Thursday, May 14, 2009

Self-Portrait of the Artist: Likewise

Rob reviews Ariel Schrag's autobiographical high school epic, LIKEWISE (Touchstone Books).

Ariel Schrag long ago carved out a unique niche for herself in comics with the release of her first work, AWKWARD. She wrote and drew an autobiographical account of her ninth grade experiences immediately following the conclusion of ninth grade. She did the same for her next book, DEFINITION, a comic that started to gain her a good bit of notice and began a chain of events where experiences and the recording & interpretation of those experiences started to blur together. Her next project, POTENTIAL, was a series that was later collected and was considerably more complex than her earlier works. While she wrote this account of her junior year during her senior year, it took her a lot longer to actually finish drawing and inking the book. LIKEWISE, her senior year chronicle, took a year to write, but she only just finished inking and had it published it a decade later.

LIKEWISE is a glorious mess. It's a reflection of an artist who was simultaneously fully coming into her own and a young woman grappling with an identity crisis on several levels. There are so many conflicting artistic agendas in this book that one almost needs a scorecard. Part of this is due to the way Schrag was cycling through her influences so quickly. She started reading James Joyce's ULYSSES as a senior and suddenly her work took on the time-fractured, stream-of-consciousness nature of Joyce's fiction. At the same time, LIKEWISE has a decidedly postmodern bent, with Schrag pulling away from the narrative to make metatextual comments. Schrag was also constantly aware of the need to entertain and dramatize; she deliberately veered from pages of navel-gazing into over-the-top situations. She reveled in the depiction of tenseness and unraveling normalcy, like a scene at a family birthday party where her mother and aunt engaged in escalating hostilities. It's clear that Schrag wanted the audience to simultaneously laugh and squirm even as she depicted herself as being paralyzed when the whole event was going down.

What prevented this all from becoming too clever or jumbled for its own good was the way Schrag's work really served to document a young person coming to grips with their own obsessive disorder. While Schrag didn't precisely spell this out, she gave the reader enough clues to figure out what's going on. The first is when she talked about being a child obsessed with disease and coming up with rituals that would help "prevent" her from getting them, finally needing therapy to work through it. While she worked through the compulsive element, her work stands as a monument to the way art can be both therapeutic and an impediment to growth. Recording her life as a comic became the center of her life, to the point where she started to think of everything in how it would translate as part of her story. She started keeping files and photos on the people she hung out with, and went as far as tape recording them in LIKEWISE. It's telling that when she finally started to cut off contact with an ex-girlfriend, she was distressed because she didn't have the right reference photos for the comic and desperately wanted her to pose for them.

Schrag's comics started as fun, carefree ways of recording her experiences, obsessions and relationships. AWKWARD, contrary to its title, lacked almost any sense of self-consciousness or attention to style. DEFINITION, on the other hand, was heavy-handed at times in the way she was trying to integrate visual styles she found interesting (like graffiti art) into her own work. The way she picked through the narrative to create something coherent made it ring the most false of all her comics, even as it read the smoothest. POTENTIAL was remarkable because Schrag never depicted herself as a sympathetic character in any manner, even with a girlfriend who grew increasingly cold and distant. Even though that book shifted its focus from what she experienced at school to the way her relationship consumed her, it maintained its illusion of being about "now".

LIKEWISE smashes that illusion even as she told a very loosely linear chronology of the year. In the book's prelude, Schrag depicted a conversation between herself and her ex, Sally, where Sally noted "You might as well call the next book 'writing Potential'". LIKEWISE was not about Schrag's senior year, but was rather about an obsessive person trying to write, in the most minute and painful detail, about an experience that consumed her. Eventually, Schrag started to understand that her obsession started to make her a snake eating its own tail. Memory and experience started to blur together, where recording her immediate thoughts almost started to supercede having other experiences. There was a point in LIKEWISE where she realized that she had to stop what she was she doing in terms of her obsessive recording of every moment if she was going to move on in her life. At that same point, she also knew that the comic was the only thing keeping her together even as her life was falling apart in other ways. The divorce and increasing weirdness of her parents, her inability to cope with Sally, and the fracturing of friendships coincided to turn making the comic from creative outlet to last tether to sanity & stability. Of course, if POTENTIAL at its heart was about Schrag's inability to see how she wound up in obsessive situations, then LIKEWISE brought with it the dawning realization that she brought most of her problems on herself.

