Top Spy at Berkeley High

Ariel Schrag's comics about high school life propelled her to Hollywood.

During her four years at Berkeley High School in the mid-’90s, Ariel Schrag established herself as a Harriet-the-Spy type who slunk through the halls with a tape recorder, documenting all things worth committing to print. She used all the old-school recording devices that have since become obsolete: analog tape; Bic pens; an actual, physical diary filled with ranting, obsessive writing (the kind that starts out with “I hate I hate I hate,” Schrag said). And she had the look, too: Chuck Taylors, cuffed jeans, blue-black pixie haircut. Schrag was a geek girl with a sexy mind — someone who would go on to write screenplays and be a phone sex operator (not in that order). But mostly, she was famous for writing comics.

Ariel Schrag, now 28, cites the sheer excitement of being at Berkeley High as the impetus for her first book, Awkward. Before that, she attended a small private elementary school in West Berkeley called Black Pine Circle, where she was tracked to be a typical overachiever: softball, piano lessons, art summer camps. Walking into Berkeley High on the first day was tantamount to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly appears in Technicolor. Schrag found herself in a microcosm of the city proper, a place where you had to quickly choose an identity or risk getting lost in the shuffle. “It was the most exciting year of my entire life,” she said in retrospect.

She wrote Awkward during the summer after her freshman year, cribbing it partly from sketchbooks she filled with cartoon depictions of stupid high school exploits (like spray-painting with boys or stealing yogurt pretzels from a store and getting chewed out by the cashier). “My brain sort of naturally did the perfect amount of editing, in terms of remembering what was interesting and forgetting what wasn’t,” Schrag said. Awkward is the most primitive of her comics, though it’s still a thoroughly entertaining read, filled with a fourteen-year-old’s chatty stories about her crush on actress Juliette Lewis, and the best guy friend who became a pseudo boyfriend, but not really.

But Schrag was different from other teenage artists. Years of voracious comic book reading — mostly conventional strips like Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse, and later, sexier stuff like Ariel Bordeaux’s Deep Girl — gave her an ingrained sense of how to draw panels and tell a story so that there was always an “aha” moment on the next page. Her mind must have worked in storyboards rather than plain text, because even at a young age she knew how to create drama without any dialogue. She would telescope in, present scenes from different angles, take liberties with certain characters (like the couple from a “people with problems” group who cameo in Awkward) and — particularly in her later books — include such meticulous details as the shadow from a potted plant or the star pattern on a bedspread. Schrag finished Awkward before tenth grade and sold copies for five bucks a pop. By the time she started school in the fall, she was a minor campus celebrity.

The other thing that distinguished Schrag from her peers was the honesty in her writing, which became more important in her sophomore-year book, Definition, and the series of books that comprised Potential. She describes losing her virginity to an ex-boyfriend (“It didn’t feel like he was in that deep but he says 1/2-3/4 most of the time, so that’s sufficient. I am sore and somewhat exhausted,” she wrote about the experience), falling for a girl and getting jilted, coming out as a lesbian, and finally, getting her first real girlfriend. The comics got more damning as she progressed, but also funnier, since Schrag often devolved into caricature. One of her boyfriends magically went from being a classic dork to a handsome stud after getting “the haircut”; Schrag draws him, newly shorn, as an archetypal cad or swindler (complete with the sparkling tooth). Yet more hysterical is the portrait of Alexis, a hot lesbian coquette who essentially ripped Schrag’s heart out of her chest and shat on it. “The whole point of the Alexis storyline is that I was used and abused by this flirt,” the artist explained. “That’s such a classic storyline, but it’s usually a guy being bossed around by the ditzy girl who’s totally hot and teases him.”

In 1997 Schrag signed on with San Jose-based publisher Slave Labor Graphics, which released all of her books up through the beginning sections of a senior-year comic called Likewise, which is slated to come out on Simon & Schuster next year. (Schrag sketched roughly four hundred pages for the book, and is still inking them.) She spent a year after high school living in a windowless basement in Brooklyn and working odd jobs at comic book shops and delis — plus the $7-an-hour gig as a phone sex operator, which lasted about two months. One year of the starving artist life was enough to propel her into the English program at Columbia, and eventually, to an enviable position writing for Showtime’s lesbian-themed drama, The L Word. She is currently adapting a screenplay for Potential with Killer Films (producers of Kids and Boys Don’t Cry); the director is Rose Troche, a former L Word producer whose credits include the 1994 queer cult film, Go Fish.

Full disclosure: I took piano lessons from Ariel Schrag’s mother for ten years, which allowed me to be an interloper in her life. For instance, I knew that Schrag was named for a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and that she starred in a clown show at East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. But that hardly puts me at an advantage over the thousands of people who read Schrag’s comics. Particularly during her later high school years, the author grew obsessed with “telling the truth or getting to the truth of everything.” Besides having sexy parts, her comics were largely about purging insecurities about her body and her identity, along with simpler things that most people can identify with, like picking someone and wishing they would pick you back.

Schrag was an exhibitionist willing to expose just about anything if it made for a good story. Such utter candidness occasionally made her an object of derision, especially since the characters in her books were completely recognizable (and many were high school celebrities in their own right). But it also made her unlike anyone else.


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