Ariel Schrag compulsively cataloged her life as a queer teenager at Berkeley High School in the ’90s, creating unblinking portraits of young lust, rejection, and the struggle for authenticity that make for a Robert Crumb-meets-Judy Blume experience: neuroses you can find solace in. Schrag, now 29, produced one graphic novel for each school year, scoring a contract at 17 for the series’ third book, Potential—which won an Eisner Award nomination and is now in development as a feature film. Likewise is the long-awaited final chapter, looking at that fateful year between adolescence and young adulthood. In advance of her readings tonight and tomorrow at The Charm City Kitty Club in Baltimore, Schrag spoke to The A.V. Club about managing to graduate high school—if not from her debilitating crush—with a little help from James Joyce and her dutiful tape recorder.
The A.V. Club: Likewise is the last book in your series about high school, which you’ve actually been working on since high school. How does it feel to be done?
Ariel Schrag: It feels really good. I felt like I really had to do it before I turned 30. That just would have been too old. So, the last year and a half was non-stop work—drawing 16 hours a day. I feel really happy with how it turned out. It’s really dense, too. There lots of little things in there to mull over.
AVC: Is it strange to have your adult career so attached to the person you were as a teenager?
AS: When I meet new people, sometimes I don’t always want them to read the books right away. I want to have a chance to show them who I am now. Especially with someone I’m dating—I don’t want them to think that I’m still this really desperate teenager. I think there’s something really charged about being a teenager. It’s why I like Gossip Girl now. It’s all the same emotions we experience now, just to a really exaggerated extreme.
AVC: There’s a lot of angst about a relationship you have with a girl named Sally, who you’re in love with but who isn’t really gay. It’s a specific kind of rejection that turns into obsession and shame. You’re very confessional about it.
AS: The confessional thing for me had a lot to do with being a teenager and this obsession with truth-telling—with not being fake, with getting to the core of something. You’re becoming an adult and you want to feel like you’re not deluding yourself.
AVC: A phony, like in Catcher In The Rye?
AS: Yeah, exactly. That obsession with not being phony. I wanted to include all the shameful stuff and all the embarrassing stuff. I wanted to tell it like it was.
AVC: There’s a tradition of that in comics—I’m thinking of Robert Crumb.
AS: Robert Crumb inspired Joe Matt and Joe Matt inspired me. He has a comic called Peepshow, and it’s all about him masturbating and dubbing porn and being an asshole. It was my favorite comic in 11th grade. I’d say my two biggest influences in writing Likewise were James Joyce and Joe Matt. So, you get these stream-of-consciousness drawings of nonstop masturbation.
AVC: At the end of Catcher In The Rye, Holden Caulfield says, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Do you ever feel like sharing all these details of your life makes it less yours?
AS: Sometimes I do feel sort of exposed in a certain way. It’s a trade-off because it’s also a way to be closer to people. The whole goal of writing is to be able to communicate with people. But sometimes it feels weird having these really personal things floating around for someone to flip through [when they're] bored in a bookstore.
AVC: The styles in Likewise change abruptly throughout the book. Some are very shaded and detailed, some just sketched roughly.
AS: Each style matches a different form of storytelling. The first half of the book is told in this sort of stream-of-consciousness of what the character is thinking. As it continues, she gets obsessed with recording everything. It becomes a sort of escape. I didn’t have to think about what was actually happening. What was important was how I was going to record it. The only thing that mattered was how I was going to turn it into a comic. In the book’s second half, you have the story being told through what was recorded, in my diary, or with my mini tape recorder.
AVC: How do you do live readings of your comic?
AS: I’ll be reading and doing a slideshow—flipping through the frames of the comic like a little movie. It’s a recent thing that cartoonists have been able to do with the evolution of PowerPoint. Some of them are better with other actors, so I’ll get someone to read with me.
AVC: The series’ third book, Potential, is being made into a film directed by Rose Troche from The L Word, Go Fish, and The Safety Of Objects. How true will the film be to the comic?
AS: We met doing The L Word, and she’s really perfect for this. She completely gets this stuff, and I think she’ll be really great at having those elements come out in the story. But we also want teenagers to be able to see the movie. So there’s an issue about what you can include and still get a PG-13 rating.
AVC: Any concern it will go the way of Les Girls? Will you end up being Jenny Schecter?
AS: It’s the classic story, right? Your life story being turned into a shitty movie. I have a lot of faith in Rose. The bigger fear is that it will go straight to DVD.