In the mid-90s, I moved to Chicago, and for the first time in my life had access to comic stores that carried an extensive range of indie titles. Some of these comics were interesting, some mediocre, some frankly bad. But there were two creators who dazzled me. Chris Ware was one. The other was a high-school -age, autobio comic writer named Ariel Schrag.
Schrag’s artwork was about as far as possible from Ware’s dazzling technical proficiency. What she had going for her was simple: she was one of the best pure story-tellers I had ever read, in any medium. She had a perfect eye for detail, a lovely sense of structure, and her jokes were laugh-out-loud funny. Even more remarkable in an autobiographical writer, her work was neither solipsistic nor self-pitying. Instead, Schrag’s witing was strangely, and often painfully, objective. Gossip, crushes, teen angst — all were portrayed with gushing enthusiasm, but also with a level of detachment. As a result, Schrag’s books were open-ended; family, friends, acquaintances, and Schrag herself all come under the same cold (though not unsympathetic) scrutiny. For example, the emotional center of “Awkward,” Schrag’s first collection, is the intense (non-sexual, non-romantic) friendship between Schrag and an older student named Meg. The girls’ motivations are largely opaque to the reader, to each other, and to themselves, and the final low-key but traumatizing break-up is described not so much without blame, as without any indication that blame is even an option. The questions and emotions raised by the interaction aren’t turned into any kind of transcendent realization or epiphany — they just sit there, a heavy, unreconciled weight.
“Awkward” was pretty great, but Schrag’s later books were even better. As she went along, she moved into more and more demanding material: her parents’ divorce; a series of abusive relationships; her struggles with her sexual identity. By her last series, “Likewise”, which covered her senior year, Schrag had developed a claustrophobic interior focus. Both the comics’ language and art shifted and contracted vertiginously, depending on her emotional state. The story could be hysterically funny — as in her lengthy description of her inability to wear low-slung jeans. It could also be harrowing, as in a time-distorted, Kafkaesque encounter with her ex. But even as her material became more subjective, Schrag retained her clinical objectivity; the result is a kind of ruthless vivisection which begins with Schrag herself and extends to everything and everyone she encounters or cares about. If you haven’t read it, you’re missing out; it’s one of the great achievements of contemporary comics.
Or it would have been if she’d finished it. Unfortunately, issue #3 of 8 came out two years ago, and then…nothing. Schrag, who had graduated from college, moved on to other projects — most notably writing for the television drama “The L-word” — and her series was left in limbo. Schrag herself went from being criminally undervalued to virtually invisible. Even her publisher, Slave Labor, seemed to have forgotten about her; at least, I couldn’t find anyone there who would return my calls and tell me where she was. (UPDATE: In the comments to this post, Slave Labor’s Editor in Chief Jennifer de Guzman objects to this characterization, and provides some more details about the relationship between Schrag and SLG.)
Luckily, thanks to the miracle that is Google, I was able to track Schrag down anyway — and I was pleased to discover that she is, in fact, far from being done with comics. In fact, she just finished editing an anthology of strips about Middle School for Viking Children’s Books titled “Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age.” It’s due for release in August 2007 and will feature new work by Gabrielle Bell, Dash Shaw, Lauren Weinstein, Ariel Bordeaux and Aaron Renier, as well as reprints by Dan Clowes and Joe Matt. Schrag also included two of her own strips — one, entitled “Shit,” salvaged from Megan Kelso’s ill-fated “Scheherezade.”
Even more welcome is the news that Schrag plans to finish “Likewise.” As she noted at the beginning of the published issues, the entire comic was drawn years ago — all she has left is the inking. When I spoke to her in late October, she said that she had finished about 200 pages out of 358 — so she could in theory put out issue #4 of the series now. But instead, Schrag has decided to finish the entire story and then publish it in book form. When this will happen is a little unclear, since she has to devote most of her time to other, paying projects. But “I have to finish it before I’m 30,” Schrag (who’s now 26) insisted. “That’s the time limit I’ve put on myself. Hopefully it’ll be done in the next two years, but it’ll absolutely be done before I’m 30.”
In the meantime, Schrag’s written a bunch of other comics. A few of these were collected in “Linens and Things,” a zine she self-published in 2003 — and she hopes to collect even more in a larger volume with the same title. “Some of [the strips] are strict autobiography,” she said, “and some are more experimental. But a lot of it is just being inspired to tell stories in a different way.” For example, some of the strips are told through the voice of her girlfriend, with Schrag herself as a supporting character. Another group of drawings was prompted by James Kochalka’s Sketchbook Diaries: Schrag did a comic a day for four months while she was studying abroad in Berlin.
