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Definition

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  People--and by that I mean "adults"--often forget the wisdom of youth. Before school, work and other societal responsibilities bred it out of us, each and every one of us was filled with a natural curiosity, an unjaundiced eye and an inventive mind. Kids, in their stumbling attempts to understand the world around them, often trip over clever and original viewpoints and ideas. All too often these fresh perspectives are dismissed as the follies of youth by so-called "mature" adults.

Take, for example, Definition, the new graphic novel by 16-year-old Ariel Schrag. In 90 compact pages, Schrag runs down nearly every joy, learning experience and neurosis facing American youth today; and she does so with such an honest and comfortable style, that it's impossible not to form some kind of sympathetic attachment to the young author. Schrag starts out by chronicling her everyday life, in 10th-grade Southern California. She confronts everything from her burgeoning sexuality to her anxiety over chemistry class. Schrag's title "Definition" comes from a slang term that she and her friends toss around with enthusiasm. It is used whenever something reaches its perfect, most categorical moment (like "definition: surprise" or "definition: annoyed"). It also refers to Schrag's search for certain definitions in her own life. The most prominent search for definition comes from Schrag's sexuality. She calls herself "straight" but is attracted to girls. Is she "gay?" She is attracted to girls but likes boys. Is she "bi?" In the first couple chapters of her graphic novel, Schrag succinctly and quite conclusively articulates the idea that such crude definitions are impossible when talking about something as complex as human sexuality. In the end, Schrag finds no easy answer to her own sexuality. She sidesteps any need to peg it down with a definition. While she can find definitions for "God" and "overwhelmed" and "perfection," Schrag realizes there is no simple definition for "me."

I'll be the first to admit that bookstore shelves are lousy with autobiographical comix these days. But there's something different about Definition. First of all, the author is still in high school herself. This isn't some twentysomething reminiscing about those bygone days of youth. This is an actual teenager baring her thoughts and emotions on the printed page as they leap from her hormone-addled brain. Schrag doesn't have the writing skill of a Peter Bagge or the artistic skill of a Dan Clowes, but she's got something those two do not. Schrag has got the immediacy of youth on her side, and she works it to its every advantage. Her struggling, confessional words and math-book doodle artwork may not seem like the stuff of masterpiece, but digging into Definition is like flipping through someone's unexpurgated diary. Like most youth who decide to put their thoughts down on paper, Schrag is an awkward, confused fringe-dweller. Prom queens and star quarterbacks rarely make for interesting study. In Definition, humor, tragedy, joy and frustration leap from every page with an often startling sincerity. The psychological insights Schrag reaches from this open-heartedness are zingers. When it comes to the aloof object of her sexual obsessions, for example, Schrag concludes: "While looking into her face could cause all sorts of complications and obstructions in my mind, it was also just like staring into a blank cement wall. All the uproar and thrill was always just my own creation. ... And as I thought about it, what it really came down to was being attracted to your own mind." I should be so lucky to find such moments of clarity in my own life.

By exploring all the things in her world--drinking, dope, turning sixteen, rock concerts, friendship, love, sex, comic books, overwhelming homework--Schrag wanders into a growing narrative. What, at first, seems like a random collection of remembrances, eventually coalesces into a rather startling fable about friendship. At the conclusion, Schrag reaches a Zen-like moment of clarity at a No Doubt concert. In a single panel, Schrag ties her entire story up in a neat little bow by equating the commercial success of her favorite band with the evolving lives of those around her. Definition: brilliant. (Slave Labor Graphics, paper, $12.95)

--Devin D. O'Leary


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