written by Ariel Schrag
“Science is my life!” heroine Ariel proclaims early on in Potential, and it’s true. The junior in high school loves her science classes and even tries to figure out with a friend how to distill homemade alcohol—something she thinks would be both a good learning experience and fun.
But there are other, more pressing issues that Ariel must deal with in her junior year of high school. For one thing, she had settled on the label of bisexual after her sophomore year experiences, but she’s definitely feeling more and more drawn to the lesbian side. Now if only she could figure out how to navigate the tricky emotional waters of dating during the teenage years.
Ariel Schrag’s true-life series of work—which began with freshman year in Awkward and continued in sophomore year’s Definition—is as brave as it is funny. Schrag completed each work in the summer after each respective school year, not only putting her own life squarely under the microscope, but also telling the stories of her friends, family, and acquaintances. As her classmates at Berkeley High School in the mid- to late ’90s learned, nothing was secret or sacred.
Schrag’s abilities both as an artist and a storyteller have greatly improved by the time of Potential. Awkward was a potpourri of images, sometimes far too crowded for one page, but Definition showed real evolution in her work. With Potential, she allows herself plenty of room in which to pace her story, starting slowly with her puppy love relationship with a boy and moving on to the more complicated territory of her lesbian dating life and the emotional effects of her parents’ divorce.
Potential, like the work that preceded it, succeeds on several levels, not least of which is that Schrag doesn’t rehash coming-of-age tales we’ve read before. Instead, it’s a fresh take on teen years, one set in a modern age where homosexuality doesn’t have to be hidden. That doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for the author, but it’s refreshing for the reader to follow a young woman who’s confident in her own sense of self.
Schrag doesn’t shy away from mature themes in her work, nor does she sugarcoat it. She offers an honest account of the awkwardness and thrills of discovering one’s self and one’s sexual identity. It’s a bonus that all of this is coupled with a more daring (and often quite strikingly beautiful) drawing style. Schrag can go from cartoony to chiaroscuro within a page, which mirrors the complexities of her story.
It’s a wonderful experience growing up with Schrag and experiencing her teen years vicariously. Later this year, Touchstone will release Likewise, where senior year hits and the story of Schrag’s high-school career comes to an end. One can only hope that her post-high-school years were as eventful and fun as this, and that Schrag will decide to keep entertaining us with her wit.-- John Hogan