Interview With Ariel Schrag


At 27 years old, writer and cartoonist Ariel Schrag has published four comic books, penned a big-screen adaptation of one of them, been the subject of a documentary and been a staff writer on Showtime’s The L Word for two seasons. And Schrag started her thriving career young — she began as a teenager growing up in Berkeley, Calif., when she scrupulously documented her life in the autobiographical comic books Awkward, Definition, Potential and Likewise.

At a time when most people are painfully self-conscious and protective, Schrag exposed herself with an honesty and sharpness that captured the attention of underground comics and eventually led to a publishing deal with Slave Labor Graphics. Each book in the series examines a year in Schrag’s high school experience, including stories about intricate friendships and crushes, smoking pot in her bedroom, her parents’ divorce and the process of coming out as bisexual, and then as a lesbian.

After graduation, Schrag attended Columbia University to study English Literature. It was during her senior year there that director Sharon Barnes filmed the documentary Confession: A Film About Ariel Schrag, which won the NewFest Audience Award in 2004 and later aired on PBS.

Things have only picked up since then. Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics From an Unpleasant Age, an anthology she edited, is due out this month from Viking. And her two years on The L Word aren’t the last you’ll see of her work in Hollywood. Her book Potential — about her junior year in high school — was recently picked up by Killer Films. It will be directed by Rose Troche, and filming is expected to begin this summer. We recently talked with Schrag about coming out to her parents via her comic books, working on The L Word and her advice for aspiring cartoonists. As a writer and cartoonist, you’re known for your candor. How did your family react to the autobiographical comic book series you wrote in high school?

Ariel Schrag: They were into them. People ask that question because there’s a lot of sex and drugs, but there weren’t any repercussions. I don’t even remember feeling awkward about it. When Definition came out, I said to my dad: “You can look at this, but you can only comment on the art. You can’t comment on anything that’s happening.” He was like, “OK, I like this drawing here and that drawing there.” He just pushed past the naked pictures. I was so proud of what I had done that I wanted to share it with them; it just seemed silly to let something like that get in the way.

AE: How did they respond when you came out in the series?

AS: I don’t have a clear memory of that. After Definition, there was one time when my mom said, “So are you straight, lesbian or bisexual?” I felt awkward even though I had detailed it with precision in the comics, but in a way I think it made it easier. I could say, “Well, what do the comics say?”

After Potential came out, my dad said, “I didn’t know you were having such a hard time.” It was sweet. He felt he should respond in a parental way, but they never ever used the comic against me. They never used it as, “You’re doing this bad thing” or “You need to tell me about this part of your life now.” They were always very respectful.

AE: Were your parents artistic?

My dad was a really good artist. He became a lawyer, but for a long time he did a lot of art. He made an animated film based on Dracula and did illustration and drawings. And my mom is a composer. I was inspired by her when I was younger, living in the same house, because she was always working on her compositions. That just seemed like the thing to do: Stay in your room and work on your art. It’s as simple as the person is there doing it constantly. When you realize that’s the lifestyle, then you realize you can start doing it, too.

AE: What has the experience been like of adapting Potential into a film?

It’s been so fun. When I first took a crack at it, I didn’t know what I was doing, but by the second draft I thought I had something very good, and with that we got Rose Troche to direct. We worked together on fixing it up even more, and it became really tight.

Killer Films helped. They came to me and said they were interested in working together, and I said I’d like to adapt Potential. Also, my friends [helped]. I showed it to everybody, which was interesting because with comics, I’m very private. With the script, I held readings at my house. It was much more collaborative.

AE: Speaking of collaborations, how did you get involved in the book Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age?

AS: An editor at Viking approach me and was interested in doing something together. They have a young adult audience, and I said I had a comic I drew about middle school. They thought it was great [and asked if I could] do a book full of these things. I said what I’d really rather do is create an anthology, because I know so many great cartoonists. I was able to go to a lot of people who I love, so we came out with a really great collection.

AE: What was it like to take part in the documentary film Confession with Sharon Barnes?

That was my senior year in college. Sharon Barnes approached me with the idea, and I thought it sounded totally fun. My whole life people [have accused me] of taking other peoples’ lives and turning it into something — writing autobiography is complicated. When Sharon wanted to do this documentary, it felt like a great turning of the tables. The way you’re edited completely creates a personality for you the same way creating a comic book character does. I was basically putting myself in her hands and was going to have to deal with the image that she put out.

There are parts that make me cringe, but overall I’m really happy with it. Barnes made me feel really comfortable. They would give me little breaks to rest. You don’t realize how exhausting it is to have a camera on you at all times. I didn’t think about that part. They would leave the room and let me be alone for like 10 minutes, and I would just collapse. Even though I thought I’d been acting normally, I’d been much more on.

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