at the same time, you’re trying to establish emotional coping mechanisms and, above all, dealing with the omnipresent questions about the rest of life…? Phew. It’s exhausting just reading that, nevermind acting on it.

Sometimes it feels like you’ve got to have some kind of superhuman power to get through it all. In fact, with superpowers, we’d probably be able to rise above all the drudgery and do really extraordinary things. Or so you’d think, right?

Enter the cast of SuperMutant Magic Academy, a graphic novel by Canadian artist and author, Jillian Tamaki. Originally created as an online series, Tamaki’s characters attend a prep school for mutants and witches. From moderately-unusual attributes to superhuman abilities, the novel’s bizarre teenage cast grapples with the most ordinary pains of adolescence.

And how does the immortal Everlasting Boy, Wendy, the popular girl with cat ears, or Trixie, who is a dinosaur, (to name a few) fare in the wild world of gym class, hormones and the impending prom? Well, it may be a little absurd, but it’s not a very different experience from our own.

Teenage-dom is a recognized period of time when the drama of decisions are felt very acutely. And in SuperMutant Magic Academy, the characters’ oddities play second fiddle to the existential crises of crushes, self-discovery, creative expression and duels over Dungeons and Dragons.

Seen in a series of short vignettes, Trixie bemoans her dinosaur looks as her classmate Marsha struggles with coming out of the closet and secretly crushing on her best friend, Wendy; Cheddar, the jock, espouses insight on gender-neutral sexuality while Frances, a sardonic feminist, fights to find her creative expression. All this between computer club and band class.

On the funnier side of dark comedies, Tamaki’s tone drips with sarcasm of the ordinariness of mutant teenage existence, but at times becomes incredibly cutting. Her humour is offbeat enough to stay light, but within all the absurdity, she manages to highlight some especially real moments. Topics like slut-shaming, peer pressure and underage drinking mingle between strips of mundane text conversations and awkwardly trying to figure out how to/when to kiss someone.

In hindsight, those who have passed through the rites of teenage years don’t look back with the same mind-numbing angst we were riddled with at the time. But just because it’s safely in the rearview now, it’s good to remember the confusion is very real, and at times incredibly scary and overwhelming to those still tussling in its midst. Books like SuperMutant Magic Academy are comedic reminders helping to bridge that gap.

And, while this novel could be pegged for a mature teenage audience, anyone who has lived through high school would laugh reading its pages. Because the truth is, no matter what age, personal battles with the various “what ifs..?” and “if onlys…?” of life can plague any decision we make. Growing up is awkward (still!) and, unfortunately, no superpower will change that.

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