Gothic Revival


Alison Bechdel’s book tour for Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic first brought her to New York City on Father’s Day. At the lesbian bar Cattyshack, as the crowd for its Sunday BBQ streamed back and forth from the outside deck, Bechdel greeted fans, signed copies, and projected images from her book onto the interior brick wall. As she was leaving three days later—after a series of packed appearances—the city was gearing up for Pride. The timing, though unintentional, is “kind of perfect,” she told me over coffee on Christopher Street, where her mother lived as a young woman in the 1950s and was often visited by Bechdel’s father when they were courting.

“How much did my mother’s milieu factor into his attraction?” Bechdel asks in Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 232 pp., $19.95), a graphic memoir about growing up gay with a mercurial—and closeted— dad. “Had he somehow conflated her with her address, like Proust’s narrator had with Gilberte and the garden?” Bruce Bechdel ultimately committed suicide in 1980, only months after his daughter came out as a lesbian. (Bechdel said that she and her mother “have a consensus” that he purposely jumped backward in front of an oncoming Sunbeam Bread truck.) Bechdel, 45, lives in Vermont and has been publishing her syndicated Dykes to Watch Out For strip since 1983. She started the book at a point in her life when her father had been dead for as long as she had known him when he was alive. Combining appealing, crisp black line art with gray-green ink wash throughout its seven chapters, it is an extended reflection on what lay under the surface of her parents’ lives when the Bechdel clan lived together in an old Gothic Revival house in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania (population 800).

Two days after Father’s Day, at a reading at the LGBT Community Center in the West Village, Bechdel said that the book “feels like a proper funeral for my father.” And yet nothing feels resolved about the masterful Fun Home. Like the irony that holidays marking recognition of respect for one’s father (the book’s knotty subject) and respect for one’s sexuality (a feat he never accomplished) sandwiched Bechdel’s appearance in New York, Fun Home is an enormously successful work because it hinges on the shades of complexity in the relationship between the author and her paternal subject—the anger and the identification. In narrative content and, crucially, in its form and intricate process of production, the book registers the never-not-thorny reality that Bruce Bechdel—a closed-off, petty tyrant who valued his children for “the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit”—was both, as Bechdel told me, “an inhibiting influence and a very, very encouraging one.”

Bechdel indefatigably researched her family during the seven years it took to create Fun Home, whose title refers to their common abbreviation for “funeral home.” When her mother found out she was doing a book, Bechdel was cut off: ” ‘No more information about your dad,’ ” Bechdel remembers her saying. “She felt quite betrayed. And justifiably so. Essentially I used information she had given me in confidence over the years.” Currently, although “it’s painful for her to have the information out there,” her mother, Bechdel said, “also understands writing and the imperative of storytelling, and there’s a way that she respects the project, despite her discomfort.”

Fun Home ‘s narrative is recursive, not chronological—it returns again and again to central, traumatic events, such as the phone conversation in which Alison’s mother reveals to her that her father slept with the former babysitter Roy. Most dazzlingly, it is intricately presented through the lens of the literature that Bechdel’s father—a high school English teacher, Victoriana-obsessed home restorer, and part-time undertaker—most loved. Alison’s parents, she lets us know, were emotionally distant people who refracted—for better or for worse, but probably for worse—their own experience through literature. As she puts it in the book, “the line that Dad drew between reality and fiction was indeed a blurry one.” In early romantic letters included in the book from her father to her mother, we see ample evidence of this. On Fitzgerald: “He reminds me much of myself.” On the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams”: “He is me.” On Faulkner, in a later letter to Alison: “Faulkner is Beech Creek. The Bundrens ARE Bechdels.” And, finally, on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to Alison: “You damn well better identify with every page.”

While most prominently engaged with Joyce in its first and last chapters, Fun Home also takes on as thematic and narrative filters Camus (A Happy Death, the book Bruce Bechdel was reading when he died), Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), James (Washington Square; The Portrait of a Lady), Stevens (“Sunday Morning”), Proust (Remembrance of Things Past), Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), and Colette (Earthly Paradise), among others. It’s a riveting narrative conceit, in part because it appears, at least on the surface, to cede to the kind of emotional distance that Bechdel seems to critique in her own family. As cartoonist Howard Cruse, former editor of Gay Comix and creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, points out, “It’s both a way of standing back from and contemplating the family dynamics, and also, it itself is the family dynamics.”

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.

And yet, Fun Home really is a departure from her previous work, because its narrative, shuttling between past and present, is so richly layered, and because its premise is completely nonfictional. It’s also a book that shows how powerfully— and economically—the medium can portray autobiographical narrative. With two-part visual and verbal narration that isn’t simply synchronous, comics presents a distinctive narrative idiom in which a wealth of information may be expressed in a highly condensed fashion. Note, for instance, the immense amount of detail in Alison’s childhood home—which operates like a character unto itself. According to Ariel Schrag, an L Word writer who has been publishing autobiographical comics since she was a teenager, the house “functions like the ubiquitous presence of her father.” Even in the mother-daughter scene in which Alison announces her period, “it’s like her father, his relationship to each of them, is there as well.” Composed in frames, comics also always registers a self-awareness of its own process of selecting moments for interpretation. Fun Home, like its important predecessors in the field of nonfiction comics, is not only about events in history, but also about the process of memory. “You can’t talk about a graphic novel without talking about its many physical details,” Bechdel noted; Fun Home‘s physical details function narratively, and forcefully. “I do think there’s a connection between autobiography and comics,” Schrag said. “It has to do with visualizing memory. Every writer incorporates their past into their work, but that act becomes more specific when you’re drawing.”

For Bechdel, drawing—making her literal mark—has always been important. The last chapter of Fun Home is its most brilliant, and most moving, in part because Bechdel finally surpasses her father: She becomes the artist he always wished he could be. This, in a sense, is the book’s real sadness. In one scene, after her father gives her his copy of Ulysses for a college course—”Here, take this. It’s the copy I used in college”—she fakes her way through the pedantic class. We see Alison in bed in a nightgown, reading the book, frowning: “What the fuck?” The narration tells us: “I had little patience for Joyce’s divagations when my own odyssey [of coming out] was calling so seductively.” Bechdel told me that although she’s come to appreciate the book, “I wrote all over that copy of Ulysses. It was sort of like fuck you. A fuck you both to my dad and to James Joyce because it was such an annoying book to read, really. I wrote in it as I was reading. Sometimes I would draw pictures over the page. I didn’t want to treat the book reverentially.” Yet Ulysses, bestowed upon her by her father, comes to be, finally, in Fun Home, the opposite of the psychic burden it once represented. Bechdel uses the text on her own terms to understand their relationship: She no longer has to write over it with her own drawings, but can incorporate it into her own drawings. In the final pages, there is slippage between Alison and Bruce Bechdel as they figure various Joycean characters: first, Bechdel presents Alison as Stephen and her father as Bloom. Next Alison is shown as Bloom, contemplating his father’s suicide. Then her father is suggested as both Stephen (“I’m not a hero”) and Joyce himself, in his less palatable moments. When Bechdel has finished narrating the publication history of Ulysses, her book also ends: The end of Ulysses becomes the end of Bruce Bechdel. “What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea?” she asks. “What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought?” The answer, of course, is the book itself.