REVIEWS

Part of It: Comics and Confessions

Autobio comics trick you into having empathy. When we read comics, we articulate voices and imagine their utterance, and on some level I think we convince ourselves we understand the emergence of thoughts and feelings onto the page. In autobio, our reading enters us into role-play as the author, and without realizing it we begin to view their perception of the world as normal. The talented artist of autobio have the power to make something particular appear universal, to make us take the truth of an experience for granted before we even construct it as an experience. (This power can also be abused -- the reader of recent Chester Brown or an irritating self-help webcomic[1] alike will often find themselves asking, “who let you into my head?”)

Part of It, Ariel Schrag’s new collection of graphic memoir, excels in this sort of deceptive empathy. The stories in the collection offer snapshots of experiences from her childhood through her mid twenties of extraordinary specificity with a seemingly plain, inviting clarity that encourages, maybe even dares the reader to think of her life as normal. And perhaps it is normal - the life of a queer millennial living in Brooklyn is not exactly the quietest voice in our media landscape, if not always the most heard. However, her unique experiences are just that, unique, and our ability to identify with it is a feat of remarkable craft.

“My Troubles with Glasses,” the longest story in the collection, details Schrag’s paranoid discomfort around finding the right pair of glasses in claustrophobic focus. Schrag does not mention OCD in the story, but her experiences should be familiar to anyone who has suffered from obsessive anxiety. Her cartooning so perfectly captures this state the reader may initially miss the clever distortions of spaces that convey her feeling so clearly - the warped lines, the clear blocks of negative space. Lengthy text captions, often the fault of many a “literary” cartoonist, reflect in Schrag’s hands the exhaustion and tedium which the weariness of the cyclical anxious thoughts the captions contain. Our eyes gloss on pages as Ariel drifts through life immersed in worry.

Schrag captures anxiety so brilliantly in this story, but she does not explicitly state the story is about this. One really could just read it as a story about having difficulty finding glasses. This is what makes this collection so inviting. Schrag leads us through many peculiar experiences of unique identities without condescending to classify and clarify each one, leaving open subjective encounters that make the messages that much more powerful. In the story “Kids Korner,” chronicling Schrag’s experiences teaching art at a public school, we see a coming out story from the perspective of a supportive adult, yet this is not the didactic focus of the story, it just happens. 

While the incidental nature of the stories on their own are their greatest strength, taken as a whole the book feels rather slight, inconsequential even. Shrag seems to be aware of this, attempting in the book’s prologue to explain the title "Part of It" as a connecting theme for every story, the quirks of wanting to be connected to a group. The explanation works, but it’s broad enough that it trivializes many of the tensions in the stories rather than deepening our attention.

Schrag’s prior graphic novels, the high school trilogy Awkward and Definition, Potential and Likewise are vast and ambitious tomes, carrying a weighty confused energy at once an artifact of their adolescent creation and the product of brilliant craft. In a word, they are moving. One story in Part of It, “The Truth” was drawn during Schrag’s teenage years, and although it’s hardly the highlight of the collection its immediacy does stand out in stark contrast to its neighbors. I don’t think Schrag has lost her ambition - many of the stories have, on their own, the same weight and energy - but as a whole they begin to drift away, meld into one decent thing. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to the medium. Schrag is an essential voice in graphic memoir and the scene is richer with her being part of it. (sorry)

[1] Jomny Sun

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