January 16, 2008
CR Review: Awkward & Definition
Touchstone, softcover, April 2008, $15.
1416552316 (ISBN10), 9781416552314 (ISBN13)
Not Your Brother's Autobiography
By Noah Berlatsky, Special to The Comics Reporter
I'll miss Slave Labor's edition of Ariel Schrag's high-school freshman aubobio comic Awkward
. The rudimentary cover art was charming, and it was cheap -- cheap enough that over time I probably purchased ten copies as gifts for friends, family, and neighbors. Now, though, Touchstone Books has bundled that first crude effort with Schrag's sophomore-year book, Definition
,under one glossy and decidedly ugly cover (yellowish orange... Why?) No matter. The stories are still there, and they remain a joy -- one of the most undervalued treasures of American comics.
I tend to loathe guy autobio comics; they are, as a whole, boring, storyless, solipsistic, and afflicted with the misconception that the author's genitals are of wide and general interest. But Schrag avoids that whole sensitive-new-age-guy cesspool. Her comics aren't in the male agonistic tradition of romantic/sexual Bildungsroman
-- instead, they're inspired by that most female of forms, the adolescent diary. Thus, where the guys are all about (tragic, repetitive, ultimately self-satisfied) disengagement, Schrag's comics are a chronicle of connection. Whether it's the cute boy in her gym class, film star Juliette Lewis, or Chemistry, Schrag is intensely emotionally engaged with the world outside her head. It's not exactly a surprise when Schrag decides she's bi at the beginning of Definition
-- every relationship she has, whether with boys, girls or bands, feels like a crush.
In Schrag's later stories like Potential
, all of the free-floating obsession and desire coalesces into a harrowing miasma. Here, though, the tone is lighter; less angst, more goofy anecdote. The feeling of the volume is not insular, but cozy -- like chatting with a good friend. Indeed, the style is so relaxed that it's easy to miss the care Schrag brings to her storytelling. The art is crude, especially in Awkward
, where the characters are little more than sketches and the backgrounds are nonexistent. But within her drafting limitations, the comics are remarkably sophisticated. In one sequence, for example, Schrag describes sneaking out at night to do graffiti, and notes that she and her friend Elizabeth "practiced closing the front door 50 times." Underneath the text, there's a panel tilted to the side, nicely indicating that it's a flashback, and you see Elisabeth standing beside a door which, as it closes, makes a slight click... to which Elizabeth responds "heard something." Elizabeth's eyes are rolled up and she's drawn without a mouth -- she looks like she is listening intently, but she also looks exasperated. In the context of the story, it's a quick, charming moment -- a small but perfect use of the comics form.
the art takes a huge leap forward -- cartooning is leavened with caricature, and solid blacks are used to much better effect. Schrag even starts to vary her style from scene to scene; a kiss is rendered in more realistic detail, while for an icky drunken three-way she moves the drawing towards the semi-grotesquerie of someone like Jhonen Vasquez. With her attention to the way story and art interact, and with her focus on relationships, Schrag really is much closer to something like shojo
than she is to her alt-boy autobio peers. No wonder Touchstone wants to reissue these. As the comics audience becomes younger, more female and (dare I say it) more discriminating, it seems like, at last, Ariel Schrag may get her due.
our thanks to Noah Berlatsky for his review; please consider bookmarking his site The Hooded Utilitarian for more like it.
posted 1:00 am PST
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