By Hillary Chute
Since Ariel Schrag’s Awkward—about her freshman year at Berkeley High School— and Definition—about her sophomore year—were first published in 1995 and 1996, Schrag has become something of a celebrity. The comics were first self-published, and sold within her high school, after which they were picked up and issued by Slave Labor Graphics, a house open to young talent that has published now-famous work like Dork by Evan Dorkin and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez. Schrag had one title for each year of high school: following Awkward and Definition were Potential and Likewise. After Berkeley High, Schrag attended Columbia as a literature major, and the year following her graduation she began teaching a graphic novel workshop at the New School and was the subject of a documentary film titled Confession: A Film About Ariel Schrag (which aired on PBS, among other venues). Schrag, while still in her early twenties, then became a writer for the enormously successful television show The L Word, which tracks the lives of a group of lesbian friends in LA. She stayed for two seasons (good ones, too!). Most recently, she wrote the screen adaptation to her book Potential—also re-released by Touchstone this year—which is being developed into a major motion picture (live-action, with some animation) by Killer Films (also behind Boys Don’t Cry and I’m Not There). Potential has also been adapted—a few episodes, at least—into a video-comic on the website www.ourchart.com.
But what she likes best, she says, is comics. “I like eating and sleeping and all of the natural pleasures of life—like sex—and playing with our dog, but really, there’s nothing quite like it,” she says of drawing comics, in a profile on ourchart. As someone who has been following her work since the 90s, it’s no surprise that major entities like Showtime and Touchstone (and Hollywood film) are eager to snap Schrag up. She’s savvy and funny. Although Awkward—bundled together with Definition in Touchstone’s reprint—isn’t what your average comics fan might consider highly accomplished, it brims with charm, both in the rounded, cartoony visuals, and in the texture of the story. I find it mesmerizing. Schrag, even at age 15, is a cartoonist whose ear for language and details and anecdotes surpasses many more established writers. Her drawing may not be “good” in Awkward—it’s not even as “good” in a technical sense as her senior-year comic; but it’s curiously enticing.
Awkward begins on a deceptively heavy note. The tone of Schrag’s book is one of its most interesting aspects. In Definition, she attends the Alternative Press Expo to promote Awkward; as readers leaf through the comic, a thought balloon reveals her hoping, “Please laugh, please laugh, please laugh.” There are plenty of truly amusing moments; I laughed out loud. But there are also serious themes threading through the book. Schrag—who later in high school comes out as gay—opens Awkward with that unsurprising 9th grade thing: a mega crush on a boy, Roy. This boy wears a t-shirt of the feminist band L7 (“Smell the Magic,” it proclaims, as someone’s head is lifted up to sniff a woman’s crotch), has long black hair, carries his disaffection openly. Page 1: “He was so good and he looked so good. He’s mine.” Page 2: they become friends and go jogging together until…. Page 3: Ariel on phone with best friend Julia, sobbing hysterically: “It’s Roy, he was beat up today, oh it’s SO HORRIBLE!.... I heard that some guys jumped him in the locker room and called him a long-haired faggot AAARRGGGHH and then they.. THEY BROKE HIS LEG snapped it right in half!” This event carries a lot of brutality; even so early into the book it comes as a slowing-down moment. And then page 4: Ariel is excited about going to a Nine Inch Nails show. This is what high school is really like, and there’s no self-consciousness on Schrag’s part as author, even as the self-consciousness of her character becomes one of the book’s consistent themes. (Speaking of shows: the music tastes of Ariel and her peers is a big part of the book, and a fascinating one: an informal tally of music mentioned in this collection includes the Misfits, Marilyn Manson, Soundgarden, Minor Threat, P.I.L., the Doors, Tracy Chapman, Alice in Chains, Hole, Danzig, Korn, Lemonheads, 4 Non Blondes, Sonic Youth, Counting Crows, Bikini Kill, Redd Kross, Rancid, Pennywise, Belly, Primus, No Doubt, The Cramps, Juliana Hatfield, the Violent Femmes. Awkward and Definition offer a lot about what 90s youth culture was like; it’s also sort of anthropologically interesting to note the standards of “cool” for these Berkeley High kids, who probably have a different high school experience, at least on one level, than most.)
Awkward shows the cohort smoking pot, seeing bands, nursing celebrity and high school obsessions (for Ariel, it’s Juliette Lewis, and a boy named Michael), and navigating the, yes, awkwardness of the fabric of high-school friendships with both romantic and platonic intimates (Schrag is best, here, at getting at the horror of being ditched by a platonic female friend). And the ending of Awkward is quietly sad: although the text itself doesn’t present it as such, any reader might be apt to feel some dismay: Ariel sees Roy again for the first time since the beating, on the book’s last page. Gone are his black clothes. Gone is his long black hair. He looks quiet and nondescript, wearing a backpack and short hair; he’s blending in. Ariel runs up to him and asks him, “You never wear your L7 t-shirt anymore—will you sell it to me?” Roy says simply, “You can have it,” and the last panel pictures Ariel wearing “Smell the Magic” proudly. She’s happy, but there’s a sadness here: the bullies, it seems, have won; he no longer wants to code as rebellious, as “faggot.” She takes his t-shirt, and, in the next installment, Definition, she starts taking up the “gay” mantle—at least a little bit.
One link between Awkward and Definition has to do with tagging. In Awkward, Ariel creates a word, “Denial,” in a special font. “I’ve practiced piecing it a little. I like doing characters,” she explains, and she goes out with spray paint to give it a try on the side of a building. Page 1 of Definition also features the word “denial”—screamed at her, in fact, by an out lesbian named Alicia: “DENIAL!,” Alicia crows. “Somebody’s in denial! There’s no way you are completely straight! From 0-6 you are a 2-4-, I’m a 6!” While Ariel denies it, by the time Alicia asks her at the end of sophomore year, “Get with any fine girls recently?” Ariel responds cheerfully, “I wish.” Definition, whose drawing is slightly more honed than Awkward, presents the same mix of high school obsessions. Part of the reason it’s easy to stick with Ariel as a character is because she is, after all, so well-roundedly unboring: there’s plenty of drunken fooling around (some of which, with boys, is actually disturbing) and fun-seeking (also disturbing: there are several episodes of really high or really drunk girls getting literally lost; in one, Schrag writes, “After walking by numerous nightclubs and bars full of drunk rapists we found a lone 22 bus stop…”), but she also has a “delicious obsession,” AP Chemistry (41), and she’s trying, really hard, to get A’s in school, even as she struggles with crushes on girls that swerve her focus.
In the end, you get the feeling that Schrag is not only a compelling author, but her character is an admirably smart kid: of her major sexual obsession, a twenty-year-old face-pierced beauty named Rosary, she finally observes: “While in some ways looking into her face could cause all sorts of complications and obstructions in my mind it was also just like staring into a blank cement wall. All the uproar and thrill was always just my own creation. And as I thought about it, what it really came down to was being attracted to your own mind” (78). I wish I knew that when I was 16. She also gets an A in Chemistry.