With a new graphic memoir, cartoonist Alison Bechdel proves she's more than just a Dyke to Watch Out For
"People who write graphic novels are clinically insane," says Alison Bechdel. The Bolton-based cartoonist, author of the nationally syndicated cult strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" is referring to her new book, Fun Home, a memoir of family art and artifice told in words and pictures. The complex tale deals with homosexuality in two generations, suicide, classic literature and life in a rural Pennsylvania funeral home.
Fun Home is a departure for Bechdel. And the book has the potential to catapult her into the big time. A recent blurb in Time magazine called the book "brilliant" and "bleakly hilarious." Bechdel scheduled her interview with Seven Days around photo shoots with People and Entertainment Weekly. She's in the midst of a month-long national book tour.
"I'm actually kind of envious of myself, if that's possible," says Bechdel. "I'm used to feeling underrated and bitter, so I've had to do some gear-shifting. Now I'm worried about being overrated."
For most of her 23-year career, Bechdel didn't even have an agent. She handles her own syndication and published most of her 11 "Dykes to Watch Out For" compilations with Firebrand Books, a "one-woman publisher" in Ithaca, New York. In 2000, just as Bechdel was starting work on Fun Home, Firebrand ran into financial trouble and was sold off.
The resultant "turmoil" gave Bechdel the impetus to seek and find an agent, who, she says, "had much higher sights for my work than I did." The agent promptly sold the memoir proposal to Houghton Mifflin, which is pulling out all the stops to promote the book. Bechdel points out that Fun Home is the big-name publisher's first "graphic novel" -- a hot genre in the multimedia age, and one that's finally getting critical respect. Technically, of course, it's not a novel but a memoir, which means it may also appeal to the readers who made The Liars' Club and Angela's Ashes into best sellers.
The publisher is probably also banking on the following Bechdel has developed through her comic strip. Since 1983, when "Dykes to Watch Out For" started as a set of single panels in a feminist newspaper in New York City, its audience has been steadily growing. Initially, the strip was a series of vignettes from urban lesbian life. In 1987, the strip began to read like a soap opera, if soap operas could be literate, lesbian and politically engaged. The true diversity of the characters, a matter not just of color and class but of ideology and temperament, kept sparks flying.
Bechdel's first book, a compilation of her cartoons, came out in 1986; she's since published 10 more that have collectively sold a quarter of a million copies. The combination of royalties, syndication and profits from "Dykes" merchandise -- she used to ship calendars, mugs and mouse pads out of her three-story home -- have sustained her since 1991, the year she moved to Vermont. Today, "Dykes" runs in 50 gay and alternative papers, including Seven Days. Back in the '90s, Universal Press Syndicate offered to carry "Dykes" if Bechdel would adapt it for more conservative audiences -- starting by choosing a tamer title. She declined.
But what fails to fly on a daily paper's comics page may sell just fine on a bookshelf. Fun Home doesn't hold back on lesbian content -- there's one fairly graphic sex scene. It doesn't hurt that Bechdel's skills as a writer and artist have earned her considerable cred in the comics world. She's garnered praise from underground comic legends like Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame, as well as their mainstream counterparts. Venerable Brookfield New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren compares Bechdel to Garry Trudeau and calls "Dykes" "probably the best cultural strip around."
Most successful memoirs fall into the same general subject categories as episodes of Dr. Phil: Abuse, Addiction and Weird Families. While they can and often do offer complexity and catharsis unknown to daytime TV, they also appeal to our voyeuristic interest in other people's secrets.
Fun Home falls into the "weird family" category. The story pivots around Bechdel's father, about whom we learn two vital things in the first chapter. The first is that this respectable citizen of a rural Pennsylvania town, a high school English teacher and third-generation funeral director, had a secret life in which he slept with male students and his children's babysitter.
The second is that he stepped in front of a truck when he was 44 years old. While the townspeople chose to see his death as accidental, Bechdel -- who was 19 at the time -- strongly suspects that it was actually a suicide. Though he was a perfectionist, whose painstakingly restored Gothic revival house enabled him to posture like an Appalachian Jay Gatsby, Bruce Bechdel was a flawed and mysterious human being.
Besides the family secrets, the book offers an element of funeral-home chic. Fans of HBO's "Six Feet Under" may notice some similar motifs in Fun Home. The title is the Bechdel children's nickname for the family business, where their dad embalmed corpses when he wasn't teaching Catcher in the Rye. As in the TV series, there's a dead father, a gay child who comes out to the rest of the family, an imposing Victorian house and, of course, the corpses. When the show got big, Bechdel says her agent actually "wondered if somebody had overheard me telling my story in a coffee shop and lifted it."
That's pretty much where the parallels with "Six Feet Under" end. Rather than generating story lines, the dead folks here serve to emphasize the family's oddly detached approach to the world. In one sequence, Bechdel recalls her father showing her an opened corpse as if as a "test." "The emotion I had suppressed for the gaping cadaver seemed to stay suppressed," she writes. "Even when it was Dad himself on the prep table."
