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Potential Ariel Schrag (Riverhead Books)

Because of their history of spandex and funny animals, comics creators have long yearned for greater respectability, and thanks to the literary memoir, they’ve found it. In the 80s Art Spiegelman showed the way, mining that wellspring of seriousness the Holocaust to produce the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. More recently, Marjane Satrapi, Craig Thompson, and David B. have published critically lauded memoirs, while Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a meditation on her father’s homosexuality and death, was widely cited as one of the best books (not comics—books) of 2006.

But the things that make comics memoirs attractive to the literary establishment are the very things that make me itch. The self-conscious embrace of a weighty theme (mass slaughter, Iranian theocracy, what have you), the self-conscious distancing of writer-as-writer from writer-as-actor, the self-conscious and pervasive nostalgia—it all seems unbearably smug and earnest and plodding.

Ariel Schrag’s comics are autobiographical, but they don’t belong in the highbrow tradition of literary memoir. Her three major books—Awkward, Definition, and Potential—each chronicle a year of her high school experience in Berkeley, but they don’t do the look-back-in-sorrowful-wisdom thing; instead, they’re more like on-the-scene reports. Potential, which covers her junior year, was recently republished by Touchstone Books as a trade paperback (the first two came out earlier this year in one edition, and Likewise, about her senior year, comes out this fall).

Written while Schrag was still an adolescent, Potential seems pitched more toward her peer group than the New York Times editorial board. It doesn’t have the purple rhetorical flourishes of Fun Home or the pomo magical realist tics of Maus. Its focus is the nonhighbrow subject of teen-girl angst.

Potential often sounds like a diary, stuffed with gossip, crushes, rampant hormones, and more gossip. Schrag draws a copy of her prom photograph, includes lyrics from a song her sort-of boyfriend wrote about her, and reprints in full notes her friends passed to her in class. The story is often driven by dialogue that sounds copied straight from life (and at various points in the book she’s seen compulsively taking notes). Text boxes don’t provide a stable narrative voice but rather a shifting, often breathless stream of consciousness, as Ariel obsesses about sex or relationships or clothes (“For awhile I’d felt that all my balance insecurities were cured by the rolling of my jeans, but all of a sudden it was like some shift in earth’s gravity had turned rolling into the enemy”).

Potential‘s open structure can make it seem unserious and unfocused, and, indeed, its opening pages aren’t especially emotionally fraught. It starts off as semi-comic teen melodrama. In the first sequence, Ariel decides, with cheerful enthusiasm, that she’s no longer bi but lesbian. She dumps her boyfriend (offstage and without much fuss) and starts dating a hot-but-ditzy girl named Alexis (drawn without eyeballs to make her seem especially vapid). This dalliance is a small disaster, and Ariel moves on to an alcohol-fueled make-out session with a friend named Harriet, and then to a relationship with Harriet’s older, intriguingly unapproachable sister Sally.

Schrag’s comic is always infused with a goofy humor—her love for Sally is cemented when they visit some farm animals, prompting Ariel to bellow during dinner with her family, “Sally Jults she likes goats!”—but as the story moves along it grows occasionally, and then definitively, dark. Sally, despite her love of goats, is moody and distant and—worst of all—not all that interested in sex. Ariel’s obsession with her spirals into paralyzing depression accompanied by compulsive spitting and drooling. When a half-asleep Sally crankily snaps at her to stop moving around, Ariel sits frozen in a chair for half an hour “imagining all the possible ways of mutilating my vagina.”

Schrag’s drawing skills have improved by leaps and bounds since her first comic, Awkward, but her figures remain fairly crude, and her layouts are messy. Still, she uses what she’s got, shifting her style to fit the emotional content. In scenes where she’s drunk the panel borders fuzz out and her cartoony characters stretch and distort. When she’s having some of her most painful discussions with Sally, the page turns into a neat grid, creating a sense of distance and emotional isolation. In her dream sequences, she uses a much more realistic style. In one dream Ariel has eaten a piece of chicken skin. Worried that this will horrify the vegan Sally, dream Ariel tries to throw up, drooling ineffectually into the toilet as she becomes more and more panicked. The realistic dream Ariel is so grotesque as she drools and shrieks it’s a relief when she wakes up a cute cartoon again, with wide open eyes that make her look appealingly, rather than disturbingly, freaked out.

Though there’s clearly a lot to be freaked out about, Schrag manages to present it with remarkable, almost clinical balance. She doesn’t use a nostalgic narrative voice to frame the events (like Bechdel’s in Fun Home), so she avoids the kinds of judgment and self-pity that often define memoir. Sally can definitely be cruel—when she doesn’t want to have sex, for example, she just shouts “Stop!” as if Ariel is some kind of recalcitrant puppy rather than her girlfriend. And it would be easy to see her as the bad guy. But Schrag doesn’t ask us to. Instead, we understand Sally’s ambivalence. When she breaks up with Ariel, she tells her, “I just can’t deal with feeling like I have to be a certain way.”

In fact throughout the comic Ariel seems obsessed with regulating feelings, both her own and those of others. Just before she turns 17 she insists on losing her virginity with a boy, even though she’s dating Sally (who gives her qualified blessing). Ariel flips out when Sally misses their six-month anniversary. She insists on going to the prom even though Sally really, really doesn’t want to. And her obsession with Sally is disturbing enough to watch—it couldn’t have been any picnic to be on the receiving end of it. “I can’t stand the idea of someone thinking about me all the time,” Sally says. Who can blame her?

But while Sally’s feelings are understandable, so are Ariel’s. During her junior year, her parents move toward a nasty divorce. She’s also struggling with her sexual identity, which feeds into her insecurity and neediness. As a queer, boyish girl, she fears that she’s undesirable and unnatural (a worry only fueled by Sally’s lack of interest in sex). Ariel may become obsessed with Sally because the rest of her life seems to be falling apart.

Schrag herself never comes out and says any of this; indeed, her touch with the material is so deft that it’s easy to feel that she’s not shaping it at all. She could have written with a heavier hand, spelling out every moral ambiguity and explicating each psychological nuance. Instead, Potential is messy and confusing, filled with shifting perspectives, odd random details, and sudden moments of despair and love. If it were easier to classify, it would have a larger audience, but it wouldn’t be nearly as great.v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com.

See OurChart.com for a video comic of chapter four of Potential, debuting June 20.