Monday, March 03, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Alison Bechdel

Before 2006, Alison Bechdel was what would politely be termed a “niche” artist. Her biweekly comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, had won her a loyal but small following, but greater success seemed distant.

Then came the release of Fun Home, her 2006 memoir of her relationship with her father, an emotionally distant, closeted gay man (and funeral director) who died, possibly by suicide, just when she herself was coming out of the closet.

The book wowed folks in and outside the industry, garnering praise from unlikely sources such as Time magazine (which named it the book of the year) and Entertainment Weekly, and Bechdel’s name quickly moved into the upper tier of comics artists, alongside folks like Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman.

Bechdel will appear Tuesday evening at Dickinson College to talk about Fun Home, Dykes and the art of making comics in general. I talked to her recently about the book’s success and how it has affected her.

Q: I want to start off talking about your visit to Dickinson. You’re going to be attending two classes, one on memoirs and the one on graphic narratives. Do you have anything planned? Any idea what you’re going to be talking about?

A: (laughs) You know, I didn’t even realize I’m going to be speaking to two classes.

Q: I could be wrong, so —

A: I haven’t really examined my paperwork (laughs). I guess I shouldn't really admit that should I? I've just been really busy. That sound really fun though. I would love to talk to a memoir class and really get to address the more literary, writing aspects of the book.

Q: Well what’s your evening lecture going to be about? Is it going to be similar to the F&M one?

A: It’s going to be very similar. Not identical. It will be certainly updated. You’re going to think I’m a total fraud (laughter).

I talk about my comic strip and its history and evolution, some of the current story lines I’m grappling with. Then I’ll read from Fun Home and I don’t think I’ll really talk about insofar as I’ll be answering any questions people might have.

Q: I know I really enjoyed how you went through how the book came together.

A: Oh no, you’re right, I will talk about some of the particular production issues, like how I made it and what the process of drawing it was like.

Q: I found those things fascinating, but then I’m a big nerd.

A: It’s a very nerdy activity.

Q: How has your life changed as a result of Fun Home’s success?

A: I spend a chunk of every day turning down projects that people want to do. Invitations to submit something to an anthology (laughs). It’s this invisible part of my new job description. It’s so hard to stay focused on something because everyone wants you to do something else while you’re still a hot commodity.

I did get drawn off into one project that took months of my time but it really felt worth it. That was including a graphic essay about the state of Vermont for a book about the states that will be coming out later this year.

Q: That sounds interesting.

A: It was a really different sort of thing for me to do.

Q: Is it a history of Vermont or more about what it’s like to live in Vermont now?

A: The project is called “State by State” and edited by Sean Wilsey. It could be anything we want. The book is based on the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project tour guides that hired unemployed writers to produce during the depression. They had people like John Steinbeck writing whatever they wanted about a state. It’s kind of like that. I got to do whatever I want. It’s mostly historical but it’s also personal.

Q: The book won a lot of accolades — book of the year from Time magazine, number one nonfiction book from Entertainment Weekly — I’m sure you were surprised by all the praise, but what do you attribute it to? There also seems to be some sort of cultural shift going on.

A: Totally. I think it’s two cultural shifts. One is the increasing acceptance of graphic narrative and literacy. People read comics more readily than they used to. The whole “comics are not just for kids anymore” thing. People are recognizing the true potential of this medium.

But the other thing is, at the same time that graphic narratives were slowly inching towards mainstream acceptance, so were gay and lesbian narratives. When this all happened to me 25-30 years ago, I couldn't have sold a story about a lesbian and her gay dad. Who would want to read that? There’s been this whole cultural and political movement that has made those stories accessible and meaningful to a broader audience.

I just happened to be out there on the ocean paddling on my surfboard and I sorta caught both these waves at the same time.

Q: It’s interesting because you were someone who was known in the gay communities and comic strip community for Dykes but within the larger comics and indie community you weren’t well known before Fun Home. Do you feel vindicated by the success of the book?

A: Vindicated, that’s a good word. I do kind of feel that way.

I had been laboring in obscurity for decades. I was getting more and more bitter about it.

Q: Were you really?

A: I was! It was getting harder to make a living on Dykes to Watch Out For, I was working on this crazy project about my dad that was taking all of my time and energy and I had no idea if it was going to work. I never really threw myself into the comics universe, into that world because when I started working, it just seemed natural that my milieu was the gay and lesbian literary scene. That was my world and I didn't even try to enter the comic book universe.