The photocopied version of “Linens and Things” had a couple of fictional stories too, a significant switch for Schrag. In a 1999 interview for the website Sequential Tart, Schrag said that she was “totally disinterested” in fantasy. But her experience writing for the “L-word” has helped to change her mind. Now she finds fiction fascinating, in part because its sources are mysterious. In autobiography, you know pretty much where your stories are coming from, but “in fiction, you’ll let [an idea] come from somewhere you aren’t as conscious of, and then you’ll go back over it and say, huh, this relates to my life in this way, or I probably got this from that, and you can speculate,” she said.
The “L-Word” has also provided a sense of community. Television is a collaborative process; six or seven writers gather together, knock around ideas, talk some more, revise, and so forth. In contrast, Schrag said, “drawing comics is really lonely. That’s what wonderful about comics; it’s all yours, just you and the paper. But then I’m also young. I don’t want to live the life of the hidden away man in glasses hunched over a desk all the time.”
Schrag also found the discipline of writing for a larger audience interesting. “For ‘Likewise’ I was so inspired by *Ulysses,* I wanted to spend 50 pages of just riding on a bus and not talking to anyone and just thinking, or I wanted to have something which didn’t make sense, or only made sense to me and would hopefully make some sort of interesting sense to somebody else in their own life. And now on the ‘L-word’ I’ve gotten to experience the other side of creation, not that we’re catering to a certain kind of writing, but telling something for story effect..”
For all these reasons, Schrag’s eager to work on other television projects if the opportunity presents itself. And she’s also been moving forward on a feature-film version of Potential (the story of her junior year) — the script is written and director Rose Troche (Go Fish, The Safety of Objects) has signed on. Still, Schrag said, “I don’t feel that I’m moving away from comics. They’ll always be my heart. They’ll always be the way that I want to tell a story more than anything.” And she added, “I get the most inspired or I feel the most drive to do autobiographical stories; for me it’s this obsession with holding on to the past.” She still keeps a diary and hordes scraps of paper. “Whenever something happens, “ she said, “it flashes across my mind into comics form. I don’t always get to write all of those down, but the idea of turning those events into comics is really exciting to me. The fictional stuff is more sort of fun, but I don’t have the same compulsion to do it.”
While she’s committed to comics as a form, Schrag agreed that her presence in the comics scene has diminished considerably. In part, this is because her own interest has waned. “When I was a teenager, going to conventions and doing all that was so exciting to me, and all that attention that all the creepy old men paid to me was, y’know, gross, but appealing in its own way. And then at a certain point it just stopped being as exciting.”
Part of her disinterest in the comics scene, though, is because of its disinterest in her. “I never got the props I felt I really deserved,” she admitted. “It sometimes would annoy me when I would see people getting attention that I felt I should have gotten, or should get. But at the same time I feel I get that respect from other places.” She added that *The Comics Journal* itself had done little to acknowledge her work. “I just always had this vision that my movie would come out and they’d all come crawling back,” she laughed. “And I’d be like, ‘Too late. You should have liked me back when I was doing comics, not movies.’ But I guess that never happened.”
When asked if she thought that the lack of respect was because she was a woman, Schrag seemed annoyed but didn’t exactly disagree. “I don’t want to sit around and complain about being a woman or being gay, or whatever it is you’re supposed to be being oppressed for. You know, I think it goes both ways. I think that women in general don’t get as much respect [in comics]. I think some people hear about me and they pigeon-hole my work as being gay. But then again I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job on ‘The L-word’ if I weren’t gay. It’s not really worth agonizing or even wondering…the people who want to appreciate it can and will.
“Me and Gabrielle Bell get together and sometimes we just talk about how annoying it is that there’s all these young, indie boy cartoonists, and their comics are all style and no substance, and they just get so much attention, and it’s just like, why? It’s true more so in comics, more so than in other mediums. You’ll read people say about a woman cartoonist, ‘That’s in the style of Phoebe Gloeckner and Julie Doucet,’ and the woman cartoonist has nothing more in common with those cartoonists than anyone else, except that she’s a woman. Comics is still very much a man’s world. It’s so irritating to have to talk about that now. I mean if I’m talking to you, why should I have to talk about being a woman? It’s so unfortunate.”
Whatever her frustrations with the comics scene, Schrag was clear that she was still involved in it. “I may not go to all the conventions, but I still love comics. Stuff like Julie Doucet dropping out of comics really depresses me. And she’s got her own agenda in life, I’m not judging her, but it’s sad that she doesn’t do it. I wouldn’t want anybody to think that I’ve gone down a similar path.”
First published in The Comics Journal #282 from April 2007
My review of the Touchstone Books reissue of Ariel Schrag’s books Awkward and Definition, is on the Comics Reporter website here.
Ariel Schrag has also contributed a piece to the Gay Utopia symposium I’m putting together. Other contributors will include Dame Darcy, Johnny Ryan, Lilli Carré, Ursula K. Le Guin, and a whole host of others. I’m hoping to post it in a couple of months; check back here for details.