So this has been bubbling under for a little while. The Canadian graphic novel (and Doug Wright Special Award Winner) Skim has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Awards here in Canada, which is excellent. Unfortunately, however, only Mariko Tamaki has been nominated, as she is the book’s “author” whilst Jillian Tamaki has been ignored as the book’s “illustrator.” Anyone with a functioning understanding of the medium knows that, particularly outside of genre work, the distinction between “writer” and “illustrator” is not nearly so easy to make in the world of graphic novels… Graphic Novels are a medium where both the words and pictures are equally important, and frequently entirely indivisible.

And so two of Canada’s most prominent graphic novelists have written an open letter to the administrators of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, in the hope of getting co-creator Jillian Tamaki her due in the acclaim for this fine book. Take it away, Seth and Chester Brown:


November 12, 2008

As individuals involved in the art form of comics and graphic novels, we are glad to see that a graphic novel has made the short-list for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards.   SKIM (by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki)  is a wonderful book and deserves the attention.  But we’re troubled by the fact that only one of its co-creators is receiving credit for the creation of the book’s text.  We understand that an award-category exists for illustration, but to have nominated Jillian in that category would not have rectified the problem.  Indeed, that would have highlighted how our medium is misunderstood.

We’re guessing that the jury who read SKIM saw it as an illustrated novel.  It’s not;  it’s a graphic novel.  In illustrated novels, the words carry the burden of telling the story, and the illustrations serve as a form of visual reinforcement. But in graphic novels, the words and pictures BOTH tell the story, and there are often sequences (sometimes whole graphic novels) where the images alone convey the narrative.  The text of a graphic novel cannot be separated from its illustrations because the words and the pictures together ARE the text.  Try to imagine evaluating SKIM if you couldn’t see the drawings.  Jillian’s contribution to the book goes beyond mere illustration:  she was as responsible for telling the story as Mariko was.

In an October 21st article for the CBC website, one of your jurors, Teresa Toten, was interviewed:  ”Toten praised SKIM for using the graphic novel format to tell a sophisticated story about what life is like for teenaged girls.  The work is remarkable in part because of how the words and pictures both contribute to the literary quality, she said.”  And that is the point of this letter.  ”[T]he words and pictures both contribute to [SKIM's] literary quality”.

A new category does not need to be created to properly address the graphic novel.  In fact, it is best to see graphic novels appear in literary awards only when they deserve to compete equally against prose on their literary merit alone.

In writing this letter, we don’t mean to slight Mariko.   One of the reasons this collaboration works so well is because she understood how to write for this medium.  But we feel that as things now stand, Jillian is being slighted. We want both of the enormously talented creators of this book to be honoured together for their achievement.


Chester Brown (Author of Louis Riel)
Seth (Author of It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken)

Lynda Barry (Author of What It Is)
Peter Birkemoe (Owner of The Beguiling)
Dan Clowes (Author of Ghost World)
David Collier (Author of The Frank Ritza Papers)
Julie Doucet (Author of 365 Days)
Chris Oliveros (Publisher of Drawn and Quarterly)
Joe Ollmann (Author of This Will All End in Tears)
Bryan Lee O’Malley (author of Scott Pilgrim)
Michel Rabagliati (Author of Paul Moves Out)
Art Spiegelman (Pulitzer Prize winning author of Maus)
Adrian Tomine (Author of Shortcomings)
Chris Ware (Author of Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth)

I imagine this will create something of a stir within staid Canadian literary circles.

- Christopher
Edit: I missed the ‘names in support’ somehow. Sorry!

12 Comments on “Skim, Graphic Novels, and The Governor General’s Literary Awards”

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  1. Manale says:







  2. Chip Zdarsky says:

    I second (third? fourth?) this endeavor!

  3. Naseem says:


    I am so happy Seth and Chester wrote this.

  4. Scott Chantler says:

    First I’m hearing of this. Weird. You’d think any group of judges saavy enough to nominate the book in the first place would understand the medium well enough not to make such a blunder.

    As I’m fond of saying: calling of a comic book artist an illustrator is like calling a film director a photographer.

  5. Scott Robins says:

    I totally get Chester and Seth’s plea here but this is going to be an issue basically for any awards that separate out writing and illustration. But let’s be realistic here — SKIM is getting recognition with a nomination from probably the most prestigious literary award in Canada. Ultimately will the Canada Council create a category specifically for graphic novels? In the near future, I doubt it.

  6. Reader says:

    not to argue and say that Jillian Tamaki shoulden’t be eligible to be given the award but…on the cover you show it says words by Mariko Tamaki and credits Jillian Tamaki for pictures so it is understandable that could be thought of Jillian Tamaki as illustrater.

  7. Naseem says:

    Re: What Scott said

    Actually, one of the higher ups from the Canada Council dropped the CCBC few days ago and they DID say they were considering it!

  8. Scott Robins says:

    Naseem – I’m surprised considering that there really aren’t enough graphic novels being published by Canadian publishers to have a decent competition. Unless there’s some serious commitment to and output in the format in the future.

  9. GG’s graphic oversight | CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus says:

    [...] There is growing controversy in Canada about the Governor General’s Awards. Mariko Tamaki has been shortlisted for SKIM, a graphic novel. Fair enough – it’s the first in the genre to have been nominated for these awards and by all accounts it’s an outstanding work that has received many accolades. The problem is that the illustrator, Mariko’s cousin Jillian, has been snubbed. Not listed for the award, not invited to the ceremony next week. And people have noticed. Canada’s leading graphic novelists, Chester Brown and Seth, have written an open letter in support of Jillian’s role. It seems the judges have looked at the literary merit of SKIM’s text in isolation from the illustrations. [...]

  10. » Blog Archive » A visit to Walker Books says:

    [...] The meal was excellent as I am a Burrito fan (picked that habit up from watching too much Invader Zim – but that is another tale altogether). What really made me excited was the books that they hav lined up for release starting next year. The first book we looked at was Skim a graphic novel written and drawn by Canadian cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. This book has been nominated for a number of literary awards in the USA and Canada and has just been nominated for the Canadian Governor-General’s Award which has sparked some controversy, for more details on that click here and here. [...]

  11. A Twofer – Skim & Essex County « Inklings says:

    [...] Skim made me more irritated than ever about the fiasco surrounding Mariko Tamaki’s Governor General nod.  This is a short book as far as the text goes – I was through it inside of an hour, toddler [...]

  12. A Burning Hand of Fire | says:

    [...] artists are not merely “illus­tra­tors”; they deci­sively shape the “text” and, con­se­quently, the reader’s [...]

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