If there’s a word that describes Ariel Schrag’s comics, it’s “immediacy.” Her work—whether her early stuff, created while she was a young high-schooler, or her more recent comics—feels like it’s poured straight from her brain onto the paper. Sometimes that’s not a good thing. Work that comes across so unfiltered can be weak or unfocused. But Schrag makes it work, even when her drawing is less polished (it gets more so) and her narratives don’t drive toward a clear point. She flays herself for her reader but also in what seems like a process of unburdening herself. Part of It: Comics and Confessions includes work that’s been published elsewhere but also some that hasn’t. It doesn’t go up to the present, but it does cover parts of Schrag’s life from age six to 26, which one might call the most important years of forming one’s personality. It seems especially meaningful if you came of age around the same time Schrag did, or at least that’s how I read it, as I can’t help but do otherwise. The bands, the clothing styles, the ways in which friends hung out, the relative lack of technology, the desperate desire to find one’s people and seem cool—all of it hits me straight in the gut. She’s like a more hard-edged Leslie Stein, with her wide-eyed characters eager to take in the world. Schrag managed to find a few minutes between chasing her toddler to answer some questions about where she came from as an artist and how she remembers her past so clearly.
Part of It: Comics and Confessions Cover Art by Ariel Schrag
Paste: You started publishing your comics while you were still in high school. What gave you the self-confidence to do that?
Schrag: I wrote my first comic, Awkward, about my freshman year of high school because I wanted a fun activity to do over the summer. I wasn’t initially planning on publishing it. When I finished, I felt proud of it, but didn’t know what to do, so it just sat in my drawer. I finally asked my mom, “What am I doing with my comic?” and she said, “Well, why don’t we go down to the photocopy store and make copies and you can sell them.” So I did, for five dollars to friends and family. Everyone seemed to like it, which gave me the motivation to do another.
Paste: Did your mom read your comic before she suggested you photocopy it? It seems like your parents were pretty hands-off. Have they always been supportive?
Schrag: Both of my parents were always supportive of my comics, even when the comics depicted me doing sexual things and drinking and smoking pot and, most graciously, even when I depicted my parents themselves in a less than flattering light. Before I gave them the comics to read I would say, “You’re allowed to comment on the art, but not the content.” And they always respected that.
Paste: Do you think growing up in Berkeley presented you with a wider range of possible experiences than growing up in, say, rural Idaho would have?
Schrag: Growing up in Berkeley, I definitely had access to a lot of cool places and events. I went to my local comic book shop, Comic Relief, every day after school. I saw bands on the weekends at clubs like Gilman and Berkeley Square. Being in a town that celebrated diversity, peace and freedom of expression (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) also had a big effect on my psyche.
Paste: Did you grow up reading comics?
Schrag: The first comics I read were newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes, Blondie and For Better or For Worse and I loved them. I was also really into the Disney Uncle Scrooge comics. I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist from about age 10, and when I discovered alternative and autobiographical comics such as Maus, Deep Girl, Optic Nerve, Eightball and Peepshow, I knew what kind of cartoonist I wanted to be.
Paste: What do you think has influenced your visual style? A lot of the lettering (even now) feels very 1990s to me, and I guess I can kind of see some Matt Groening in there.
Schrag: Matt Groening’s Life in Hell books were a huge inspiration. I read them over and over as a kid, and still think about them today. Since I was coming into my own style in the mid-90s, other 90s cartoonists had a big effect, such as Art Spiegelman, Adrian Tomine, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Gabrielle Bell, Jhonen Vasquez, Julie Doucet. I also read Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse obsessively, and there’s a lot of my beloved early Disney animation in my style as well.
Paste: You also write prose (and screenplays). What draws you to comics over those media? Which is the hardest to work in and why?
Schrag: I’m compelled to write autobiographical comics and fictional prose. So far, the reverse hasn’t appealed to me. I like creating an alternate cartoon world to depict my experiences in, and I like the unexpected places the swiftness of prose brings in fiction. Screenplays as a medium are only a blueprint, but getting to see your stories come alive through actors is a real rush.
Paste: Your comics about your high school years almost hurt to read, not just because of the inherent awkwardness of that time in anyone’s life, but also because we’re clearly about the same age, and the entire cultural context is so vivid. How do they make you feel when you look back on them?
Schrag: I’m really proud of the high school series, but definitely find some of the content shocking. It’s wonderful to have this time capsule from that part of my life, and nothing has defined me more than the intention behind and work put into those books. But is it embarrassing to hand one to someone and have them open to a drawing of me naked going down on a girl? A little.
Paste: Is it hard for you to be so open about your life or does it come naturally? Has it gotten easier or harder over time?
Schrag: As a teen, I mostly wrote whatever I wanted to about myself and other people, which was freeing, but led to a lot of personal complications. Now, I’m more careful about not exposing others, which is its own relief, but can make the writing more difficult. Disguising people or fictionalizing autobio is just another layer of work. There is a sweet spot where you say what you want and it feels like the truth and no one gets hurt or feels exposed, but that spot is hard to come by.
Paste: Talk to me about how you write and then draw one of these stories. They feel so immediate, but at the same time they probably require a lot of preparatory work.
Schrag: Many of the stories, even if I’m writing them decades after they occurred, use diaries or photos from that time as inspiration. For instance, “Hippies as Babysitters” takes quotes from my age-nine diary, and uses them to structure the story. The rest is filled in with memory and fiction. For that comic, I sat down with the diary, jotted some ideas of scenes I wanted to include, then moved to a loose outline, then went straight to a penciled rough draft of the comic. When I was happy with the rough draft I moved on to re-writing the text so it’s legible, re-drawing the art and inking. I either ink my comic directly on top of the original rough draft or use a light box.
Paste: Do you still keep a diary?
Schrag: I do. It fluctuates between outpourings of emotions and reasoning with myself, and matter-of-fact chronicling of my days. Sometimes I’ll just jot down a special moment. If too long passes without writing in my diary, I feel like I’m losing touch with myself.
Paste: You’re a parent now, right? Has that changed you? How?
Schrag: I have no time. My son is 14 months old, so my life is basically playing with him, cleaning, pulling his fingers out of electrical sockets and more cleaning. When my partner is watching him or we have a babysitter, I cram in writing and drawing. I have less time to create, but procrastination is a thing of the past.
Paste: You don’t come across as an anxiety-ridden teenager (no more than the rest of us) in your comics about that time of your life. And yet… all those trips to Lens Crafters, when you were a young adult. Do you think you became more anxious later?
Schrag: I was a very anxious and obsessive teen, but, like you say, maybe teens are expected to be that way, and we’re supposed to calm down when we reach our 20s? I didn’t, and still haven’t, really. But if I have to be obsessed with the right pair of glasses or a girl who doesn’t love me back, I’ll pick the glasses.