Fun Home is also a memoir of addiction, in a sense -- "addiction" to creative pursuits and the hermetic and obsessive-compulsive tendencies that often accompany them. In one panel, Bechdel cross-sections her childhood home to reveal each member of the family absorbed in his or her solitary obsession -- herself drawing, one brother making model airplanes and another strumming the guitar, her mother playing the piano, and her father indulging his passion for historical preservation.
"If our family was a sort of artists' colony, could it not be even more accurately described as a mildly autistic colony?" a subsequent caption asks. Though the book is set in the 1970s, it's an oddly resonant image in our age of wired families, where focused pursuits like IM-ing and blogging have replaced impromptu games of tag with the kids down the block.
The structure of the book may put off readers looking for a straightforward story. Having made her big "reveal" early on, Bechdel proceeds to shuttle back and forth in her memories, creating a complex, nonchronological narrative. We see young Alison "trying to compensate for something unmanly" in her father by embracing all things butch, long before she knows of his homosexuality. We see her in college, realizing with both joy and trepidation that she's a lesbian, and later we see her worrying that coming out to her father -- an act almost unimaginable in his generation -- might have had something to do with his death.
Meanwhile, Bechdel lards these narratives with parallels drawn from literary works, her favorites or her parents'. For instance, Proust's Within a Budding Grove, with its portrayal of pubescent girls and flowers as virtually indistinguishable, serves as an ironic counterpoint to her own "butch" youth. It's also a covertly gay romance, much like her father's life. Bechdel shows us how she saw her world as a child by reproducing the map from The Wind in the Willows. When her father finally and fleetingly opens up to her about his homosexuality, she compares this with a pivotal meeting of the artist and his "spiritual father" in Joyce's Ulysses.In some writers' hands, this reliance on literary metaphors would get ponderous. Bechdel herself says she initially feared it would be "pretentious." But, in a family where life imitated fiction, and a father handed his daughter a Colette book rather than asking her whether she was a lesbian, the parallels make sense.
Besides, whenever the narrating voice at the top of the panel threatens to get too professorial, Bechdel's sly, intimate images of family life bring things back to earth. As the narrator enumerates her father's similarities to F. Scott Fitzgerald, we see her younger self entering his baronial library and asking for a check to buy "some new Mad books." That dead-on detail of the '70s, combined with the simple transaction between father and daughter -- "Write it out and I'll sign it," he says, absorbed in his own book -- is touching on another level. It reminds us that "weird families" can be ordinary families, and vice versa. We wouldn't care about their dark secrets if we couldn't relate.
"I can't make things up. I have no imagination," says 45-year-old Bechdel. She's perched on an ergonomic chair in her basement studio. "But I can take real life and put it in a box," she goes on. "That's the thing I can do."
The windows of the studio frame intensely green foliage -- the edge of 39 acres that Bechdel owns on a mountain road still soft and rutted from spring floods. Inside, the studio is an urban oasis of Macintoshes and graphic arts paraphernalia. A framed poster of Hergé's plucky comic book hero Tintin hangs on the wall. A 17-year-old tortoiseshell cat enters silently as a ghost.
Bechdel works here six days a week and saves all her Burlington errands for Wednesday, to "maximize efficiency," she says. Then there's the quintessentially rural routine of fetching her mail from the small-town Jonesville post office. Fans of "Dykes to Watch Out For" ask her, "'How do you write about these urban characters and this subculture when you don't really live in it?'" she says. "I couldn't work without the Internet. I can find out anything from my basement in Vermont." Research has grown especially important for Bechdel as she gives "Dykes" a "broader political mandate." In recent years, the strip has tackled gay marriage, parenting, the election and the various horror shows of America under the Bush administration.
While "Dykes" requires Bechdel to stay current, Fun Home sent her back into her past. "I've wanted to tell this story since I was about 20," Bechdel says, "as soon as I had enough perspective on my father's death to see what a really excellent story it was. For a long time I thought I couldn't reveal this family secret. But something changed along the way . . . history changed, the cultural climate changed, and eventually it didn't seem like that earthshaking a thing to reveal, even for my family."
When she first conceived the book about her father, Bechdel didn't realize she could draw the story. "When I was 20, there wasn't such a thing as a graphic novel," she says. Maus, Art Spiegelman's acclaimed graphic novel of the Holocaust, hadn't come out yet. "So that was part of the evolution, too," Bechdel says, "finding a form for the story to take. At some point it just became clear this was going to be a graphic narrative."
Creating Fun Home involved a more "labor-intensive process" than drawing the biweekly "Dykes" strip. Squatting on the floor, Bechdel rifles through crates in order to demonstrate the evolution of "one page from start to finish."
"The first thing I do is I write on the computer in a drawing program, which enables me to make these little text boxes and move them around, make my panel outlines," she says, fishing out a page of text that looks naked without images.
Next, Bechdel prints this framework and "starts doing very rough pencil sketches" on it. "Then I do several successive refinements of that sketch, and in doing that I take reference photos of myself, in the poses of all these characters," she says. She also does a "shitload of online research" to get backgrounds right -- in this case, the rooftop of a particular building in Greenwich Village, from which Bechdel depicts her family watching the Bicentennial fireworks. Conveniently enough, the building is now a co-op with its own website. Like her father slaving over his historical renovations in Fun Home, Bechdel likes to nail down the details -- "I can only deal with particulars," she says.
