Lions

Taking a (Graphic) Novel Approach to Her Life

Ariel Schrag '03 smiling in a white T shirt

CHLOE AFTEL

Would you want to relive your awkward younger years? Really relive, as an art form Novelist and artist Ariel Schrag ’03 has made a career of turning her most uncomfortable, transitional life moments into relatable, award-nominated graphic memoirs. Her most recent work, Part of It, is a “painfully funny” recollection of her formative years growing up in idyllic, progressive Berkeley, through her early 20s in Brooklyn. But Schrag first made a splash with a series of graphic memoirs she wrote about her high school years, while she was still living them.

The High School Comic Chronicles comprises three books: Awkward and Definition (9th and 10th grade, combined in one edition), Potential (11th grade) and Likewise (12th grade). Schrag took a gap year to finish the series before starting at the College. “Nothing was more important to me,” she says. “I knew if I started college [right after high school] I wasn’t going to be able to finish.”

Schrag created her first comic strip as a child; her father was a visual artist who read and collected various types of comic books and graphic novels. “I found Maus in the house when I was 9 and thought it was amazing,” she says. She attended a small private school for nine years before moving on to a public high school. “I went from being in a class of 13 to one of more than 1,000. It was one of the most significant changes of my life,” Schrag says. She channeled her feelings into her artwork. “I didn’t have a specific vision to begin with; I just wanted to write a book about my freshman year,” she says. “But people really responded to it and I really loved doing it so I decided to do all four [years].”

Before starting her gap year, Schrag was obsessed with moving to New York — “for all the typical reasons,” she says. Through comics connections she got a job at St. Mark’s Comics (RIP), lived in Fort Greene for a year and, though it would take her a decade to complete the inking, finished writing her 400-page senior year memoir before starting at Columbia.

“I adored the College,” she says. “I really appreciated it after a rough year on my own. I felt really taken care of. To know I was going to be able to spend the next four years dedicated to studying felt like such a privilege.” In addition to her classes, Schrag continued to ink Likewise, and Potential was just being published. (Her friend, composer Nico Muhly ’03, made posters for a reading that they put up on campus and around town.)

After graduation, Schrag started teaching a graphic novel workshop at The New School (she stayed until 2017 and has also taught at Brown, NYU and Williams College) and began work on a novel, Adam, a sexual coming-of-age comedy, in 2007. It was published in 2014; based on a galley copy, a producer she knew, Howard Gertler, said he wanted to make Adam into a movie. Gertler got it in front of developer James Schamus (a faculty member at the School of the Arts), who bought it and hired Schrag to write the script. “They said they imagined it as a very low-budget movie and to me that meant that they were serious — it might actually get made,” Schrag says. She was included in all the production steps and weighed in on the casting with director Rhys Ernst. “I was really happy with the final movie,” she says. “It’s really cool and surreal to see your work that way.” Adam was shown at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and opened New Fest, an LGBTQ film festival, on June 17.

Schrag now alternates between living in New York City and Los Angeles with her partner, Charlie, a filmmaker, and their toddler son. (Schrag’s comic “Pregnant on the Subway” is the most-viewed piece of original content on CCT’s website.) She’s working on her second novel, about adults. “I’ll just say it takes place in the realm of lesbians and fertility, and there’s a slight science-fiction bent to it.” She’s also been writing for television, most recently for a USA Network series called Dare Me, based on the novel by Megan Abbott (Gina Fattore ’90 is a co-showrunner). “I’m a big fan of Megan’s books and her writing, so it was exciting to take on her voice and figure out how to express her characters. That’s the fun of it, if you really love something, to be able to inhabit it.”

As for her comics, Schrag plans to keep those autobiographical. Is she ever uncomfortable sharing personal details? “I’m more concerned now about representing myself in a certain way,” she says. “As a teenager that wasn’t on my mind — I just wanted to speak my truth. I have way more hang-ups as an adult.”