ARIEL SCHRAG, SUBJECT & OBJECT
“I don’t wanna write something that like, other people would read, flipping through, I’d wanna write something important, you know?”
When I read any fictional work, as much as I try not to, I’m always reading it as disguised autobiography. Most manga, as much as I like it, is mainstream genre fiction: written to satisfy a perceived market, rigidly editorially controlled, and produced in discrete chapters and story arcs. Artists are not encouraged to get personal; only a few Hideo Azumas and Yoshihiro Tatsumis, and possibly artists like Hiroyuki Takei whose interests show through in their mainstream work, share their lives with the reader on anything but the most trivial subjects (“I got a cyst on my finger from drawing too much…I love model kits!…Did you see the new Harry Potter?”). Looking for the artist behind the work usually leads either to opaque psychoanalysis (the uniformly corrupt portrayal of sexuality and adulthood in the work of Kazuo Umezu, the androgynous bisexuality of The Rose of Versailles) or the torture-gameshow appeal of watching artists crack and strain under the pressure of their deadlines, producing noble failures which spin off track in interesting ways (the endings of Ashita no Joe, the crassly-marketed-yet-personal anime Neon Genesis Evangelion). Contrarily, American comics culture, even the commercial side, tends towards the idea of “comic artist as rock star.”
So, while I admire formal skill in storytelling, I also have a weak point for art as voyeurism. This cult of personality was part of what drew me to autobiographical comics in the 1990s, a world about as different from manga as possible, although it shared a taste for nice black and white linework. I am the worst type of autobio comics reader. The feeling of a personal connection with the artist, however imaginary, was what got me reading artists like Howard Cruse (furtively, secretly), Gabrielle Bell, Juliet Doucet and Ariel Schrag. I want to feel that I am watching artists go insane for their work, martyrs like Joe Matt, whose works have a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” quality, and Dave Sim. My shamelessly prurient tastes in “autobio” could be gleaned by the fact that I didn’t read much Harvey Pekar (middle-aged guy, mundane daily issues, who cares) or pre-Fun Home Alison Bechdel (too adult, too secure in its sexuality). Rather, I would have been a perfect target for Benjamin Godfrey’s forgotten 1990s minicomic Girltrap, a spiritual precursor to the fake video blog “lonelygirl15,” which Godfrey wrote under the pen name “Betty Godsmear” as a parody of the whole girl-who-exposes-her-life-to-mostly-male-readers phenomenon (“In this issue: Panties! Stoned! Handcuffs!…Sorry, gang! Less sex in this issue than in the past! But look for my sex tips issue, coming soon!”). Apart from the fact that the other person’s life was presented as “real”, was this fetishistic fascination with another person’s life really so different from Japanese moe manga, those creepy-sweet stories about the cutesy lives of teenage girls, stories consumed by male readers by the ton? So my first reaction to Ariel Schrag’s Definition and Potential was voyeuristic (“She’s so awesome! So insightful! So angsty!”) and only secondarily to appreciate the formal and artistic qualities of her work.
Ten years later, reading different analyses of Schrag’s graphic novels, I’m wary of the trap of thinking of them as “just lala girl story” (to quote Schrag), of basically admiring Definition and her other early works as a kind of teenage art naive, the work of comics’ child star. It’s the same reaction made by many people within Likewise itself, who are disappointed by the clinical nature of Potential (an appropriate feel to a work which draws its metaphors from laboratory science) compared to the exuberance of Definition. To dismiss Likewise for not being Definition is to dismiss Schrag for growing up. Admittedly, my own initial reaction to Likewise was disappointment too. Partially, this was from reading the beginning of the story in the floppy comics form, for which it simply wasn’t suited. But part of it was from the wordy, challenging narrative (my reading muscles made flabby by manga), and the growing distance of the author, the lack of the eagerness which dominated her earlier works. It’s an eagerness which Schrag herself parodies, when she imagines flinging herself under the wheels of a car, a regressive act drawn in Definition‘s chirpy, regressive style. In Likewise Schrag’s art is better (less stiff than Potential) and her dialogue more finely heard than ever, but the emotions which ran wildly throughout the earlier works are now subtler and increasingly mitigated by self-analysis. The dewy-eyed Ariel Schrag who in earlier books had sometimes seemed carried along by the tides, who suffered through unrequited crushes and objectification (whether within the story, or from readers and fans like me) begins Likewise very much as a subject, by breaking up with her girlfriend. Throughout the book Schrag continues to be the primary actor, the experimenter, taking matters (and dildos) into her own hands. And most of all, pens; she self-documents with many tools and layers of narrative, her tape recorder, her notebook, her art. Like Eddie Campbell’s The Fate of the Artist, or Joe Matt’s comics, it becomes the story of the telling of a story, but it generally stays unpretentious, and for every panel at the drawing desk there are ten others outside it.
Reading Likewise as it’s now printed, as a single 350+ page graphic novel, takes care of my problems with the pacing. The story moves at first slowly and then with accelerating speed, changing and disintegrating (and sometimes reforming) as it goes, like Schrag’s uncertain family situation, like her feelings on homosexuality, like her love for her ex-girlfriend Sally. In the spirit of a senior year in high school, Likewise gives a sense of waiting, of frustration, but also of purpose, of climbing page by page to the top of a mountain of pages (and experiences) to “the point of no return.” The first two-thirds of the book, the most linear part, is an excruciating portrayal of a post-breakup, a breakup so intense it causes Schrag to question not only her own sexuality but her gender and the entire biological purpose and existence of homosexuality. None of these “arcs” have tidy endings; just when we think Sally is out of Schrag’s mind, she reappears in some other form. The story contains, not emotional climaxes, but emotional fades and dissolves. A relationship only “ends” when every possible combination of the players has been tried and retried. There are no one-liners or unquestioned pearls of wisdom, the kind Schrag’s mom tries to throw out (this is documentary realism all right, having your parents suggest things you should put in your comics). The discussions of “It” (who has “It” and who doesn’t) feel like high-school cliquishness disguised as philosophy, but Schrag faithfully documents this stage in her life along with the rest.
If I could only use one word to describe Likewise, it would be “deliberate”; deliberate choices of what to put in and leave out, subtle effects of insertion (pun intended) and repetition, making a story out of the information overload of life. Having never read Ulysses, I can’t offer an analysis of Schrag’s James Joyce influence, but that’s fine, since Likewise obviously contains more personal and textual references than any one person can get apart from Schrag herself. I think this is the natural outcome of epic, solo comics produced without editorial interference; the tremendous time spent alone, thinking and drawing, makes one want to put everything into the work, and why not? Some reviewers have commented that the increasing (if always selective) sketchiness of the art in the last 1/3rd shows that Schrag was growing tired of the story, as she finished inking her high school epic into (presumably) her mid-20s. But this suggestion isn’t incompatible with a conscious choice: as Schrag cuts her emotional ties to Sally and to high school, as she lets go, the art breaks apart, fading into the past, focusing only when it needs to. The book’s vocabulary of formal and stylistic tricks is huge and sometimes hard to analyze, but it succeeds in that you never have to stop to analyze it; the length and scope of the work gives each technique its time and place. Both visually and textually, it’s dense and deliberate and emotionally affecting, and it establishes Schrag firmly as more than a character in her own story, but as a comics creator of tremendous ambition and skill. And her minicomics are good too.
Update by Noah: The whole Likewise Roundtable is here.