Gothic Revival

Old father, old artificer: Tracing the roots of Alison Bechdel's exhilarating new "tragicomic," Fun Home

The idea of replication—of generation, of reproduction, of repetition-only-maybe-with-a-difference—haunts Fun Home. Bechdel said she sometimes feels that her book is "just like an expansion of my freshman English class." For that college class, which she described as "traumatic," taught by a "bastard" who "was so critical that it paralyzed me for a long time," but in which she also "really did learn how to write," she wrote a final paper on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (She got an A-minus; "usually I'd get, like, C's.") Yet Bechdel brought up her compulsive tendencies as a factor, too, in the genesis—or, at least, the production—of the book.

Fun Home is thick with gripping archival elements: handwritten letters from Bechdel's father, typewritten letters from both her parents, her father's police record, dictionary entries, her own childhood and adolescent diaries, and many maps. Bechdel re-drew—re-created—everything in her own hand. The pathos that itself underwrites the project of painstakingly learning to copy a dead father's handwriting is striking, as is her effort to pin it down correctly. "You would not believe how much time I put into those panels," she explained. "I really thought I had lost my mind at that point. It was very hard to do." When I asked about a particularly elaborate map in Fun Home showing mountain ridges of the Allegheny Front, Bechdel spoke slowly in a tone of amused disbelief. "Oh, man, I re-drew that frickin' map! All of that stuff was insane!"

Turning the conversation back to her diaries, she became reflective. As we looked over samples of her childhood handwriting, she said, "What's interesting to me is . . . here I have the weird tic where I would obliterate words, just fixate on that little graphic gesture. I know that I have said that the book is just an expansion of my freshman English paper. But in another way, the book is an expansion of my childhood diary, in that it's this perseveration on detail. You know? In some ways I felt like it was almost a penance to trace everything out in such detail." (Perseveration, OED: "the involuntary repetition or continuance of an action, thought, or utterance.") As Bechdel describes in the book, she developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder at age 10, part of which manifested itself in the "epistemological crisis" of her diary. She would add "I think" to even her simplest descriptions; eventually, she drew an inverted-V symbol to represent this after every sentence, and later she wrote the symbol over and over itself. ("I perseverated until they were blots," the narrative reads.) Finally, she came to draw it over the entire entry.

For Bechdel, who did five or six successive sketches for each image in the book, scrupulous attention to detail is also part of her general approach to working in the visual medium of comics. For every pose in every panel of the entire book (and there are almost 1,000 panels), Bechdel created a reference shot by posing for her digital camera. In a panel, say, depicting a classroom of children sitting at desks, Bechdel posed for every child in the frame. On a promotional DVD that came with the book, showing her setting up a pose, Bechdel notes, "The really interesting thing is when I have to act my parents having a fight and I have to be both of them." Bechdel admitted that there may be a link between this method and her childhood crisis of knowledge: "In the sense that I don't trust my own skill or my own perception, it is similar."

Yet her skill and perception are winning the previously cult-status cartoonist widespread praise. "It's very, very hard to pull something like that off and to do it on that level of skill andcontrol," designer Chip Kidd, who is also the editorial director of Pantheon's graphic-novels division, explained admiringly on the phone from his office. Kidd noted that there is a "dearth of great material" in comics. "Over the past couple of years there's been this perception within the publishing industry that since graphic novels are 'hot,' all we have to do is publish one and we're on easy street. And it doesn't work that way. You need to find a really terrific talent." When I asked Harvey Pekar, one of the godfathers of autobiographical comics, about Bechdel, he said, "As soon as I became aware of Dykes to Watch Out For in the mid '80s, I just thought Alison was head and shoulders above most people even in alternative comics."

Bechdel herself is slightly taken aback by the wealth of press her book has received: a glowing review in the Times, profiles in mainstream venues such as People. "It's weird because I've been publishing books for over 20 years," she told me. "Nothing has ever gotten attention like this. So, in an odd way, I feel envious of my own self. It's like, how come nobody paid any attention to me before? Is my comic strip worse than I thought? Or is this book better than I thought?"

These aren't the only two options, of course; for a cartoonist who has been making a full-time living in comics since 1990, though, "breakout"—a phrase that's been bandied about—might be the wrong term. Yet Pekar said, "I was pretty surprised when Alison turned out this real good work year after year, and I didn't run across her on anyone's list of people's favorite comic-book artists." Kidd is thinking along the same lines: "Fun Home is a surprise and it's not a surprise," he clarified. "It would be a surprise if Dykes to Watch Out For sucked, but it didn't, and it doesn't." Bechdel thinks a shift in cultural attitudes about homosexuality could account for the discrepancy; that this is her first work with a mainstream publisher may have something to do with it too.

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