Since Fun Home came out and since Dykes has persisted over the years, I’ve kind of been grandfathered in as a member of the cartoon world, which was surprising to me at first because I always felt completely invisible.

Q: You’ve been making the rounds lately — you were at the New York show and I saw you at MoCCA. For someone who’s been out of that community what has that experience been like to be thrust in the middle of all these comics conventions and whatnot?

A: It was crazy. I’d never been to a comic convention before. I loved MoCCA because it was so small. The other ones — San Diego and New York — were just kind of mind-blowing.

Q: What was your impression of them?

A: People were always talking and joking about how people go to these conventions and dress up in costumes and it was there. But it was exciting to see people who really cared passionately about this medium. That was thrilling. I was a little confused by all the other things that seem to get drawn in under the rubric of comics like pro wrestling? I don’t quite get all that.

Q: Did you feel like you were well received in San Diego and New York?

A: Oh yeah. There’s so much going on. The people I wanted to find found me.

At San Diego I was worried about that. I went to check out the room I was going to be in and it was huge. It was ridiculous. And it was pretty full, all these people came. It was a sympathetic, excited audience. That was really gratifying. Cause I was up against who knows what. Some comic book they were trying to turn into a movie.

Q: In the book you talk about how you bristled at the way literature was taught and symbolism was forced. But now your book is being taught in college and not just any but a class about comics. What’s your reaction to that?

A: It’s a little disturbing to be institutionalized. But of course I’m immensely grateful for it. I think of people being forced to read my work and I don’t like that. I just got an email from a kid — I have to read this to you: “I just read Fun Home in an English class Intro to the graphic novel. Initially I thought it would be an angry story about the struggles that a homosexual American faces, but I’ve got to say that I was wrong and I really enjoyed it." That’s pretty touching, but I do feel that it’s getting shoved down some people’s throats. That’s a little disturbing.

Q: Are you worried about it becoming institutionalized in other senses too? The book is being quickly put up there next to Persepolis and Maus.

A: I know and that is so crazy! But that’s just how people process a medium. Those books are all so different.

Q: It does seem like the memoir seems to be an easy way for people to slide into comics. If it’s a true story people seem more willing to accept it. Do you find that to be true?

A: Yeah, and that’s actually another of those waves that I should’ve mentioned. This craving for memoirs that the culture is undergoing. I kind of caught that wave too.

Q: There does seem to be a real memoir wave right now.

A: Personally, I love fiction but everyone can’t make up a story (laughs). Turing a story out of the stuff of life fascinates me. How do you make a coherent narrative out of just the random chaos of our lives? I find that very exciting.

Q: Has the book’s success hindered your work at all? Has it proved daunting for you?

A: Oh my god yes. I was pretty much reconciled myself to the fact that this next book is going to suck. I can’t think too much about that or I’ll be utterly paralyzed. I have been paralyzed for a while actually. But I think it’s going to be alright.

Q: Can we talk a little bit about your family’s reaction to the book?

A: Sure.

Q: When I talked to you last time you said they weren’t happy, not so much about the book itself but it’s success.

A: Well none of us were prepared for how visible the book was going to be and how much press it was going to get. We all sort of expected it would reach the audience that Dykes to Watch Out For did which meant the neighbors wouldn’t see it.

Well, the neighbors did see it. My mom’s friends read about it and read it. We hadn’t anticipated what that would mean and it was difficult for all of them to have someone else tell their story.

None of them object to anything in particular that I wrote. I think they would agree that it was fairly accurate. But still they have different versions of those events and different interpretations and I think it was just hard to see the one version out there be assumed to be the true or correct version. It would be disturbing to have someone else use me as a character in their story.

Q: Have they been able to reconcile over it since then?

A: We don’t really talk about it that much. It’s kind of blown over.

Q: That’s certainly something you can talk about for your memoir class. The dangers of putting your family in your work.

A: Yes, but it’s a funny, double-edged thing, because I don’t think I’d be the kind of person that would expose my family’s intimate stories in public if I hadn’t been raised by that particular family. I kind of have this emotional distance to things. It enables me to do something that other people might be too squeamish or decent to do.

