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Comic Book Review: Likewise by Ariel Schrag

The fourth chapter/third book in Ariel Schrag's 'High School Chronicles,' Likewise details not only Schrag's senior year at Berkeley High, but also the aftermath of her parents' divorce, her search for a "scientific" explanation for her homosexuality, her continued heartbreak over her boy-crazy ex-girlfriend, her do-or-die devotion to her comics, and her self-image as it relates to her appearance and intelligence. That Schrag is able to do all of this with a wit and wisdom that makes her constant contradictions completely credible is quite an accomplishment.

So why couldn't Likewise have come out before Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home? If it had, it would've been so much easier to sell. I mean, how many NPR-listening, casual comics readers do you think are gonna go for a third cartoonist's coming-of-age magnum opus in just as many years? What makes this even worse is that -- in my opinion -- Likewise is the best of the bunch.

Covering a lot of the same terrain as BBB (parents' divorce, lingering heartbreak, complicated sibling dynamics) and Fun Home (gay teens, sexual politics, questioning one's identity, art as a life raft), Likewise manages to surpass both by blending the strengths of each while simultaneously skirting their weaknesses.

Lemme break that last line down a little.

To me, Fun Home's sole shortcoming was its almost complete lack of comics magic. There are so many storytelling devices unique to comics, it seemed a waste of the artform for Bechdel to stick to a basic picture-describes-words/words-describe-picture template. You can open up to any page in Fun Home and see what I mean. In its 240 pages, I can count only a handful of instances where the illustrations actually add anything to the narration (or visa-versa). While Bechdel's words do an amazing job of expressing her emotions and experiences, I can't help but feel that Fun Home would've been just as effective as a 50 page prose story. Contrasting this, Likewise could've only been a comic book.

I had the opposite problem with Bottomless Belly Button. Shaw clearly has a mastery of/fascination with the many possibilities of a comics page. Open up BBB to almost any page and you're sure to be wowed by his technical trickery. But the story itself? Pretty predictable. Part of it, I think, is the fact that Shaw was attempting to tell a highly emotional story while having never experienced any of those emotions himself. That's not to say that a writer needs to have lived everything they write about, but if you're making up a story from scratch, you'd better have one helluva an empathetic imagination. Shaw, at least in BBB, does not. The tale he tells contains zero surprise details or up-til-then unidentified emotional nuances. It's almost as though he was attempting to re-tell a divorce-themed family drama he'd seen on TV or heard from a friend of a friend. It never feels authentic. Likewise, on the other hand, is so much weirder, so much messier, so much more full of insightful observation and -- I don't know -- realness?

(Quick side-thought: I've always felt that making a comic is a lot like making a movie. You've got the screenwriter/writer, the cinematographer/artist, and the actors/the manner in which the characters are drawn. In movies, these positions are filled by anywhere from three to three hundred people. In comics like the ones being discussed here, they're all done by one. Expecting one person to do all of these jobs to perfection may be asking a lot, but that's what the combination writer/artist has volunteered to do. To keep this questionable logic going a little longer, I'd say that Shaw excels as a director and special effects coordinator, Bechdel as a screenwriter, actor and cinematographer, and Schrag as all five.)

With Likewise, Schrag has crafted a comic that is as structurally daring as it is emotionally affecting. Every time she plays with panel layouts or switches art styles or f**ks up her fonts, she is intentionally entrancing the reader with an explicit expressionistic effect. Sometimes it's giddy, drunken glee, sometimes it's the harrowing disorientation of a recurring heartbreak, but there's always an extra layer of emotional imbalance being added. If I had to criticize Schrag for anything, it would be her aping of James Joyce in the narration. While it works most of the time, there are moments when it reads almost like a slam poetry parody of Ulysses. Much more effective is her ear for dialog. Nearly every word bubble echos one's own memories of high school -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It's the rare autobiographical work that doesn't make me at least occasionally question the author's authenticity, but three books in, and I've yet to doubt a single detail in Ariel's art. Maybe it's the fact that she admits to keeping extensive files on her friends and family, or maybe it's the way that she continually shows herself jotting down conversations in a notebook, or maybe, just maybe, it's that one panel on page 100 where, in the middle of having a "freak-out," she pauses to remind herself to use it in the comic. Yeah, that's probably it.

I've only ever read one interview with Schrag. Still, thanks to her comics, I feel like I've come to know her. She's funny, smart, fragile, self-centered, manipulated and manipulative, undeniably endearing and, ultimately, awe-inspiring. I'd rank her high school books up there with the autobiographical work of Eddie Campbell and Harvey Pekar, with Likewise standing shoulder to shoulder with Pekar's Our Cancer Year and Campbell's Alec: The King Canute Crowd. It's DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED.

See Also:
Ariel Schrag's website
TimeOut's awkward, panel-by-panel, two page preview
More sample pages, this time from the folks at National Public Radio
Noah Berlatsky's interview with Schrag (This is what pushed me to finally buy her books!)
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