In Their Own Words: Part 1

Ariel Schrag: Graphic Novels

Ariel Schrag has penned four autobiographical graphic novels, each chronicling one of her years at Berkeley High School. Originally published by Slave Labor Graphics, her third book, Potential, has just been reissued by Simon & Schuster, and the final book in her series, Likewise, will be out next spring. Marjane Satrapi insists her books should be called comics, not graphic novels. Which term do you prefer, and why?
Ariel Schrag: I would have to agree 100 percent with Marjane here. The word graphic novel is stupid. It sounds like a kid trying to use a big word and having no idea what he’s talking about. It sounds like someone being obnoxious and pronouncing Nabokov’s name correctly just to show off.

I got into this argument with someone when I was in high school about whether or not comics could be “real literature.” He was adamant that they couldn’t. They’re “comics,” he said, they’re just “comics.”

About six years later, I got an email from him apologizing for the argument. “You were right,” he said, “I read graphic novels now.” Oh, so now that they’re “graphic novels” they can be literature. Also, Maus, Persepolis and my books are not novels of any sort. The Holocaust, the Islamic Revolution and my … “teenage sexual identity journey” … are events that actually happened.

AE: Do you remember the first graphic novel you came across that featured a lesbian character?
My comic book Definition, in which I decide I’m bisexual and hook up with girls for the first time, was the first comic I’d ever read featuring a lesbian character, which I think was a huge part of what made it so exciting to write.

About a year later, I found my second lesbian-starring comic, and it was this Catholic-high-school-girls-porn-thing I forget the name of. At the time, I thought it was totally awesome and the cover said it was written and drawn by two women, which was totally cool — in retrospect I’m pretty sure it was a huge farce, and was actually written and drawn by men with pseudonyms.

The main image I retain from it is of one of the girls sitting atop a giant breast, catholic skirt blowing upwards to reveal her f—ing a giant nipple. It’s the sort of thing that sticks with you.

AE: Name a favorite author outside your genre, and suggest one good book of theirs that readers should pick up first.
AS: Yes, but what is my “genre” … comics? Autobiography? Teenage? Queer? … Something that’s none of those … I know — The Game by Neil Strauss. This book is infinitely fascinating. Oops, it’s also kind of autobiography.

I know — The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. A lot of people are really down on Dawkins right now because he recently came out with the very bossy and resentful The God Delusion (which actually has some great parts if you get past the condescension), but The Selfish Gene is a classic. A simultaneously comforting and totally depressing way to look at life. All of a sudden, everything you do will seem selfish — but it’s not your fault — it’s your genes.

I also love Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies — I don’t cry that often, but this book made me cry.

AE: Which graphic novel would you recommend to lesbians who have never read a graphic novel before?
AS: Oh, I don’t know … mine.

Next page: Joan Larkin on poetry