Q: I do want to talk a little bit about the book. One of the things that impressed me about the book was its cyclical nature. You go forward in time and then go back and reveal a bit more. What made you decide to take that approach rather than a straightforward, linear approach?
A: It wasn’t so much a decision. It became clear very early on that I couldn’t tell the story chronologically. I tried to put the events in order and there were so many things that I wanted to say about each of them that I kept going off on these tangents and I realized that wasn’t going to work. What interested me most about the story was not what happened but my ideas about what had happened.

I realized fairly early on that I was going to have to organize the material thematically and not chronologically. That just redirected everything. There’s a chapter about death and growing up in a funeral home. There’s a chapter about homosexuality. I would take the narrative elements of the story that fit into that theme and unfold them there. I just hoped the story revealed enough information about the actual story that it would all work. Some events were gone over multiple times from different angles. It was kind of just by necessity. I didn’t start out looking at it that way.

Q: What about your choices like the green color in the book? How did that come about?

A: It’s hard to even remember now. I guess I’d seen — I don’t know if it was the publisher’s idea or mine but I’d seen stuff like Ghost World where it’s two color, blue and black.

I balked at it at first. I was committed to doing everything in black and white because it was sort of like my story with my dad. My dad was a color freak and he was always into painting and wanted me to do more with color. He would show me how to color in my coloring books as a child. I would always rebel against that. I wanted to prove that you don’t need color to reproduce the world in a convincing way. I just felt like I wasn’t going to not do it because of my dad. That would just be giving him more power. So I decided sure, what the hell, let’s use color.

Q: Was the book cathartic for you in any way? Did you feel a certain chapter had closed through working on it?
A: There were certainly moments in the earlier part of the process that were very emotional. There were these intense things I had to wrestle with. The book was cathartic. Not every moment I was working on it. It was grueling labor. But I feel like the book is my proper funeral for my dad. Whatever it is funerals mean to people. Some kind of acknowledgement of a person’s life and death.

I just never felt like that was never done properly. The funeral we had felt very farcical to me. I couldn’t relate to it. This is the most overused word in our culture, but I didn’t have any closure to his death and I think I do now.

Q: As you’ve been touring and doing signings over the past two years, is there any particular reaction or response that stands out for you?

A: There’s no one event but it was striking to me how many people from wildly disparate backgrounds said they felt like it was their story about their family. I’d think “Oh, you were raised by a gay man in a funeral home too?” Some of them were frighteningly similar. I don’t understand why so many people felt it was so intimately about them.

Q: Perhaps it’s a comment on how family secrets are more common than we like to think.

A: Yeah, I think revealing secrets was exciting for people. Everyone has that stuff.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trying to understand human love relationships. It’s a case study of my own romantic history. People ask are you doing a sequel and I guess technically it is cause it’s about my twenties and early thirties. I’m examining relationships and trying to figure out why we do this. In this project I’m reading a lot of psychoanalytic stuff. It sounds really deadly, but I’m learning some interesting things and I want to find a way to make those more accessible to people who aren’t going to sit down and read Freud. I don’t know how it’s going to go. It’s still very much in the early stages.

Q: I was going to ask how far along you were.

A: Not very.

Q: Didn’t you have to cut back on the strip in order to get Fun Home out?

A: I did slow down. I thought I might just do this because my deadlines for this book are really short. The last book took me seven years and this one has two and a half years, one of which is already gone. I did try to cut back for awhile and I did that for about six months but I found that it took me exactly as much time to produce one strip a month as it did to produce two. So I went back to two.

I feel like I’m keeping this little world, this parallel universe, going, but it’s unspooling in real time and I was having to get as much material into one strip as I would into two. So it was actually more work.

Q: Does working on the strip serve as a kind of antidote or cleansing?

A: It did with Fun Home. I would be totally in my own navel doing this intense, introspective stuff and it was very refreshing to come out and deal with the real world for a week. But I haven’t gotten into a rhythm with the new book yet. The title of it is Love Life. I'm hoping to get into that rhythm pretty soon.

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At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solid interview, Chris. I'm now curious to see what tha “State by State” project is all about.

At 12:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed the interview. It gave insight and information on some things that haven't been discussed prior. Thanks!

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoy it, me too.

