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A new graphic novel follows two friends taking on life in New York City


Do you remember your first trip to the big city?


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Start spreading the news. I'm leaving today.

RASCOE: New York City, baby - the city of dreams, big lights and bustling streets. I remember going to New York City in college, and I was such a wild child. I went to the Macy's, and I got this big, old Grover for the Macy's Day Parade. And it was just wild times for me (laughter). But that whimsical feeling of experiencing New York City is the backdrop of a new graphic novel called "Roaming." It's authored and illustrated by award-winning cousins and longtime co-conspirators Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. They join us now in our D.C. studios. Welcome to the program.


MARIKO TAMAKI: Thanks for having us.

RASCOE: So I understand this is your first collaboration in almost a decade. How does it feel to be working together again?

J TAMAKI: It feels like putting on an old glove.


J TAMAKI: It feels great. I mean, this really, from the onset, kind of felt like a book we would do together. And that's why I kind of asked Mariko. I didn't get too far in before I asked Mariko to collaborate because it felt like it was a little bit of a sibling to the previous books that we had done together.

RASCOE: And so New York City is the backdrop for this novel, but the story is really about this friendship between the two main characters, Dani and Zoe. Jillian, can you introduce them to us? And like, what are they doing in the city?

J TAMAKI: Yeah. So Dani and Zoe are high school friends, and they're Canadian. They're from, you know, a suburb of Toronto. And New York is a place they've always wanted to visit. It's the first reading week of their freshman year, and they've been apart for that first, you know, semester. And they kind of reconvene in a place they've always wanted to visit, and they've changed, obviously. And change is always hard and painful. And Dani brings another friend that she has met at her college, Fiona, who kind of is a little bit of a time bomb that sort of sets the action in motion and destroys their friendship, maybe.

RASCOE: Yeah, no. Fiona is - you know, she's intense, and I felt like she's kind of a hot mess, you know, and just - (laughter) I think she loves to stir the pot. I think that's the polite way of saying that. Mariko, tell me a little bit about Fiona because I also feel like we kind of get to know her a little bit in the book, but there are a lot of things that are kind of left unknown about Fiona.

M TAMAKI: Yeah. I think you kind of get to know Fiona in layers. Like, the first layer that you know is that she's, like, the cool girl. She's cooler than Zoe and Dani, definitely. And partly, she's cool because she has been to New York before. Like, I think at first glance, she's somebody who knows everything, and then as the days go by, you see the sort of insecurities that that knowing everything is hiding. And I think ultimately, she's an incredibly vulnerable character who has kind of learned to deal with her vulnerability by carrying herself as somebody who is invulnerable.

RASCOE: And they were there for - what? - five days in the book, which is a long time. I mean, you can fall out with anybody...


RASCOE: ...In five days on a on a travel trip. My goodness. I mean, that's really going to tell you about whether you can get along with someone. But part of the tension here is that Fiona and Dani get closer, and that seems to drive a wedge with Zoe. And it seems like that's the first big fight between these two best friends. And talk about the process of delivering that tension through the dialogue but also very much through the illustrations.

J TAMAKI: Yeah. I mean, being friends with somebody is one thing. Traveling with them is a totally different proposition.


RASCOE: It is.

J TAMAKI: And I really - that was kind of the deliciousness of the premise to me, starting, was when you travel, you're that little cell. You need each other. You're, you know, this little unit that's floating through this city. And I think you get to see everybody's strength, everybody's weakness, everybody's great side, everybody's ugly side in turn, you know, in sort of rotation.

And so, you know, when I start off in a book, I think to myself, what kind of world do I want to live in? What kind of characters do I want to live with, you know, for three years or however long it takes to make a book? And part of that is really exploring those relationships and those dynamics. And part of my natural storytelling is through body language, as you were describing. So that's really what I take joy in - is poking and prodding characters and putting them into situations where they make bad decisions, possibly, or they get to shine. I just thought travel would be a perfect opportunity to really show the range of somebody's character - in this case, three characters.

RASCOE: How much of this is an exploration of what it's like to be a young person discovering who you are, making new friends but also deciding like, who do you want, and who do you not want to be in your life?

M TAMAKI: I mean, I think the sort of pitfalls of self-discovery and the impact of that on friendships is, like, our bread and butter. It's like the thing that we delight in sort of looking at the most. And I think, you know, it is - like, your experience with friendships is kind of like the sort of groundwork for your later experience with romantic relationships...


M TAMAKI: ...Right? Like, really, the sort of first betrayal that you have, I mean, I think the thing that we're fascinated by - how that plays out in these, like, little passive-aggressive conversations that happen in, like this case, over pizza, like, where it really is this kind of, like, power struggle for you to assert who you are and who you want to be in the face of somebody telling you that is not who you are - which is basically this kind of, like, ongoing thing that's happening sort of throughout this trip to New York - is, you know, characters, especially Dani, are trying to sort of just be who they are and kind of be their whimsical or thoughtful self. And they're constantly being knocked off by their, like, you know, like, little tiny soapbox by Fiona, who keeps asserting, like, you are not who you are. And I think that that whole thing is - it starts off in grade, like, five, and then it goes right until, like, you know, the retirement home, I'm sure.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah. Why did you choose 2009 and New York City as a setting for this story? I mean, it seems, like, very specific.

J TAMAKI: So I lived in New York 2005 to 2015, so that was right in the heart of my New York. You know, like...


J TAMAKI: ...New York is always changing. That New York doesn't really exist anymore, you know? And I was also teaching at art schools in the city at that time. So I was around a lot of 19, 20, 21-year-old kids that were viewing - that were, you know, for the most part, new to the city and viewing it through their eyes, as well. In addition to that, I think that the nature of travel has changed so much from 2009 to 2023. We don't travel the same way.


J TAMAKI: And it's sort of evidenced through, I guess, a little wink and nods through the book, although that - it is depicting a reality of printing out the MapQuests and...


J TAMAKI: ...Not...

RASCOE: Not - yeah...

J TAMAKI: Not turning...

RASCOE: There's no Uber. Yeah.

J TAMAKI: No, no. There's no Yelp review for you to go find the best ice cream in the neighborhood that you're in. You're just - there was a lot more, you know, roaming at that time. And so that was a fun parameter. It's - I think it's always more fun to play within a parameter than to have total freedom. And so there was, like, sort of a technological leash on these characters that wouldn't necessarily exist now where you would be in perfect touch. You know, you could just text somebody if you lost them in the city. That wasn't the case for these characters. And I think it was a great metaphor for - very common theme of our book is bad communication, miscommunication, you know, bad connection. And that seemed very apt to have - to throw, like, 2009-era cell phones in there.

RASCOE: That's Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. They are the authors of the new graphic novel "Roaming." Thank you so much for joining us.

J TAMAKI: Thank you.

M TAMAKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.