One of the more interesting things about Schrag's work is that her books tended to reflect aspects of whatever her current academic obsession was. In DEFINITION, it was chemistry, which spilled over into the obvious ways in which people combined. In POTENTIAL, it was biology, and she really ran with this idea both in terms of the individual structure of each chapter and the ways in which she looked to science to solve her own identity crisis. Her own homophobia is a running theme throughout both POTENTIAL and LIKEWISE, as Schrag becomes obsessed with trying to prove to herself scientifically that homosexuality isn't an aberration. That sort of scientific flatness was a nice complement to the teenage diary feel of her narration.

LIKEWISE dwells a bit more on literary devices as Schrag systematically reveals and dismantles all of her own comics-making techniques. The problem in the first section is that the Joycian techniques combined with high school angst made for a tough slog at times. When Schrag was dealing with her family or wondering out loud about the ineffable concept of "it", a sort of sense of total aesthetic balance, the first section really pops. When Schrag goes back into moping about Sally by way of Joyce and the text piles up on the page, LIKEWISE becomes a frustrating read. Interestingly, at the climax of a huge, dramatic revelation by Sally that included the carefully-detailed anecdote of Schrag wetting herself, Schrag-the-writer pulls back and flashes forward to herself writing this segment. This is when LIKEWISE starts to get interesting and Schrag uses the structure of comics to get at what Joyce did rather than simply write in stream-of-consciousness style.

The rest of the book is fragmented, with certain images repeating as Schrag nonetheless keeps up the roughly linear chronology. Details of certain events are parsed out slowly and obliquely, only to be referred to again and again. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is when Schrag really starts to get more daring with her visuals. It helped that LIKEWISE was printed on better paper than any of her Slave Labor books were, but she didn't quite have the chops to pull off a few of the things she did in this book in the past. Schrag alternates between her heavily-crosshatched and more densely rendered style to a scribbly & sloppy line that represents the immediacy of a diary (and open wound) to a dazzling scratchboard technique to a greyscaled, more naturalistic line. Schrag's strength was always in her use of gesture and expression, and her scribblier drawings carry feeling and the immediacy of crazy moments better than her more tightly rendered drawings. This is also reflected in her lettering, which varies from standard print on what's deliberately drawn as something ripped out from a sketchbook to her smaller, more precise lettering style to a more frantic scrawl.

In the book's final section, Schrag's chapters start to get shorter and shorter as she barrels toward the end. She's no longer going on at length about how she feels, and instead just gives us quick snapshots and anecdotes, allowing the reader to fill in the details. It's the kind of restraint that Schrag never used in the rest of her work; her style has always been about a frontal assault of sorts on the reader--take it or leave it. This most-fractured segment of the book is also about her increasingly fractured personality, as she questions her sexuality and is forced to confront her burgeoning celebrity with a certain segment of youth culture. This is reflected in her experiences with her oldest friend, who talks about the way people talk to Schrag, and Schrag herelf owns up to using that celebrity at times for her own purposes. The book's last two chapters are a sort of recapitulation of the rest of the book, both in terms of story and art, as Schrag goes from a goofy cartoon depiction of herself to that greyscale version and then back to her standard style. The book ends on a goofy, self-effacing note, deflating both the expectations of senior year of high school and her own obsessions, leaving the reader with a protagonist who is perhaps at last a bit more comfortable in her own skin.

Reading LIKEWISE is frequently a rocky and frustrating experience, but Schrag's sheer ambition and drive behind this comic is so compelling that one can't help but get swept along. It's fascinating to see the decisions she makes as a storyteller and autobiographer, since the concerns of one are frequently not the same as the other. Schrag pointedly shows herself as difficult to interact with and love, even when the narrative is driven by teenaged Schrag's righteous anger against the world. Schrag's pain came from both internal and external sources, and while her identity and output as an artist probably wasn't the ideal way to cope, it was all she felt she could cling to at the time. That desperation made for a commitment to the story at all costs, and it's the depth of her commitment that makes LIKEWISE such a compelling read.

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