The next step is to put the refined sketch on a light box and trace it to the final drawing paper. The inked version is scanned back into the computer, where Bechdel fills in black areas using Adobe Photoshop, then combines her text and artwork files. In the last stage, she places the new print-out on the light box and shades it using an ink wash, creating a subtle two-color effect. "This page probably took me two days to create," she says. "I didn't even know how it was going to work out until I got the final book in my hand. It's quite a freakin' process."
Perhaps the most intriguing part of that process, for the layperson, is Bechdel's use of her digital camera to capture herself posing as the various people in the narrative. She says this technique was her response to an "utter failure of imagination." In promotional material, she describes herself as a "Method cartoonist."
Bechdel thinks her way of accessing the past demanded "a kind of weird acting ability. I was posing as my father, looking out at things as if I were my father." At one point she sought out the spot on the Pennsylvania highway where her father died. "I went and took a bunch of pictures as trucks were barrelling at me down the road," she says. "I had really gone just for the photo reference, but it had this added emotional kick, to give me the feeling of what it must have been like for my dad to be standing there making that decision to jump in front of a truck. If in fact that's what he did, which I'm not sure."
This scrupulousness is typical. Throughout the book, Bechdel speculates but also acknowledges the gaps in her understanding of her father's motivations. To recreate the past, she relied on "documentary evidence" -- her father's letters, her childhood diaries and family photo albums she "commandeered."
In the wake of the James Frey debacle, there's been speculation about whether it's possible to write a compelling memoir without making things up. Bechdel admits that she filled in a few gaps with her imagination, sometimes inadvertently. Still, she says that "what I found was that [the evidence] was often much more interesting than anything I could possibly fabricate."
In a chapter called "The Ideal Husband," Bechdel describes a cluster of unsettling events that converged in the summer of 1974: her first period, Nixon's resignation, a plague of locusts, her father's run-in with the law for giving alcohol to a minor. "I had all these memories . . . but when I looked in my diary, I found that all these things had happened in a two-month period," she says. "If you were making that up, it would be really bad writing."
When she started Fun Home, Bechdel lacked confidence in herself as a writer. "I'm used to writing the comic strip, which is 90 percent dialogue. I had to learn to write," she says. It didn't help that both her parents were English teachers with "very refined tastes. I always felt both my parents looking over my shoulder as I was writing," she explains, "and it took a long time to shut them up and to trust that what I was doing was ok."
In Fun Home, Bechdel's narrator is a major presence. Occasionally there's a touch of glibness, as when she says, "My father's life was a solipsistic circle of self, from autocrat to autodidact to autocide." In general, though, the narrator's speculations are more intriguing than intrusive, because they heighten the force of the images.
When it came to those images, Bechdel was on surer footing. Based on Dykes, Koren calls her "first-rate as an artist. She has a wonderful sense of detail and structure, putting together the dynamic of the strip," he says. "It's in the tradition of the grand old masters of cartoon strips. Just the way she uses blacks and whites and texture, the way her balloons flow across the page and divide the scene. There's a great sense of editing, going from long shot to close-up and back again."
James Sturm, director of the Institute for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, says Bechdel has an "unfussy line that seems to perfectly relay an emotion or a gesture."
Panels in "Dykes to Watch Out For" tend to be multilayered -- as in classic Mad magazines, you miss half the jokes if you don't read the characters' T-shirts or the headlines on newspapers they're carrying. "Some of my panels are friggin' illegible 'cause I'm trying to cram so much stuff in," Bechdel says. The larger format of Fun Home allowed her to use more empty space and also more "cinematic" techniques. For instance, a sudden "cut" from a side view of Alison and her father working on the lawn to a view from above underlines the distance between them, shifting the tone of the images abruptly from banality to elegy.
"All the time I've been working on this project, I've been operating under the assumption that it would be just like my 'Dykes' stuff -- that is, that hardly anyone would ever see it," Bechdel says. Houghton Mifflin has a different plan. The publicity push for the book may imply that serious readers are finally embracing graphic novels -- or memoirs, or whatever -- as a legitimate form of literature. True to form, Bechdel counters, "People still can't stop themselves from saying, 'It's almost like a literary work!' When people are able to stop doing that, we will have arrived."
How has her family received Fun House? Bechdel says her mother is having a "paradoxical reaction . . . She's never been keen on the idea that I was writing the book - she's very private, and even her closest friends don't know a lot of the stuff I reveal about my dad. Yet, oddly, she's psyched about the publicity. She told me she went into a bookstore the other day and bragged to the clerk about me."
While it will draw those inevitable comparisons to "Six Feet Under," Fun Home isn't just a tragicomic saga of a family living cheek by jowl with death. It's also a double coming-out story and what literary critics call a Künstlerroman --the story of how an artist came to be.
"I don't live in other worlds the way I used to," Bechdel says, contrasting her childhood of voracious reading with her more focused adulthood. "I've gone from living through other people's books to living through my own creative work." For all his perfectionism, her father surely would have approved.