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Zine Pool

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 9/22/1999

This column often starts with a pot shot at personal-experience zines. It goes on and on about how good a zine is because it doesn't get bogged down in what the writer's friends did the other night or the traumas of his or her love life. Well, in this issue we're taking a different tack. Ariel Schrag's Potential is great because it is so completely about her personal experiences and the confusion of growing up. This isn't a coming-of-age tale told by a 30-year-old, either. It's a comic book written by a high school girl about the trials and tribulations of friends, family, relationships, alcohol, drugs, sexual preference, scenes, and a heavy homework load.

Yes, it's a comic book, not a zine in the usual sense, but Schrag's book qualifies for inclusion in the zine world because its nonfiction stories and musings are similar to those of personal-experience zines. Unlike most zines in this style, though, Schrag uses pictures to make the stories come alive. She also presents her life from such an honest and no-holds-barred perspective that it's impossible not to get caught up in her adventures.

Schrag's foray into nonfiction comic writing started with Awkward, a 48-page graphic novel depicting her freshman year. This book focuses on her obsessions, ranging from the band L7 to actress Juliette Lewis to an older girl, who is in love with Ariel's boyfriend but becomes Ariel's mentor instead of her enemy. While the story is entertaining--it is in some ways incredibly odd and in other ways painfully familiar--it does not have the artistic or narrative strength of later editions.

Sophomore year is illustrated in the 96-page Definition. In this book, Schrag grows as both an artist and storyteller. The composition of the panels is much more dynamic and Ariel begins considering bigger issues, such as her sexual orientation. Within the first three pages, she realizes she's probably bisexual and, as the comic continues, she becomes convinced. She describes her first kiss with a girl "as if everything about kissing suddenly made sense and all those other awful bland boring kisses I'd had vanished away with unimportance and insignificance." Ariel goes to Berkeley High School, a place where both the student body and the faculty represent a diverse range of sexual orientations. Instead of worrying about coming out of the closet, Ariel considers whether she is succumbing to peer pressure by being bi.

This comic should be required reading for gay, bi, and not-quite-sure teens everywhere. But even if you're heterosexual, you'll find plenty of things to identify with in Ariel's mixed-up life--unless you've never had a crush, gotten drunk, been lost at night on a street full of leering old men, or had a miserable birthday.

The latest entry, Potential, describes (in multiple volumes) Ariel's junior year. Schrag's artwork continues to evolve and improve, and the stories get longer; the latest installment, "Unit Five: Animals Form and Function," makes Potential 178 pages long. In the course of Potential, Ariel has her first relationship with a girl. Though the relationship is terrible, Ariel begins to realize that "bisexual" might not be a strong enough term for her feelings. After the unpleasantness with her first girlfriend, Ariel starts dating her friend's sister, Sally. As we all know, the course of love never runs smooth, and in high school you're lucky if it's not the emotional equivalent of whitewater rafting. Ariel and Sally have to get over the obstacles of Sally's sister's objections, Sally's incredible moodiness, and Ariel's desire to lose her virginity. In "Unit Three: Mechanisms of Evolution," Schrag gives a painfully honest portrayal of her ideas regarding her virginity and the act of losing it. The amazing thing about this section is that Schrag depicts herself in such an unflattering light. It also illustrates the complex feelings that can be associated with virginity and lesbian and heterosexual sex.

"Unit Five" outlines Ariel's struggle with her dissolving relationship with Sally. She also deals with her parent's messy divorce, which amusingly and appropriately takes a back seat to Ariel's concerns about her wardrobe. This issue also contains more of the dream sequences initiated in "Unit One." These dreams are interesting because they are both relevant and nonsensical enough to feel like real dreams. Schrag draws these sections more realistically than the rest of the comic, creating a nice contrast between the real cartoony world and the realistically rendered dream world. We could tell you all about Sally's hot and cold behavior and Ariel's parents' feuds, but it'd be better if you read about them yourself. Take a look at Potential and Schrag's other books--you won't be able to put them down. It's a personal-experience story to relish.

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