Was your high school like Saved By The Bell? The OC? My So Called Life? Heaven forbid, Degrassi? In my high school kids were rarely calm, collected, and confident, and almost never responded to a put-down with a cool rejoinder. Instead, the folks around me were perpetually confused and insecure, frequently aimless, and the schemes and drama they concocted tended to fall apart with a whimper instead of a climactic explosion.
I’m not sure where the writers for those teenybopper stories got their sugar-coated ideas, but it certainly wasn’t from Ariel Schrag.
Potential is one of a series of three graphic novels where Schrag writes about her four years at Berkeley High School in the mid ’90s. The books were a hit with critics in a time where almost no one in the mainstream took comics seriously, and they launched Schrag’s career at an abnormally young age. Potential, the most well regarded of the series, chonicles the artist’s junior year (and is currently being developed into a feature by the studio who brought us Boys Don’t Cry and I’m Not There.
I imagine there are several extremes in the way people will react to this series. Both the story and the way it’s told strike an unusual chord. The four short episodes revolve around Ariel’s highly detailed plan to lose her virginity before she turns seventeen.
Typical fare for a high school story, except for the fact that Ariel is a lesbian with a girlfriend, and her definition of “losing her virginity” equals penis in vagina. So in order to get the job done, she must enlist her Y-chromosome equipped friend Zally to travel with her to a hotel, get immensely stoned, and do the deed before the clock strikes 1AM.
Ariel micromanages the trip in the way only a hyperactive teenager can. She wants everything to be perfect, and with expectations impossibly high, the outing quickly crashes into seriously awkward territory. Even those of us without such (ahem) adventurous high school experiences can relate. There’s an undercurrent of frenzied anxiety, the very teenagery idea that you know exactly how things are supposed to be in life, and that if you make them happen everything will be okay.
It’s a funny, sometimes cringingly awkward story, with no hint of an older and wiser author to give an adult-perspective on past decisions. It’s true to the teenage mentality in a way very few stories are.
Unlike other comic-to-webisode transitions (like the Watchmen motion toon), Potential utilizes no camera moves or Flash animating techniques to bring life to the panel. The series (directed and sound designed by Gigi Nicolaus) is simply cut together with shots of the panels, paced to the dialogue and narration as interpreted by the author herself.
I can imagine that some would immediately dismiss this low-fi technique, but I see no reason to add motion to a story that’s perfectly told with still images. The cuts do manage to enhance the comic timing of certain moments, and it’s a real treat to hear an author read her work. Ariel is no Mel Blanc, but she easily captures the distinct personalities of the different characters, with an familiarity we know is drawn from her intimate connections with them.
Give it a watch. Even if it’s not your high school experience, it can’t be anymore alien than Gossip Girl. Keep a look out for the movie, and for the 2009 Simon and Shushter release of Likewise, the final chapter in Schrag’s Berkeley High saga.