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


A Heteroclite Author Speaks

Her life story is a paean to her strength of character and her reverence for the sanctity of truth telling. As such, she takes pride in promulgating the most intricate details of her own personal truth, despite the inherent pain that lies therein. Her name is Alison Bechdel, cartoonist extraordinaire, and author of "Fun Home", a graphic memoir with "tragicomic" dimensions. This autobiographical work was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and was number one on Time Magazine's best books of the year list for 2006. Bechdel is best known for her comic strip, "Dykes To Watch Out For" which first emerged on the literary fringe scene in 1983 in a feminist journal called Woman News. For 25 years, Bechdel has been churning out her strip on a daily or weekly basis, depending on her need for down time, and has published her entire collection of comics in 11 books of the same name.

On Wednesday evening, March 5th, at a presentation of her 2006 graphic memoir, "Fun Home", Ms. Bechdel was introduced to the audience of over 400 at the Rutgers University Student Center by Hillary Chute. Ms. Chute is currently a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows and last year she earned a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University with a dissertation titled “Contemporary Graphic Narratives: History, Aesthetics, Ethics.” Her interest in comics began when she read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” in a graduate class on contemporary fiction. She introduced Ms. Bechdel by reading an e-mail exchange that she had with her senior editors at The Village Voice concerning "Fun Home".

Bechdel told the audience that she had been working on this book for seven years, yet in reality she has been working on it all her life. Having retained her early childhood diary entries, family photos and an iron clad memory, she set about to re-create the world that she grew up in on the pages of gray and green cartoon panels. Her first major cartoonist influence was the work of Charles Addams, whose gothic house was an eery reminder of her own, a place where, according to Bechdel, "things don't appear what they seem". The major focus of the book surrounds the complex relationship with her "cryptic, perfectionist dad", Bruce Bechdel who died at the age of 44. It is not clear whether his untimely demise could be attributed to a tragic road accident or premeditated suicide. Bechdel says that her book is an "intricate structure, based on books that her father was obssessed with." The works of Camus, Joyce, Ulysses, Colette and Proust are intertwined into the narrative and the literary allusion, the influence of literature on life, and the influence of life on the interpretation of literature play a prominent role in the text.

During a slide show presentation of pages from her book, Bechdel read a chapter entitled "The Artificer", which speaks volumes about the underlying pathos of her father. Bruce Bechdel was employed as a high school English teacher and was the town's (Beech Creek, PA) funeral home director (one meaning for the "fun home" of the title), and Bechdel notes that her father "appeared an ideal husband." Aside from some epochally misguided escapades with local teenagers, Bechdel obsessively channeled his energies into the florid renovation of the family's gothic revival house. ''He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not,'' Bechdel says. She continued, ''My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret.'' While earnestly contemplating how to come out to her parents as a lesbian while in her freshman year at Oberlin College, Bechdel learned that her father was engaging in sexual relations with underage teenage boys and even had a run-in with the law for serving alcohol to minors.

Bechdel also laments the fact that her father was at best emotionally distant and at worst verbally abusive. "My father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture." says Bechdel. "He was emotionally absent and while he was alive, I ached as if he were already gone." She also spoke of the "fully developed self-loathing" of her father that manifested itself in the form of a man "obsessed with his appearance" while showing "no physical form of affection" to his children. What seems to have irked Bechdel the most was the subtle dishonesty, outright lies and appearances of "normalcy" that her father attempted to extol. Because of this Bechdel says she "developed a fetish for the truth, for detailed authenticity". "Appearances are deceiving and I wanted to be upfront about being gay. I've always felt the tension between being an an outsider and being accepted and I wanted everyone to know that I was a 'big dyke'." she says.

For Bechdel, becoming an artist and writer meant, "bridging symbol and reality. Images and words solved a problem of self-obliteration." In the last segment of the evening Bechdel revealed the technical aspects of the creative process in the making of "Fun Home" by showing a most fascinating and informative slide show of the convergence of panels and words in her work and even a mini-video of herself drawing and painting the characters and scenes from her home drawing board.

The evening concluded with Ms. Bechdel autographing copies of "Fun Home" and "Dykes To Watch Out For" for her legions of loyal and devoted fans, and did so until "the cows came home" as she stated on her blog. Bechdel's face appeared visibly worn as the evening wound down. Despite it all, she graciously greeted the seemingly endless line of admirers. While most writers on a book tour relish the notoriety, lavish attention, adulation and accolades bestowed upon them, it would appear that being the subject of such praise is a most daunting task for Bechdel. As she confided to one woman, "I'm really an introvert."

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