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By Christopher Treacy
Alison Bechdel has raised the bar rather significantly. She’s expanded her craft well beyond simple cartooning to become a graphic memoirist. She’s also a gay pioneer, having created the groundbreaking strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran in LGBT publications throughout the country for 25 years and cemented her role as a satirist spokeswoman for the community. Combining biting commentary with a serialized storyline, Bechdel helped lesbians at large preserve a humored, sarcastic edge while navigating the rapidly shifting social norms of the period during which the strip – sometimes described as a “dyke’s ‘Doonesbury'” – ran its course (1983-2008). Last year, she was honored with the 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Award.
Bechdel prefers to let her work do the talking for her, which is why giving a lecture, like the one on Jan. 22 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, can prove challenging. Difficult as it may be to believe, looking in on her unabashed cartoon narratives, she’s not a huge fan of dealing with people en masse.
“I am definitely not a people person,” she says over the phone to BTL from her home in Vermont. “I’m very much an introvert, but somehow I can get it up for these public talks. Up on a stage, I may be alone, but I’m alone in a powerful way. So, I’ve been able to make that work. The whole experience is significantly less stressful for me than, let’s say, a dinner party. Sometimes I get asked to participate in events as part of a dialogue panel, and that’s harder.”
She says that one of the biggest challenges she initially faced in delivering lectures has become an asset: as a cartoonist, her audience expects a visual experience. She describes the end result as, “…a very image-heavy PowerPoint presentation,” where she’s got the track of the images running parallel with the track of her talk. Together, they become a sort of “meta-comic,” allowing her to visually map out where she wants the talk portion to go.
That careful marriage of imagery with text is the root of what Bechdel does, and she’s blessed with a gift for complexity. While “Dykes to Watch Out For” hinted at this, it’s the graphic memoirs “Fun Home” (2006) and “Are You My Mother?” (2012) that really showcase her ability to conduct a symphony of interwoven ideas and conversations, straddling shifting timelines and moving between dreams, reality, psychoanalysis and archetypal references.
“The root of all that is actually my ADD,” she explains. “There’s this bizarre dichotomy of being all over the place and somehow being very precise at the same time. I read both comics and illustrated books as a kid, eventually learning how to put them together in a meaningful way. Comics facilitate the ability to say three or four things at once, which is how my brain works. I love that it allows me to show a scene from my life, and (how) I can be commenting on it simultaneously, or I can have characters conducting a dialogue that may or may not be a counterpoint to what they’re actually doing.”
In general, Bechdel, now 54, says she strives to get permission from people before including them in her autobiographical work. But sometimes, misunderstandings occur. The premise for “Are You My Mother?” is a complete deconstruction of her relationship with her mother, who was very much alive at the time it was written and published. She says it caused additional strain on what was already a difficult relationship.
“It definitely made for some strangeness in my relationship with my mother,” she concedes. “I took a very intimate situation and made it public. I would talk with her every day and transcribe our conversations, and I thought the whole time we were also talking about my intentions and I was getting her OK, but in the end maybe that wasn’t the case. I definitely try and get someone’s buy-in if I’m including them in my work – that just feels like an important thing to do.”
As the child of emotionally distant parents that also ran a funeral home – the framework for “Fun Home” – Bechdel came of age in scenarios that almost demanded comic relief. By all accounts, her dad was a closeted homosexual that ended up getting run over, an event that Bechdel considers a suicide. Their mutual homosexuality is both the main source of tension and the glimmer of resolution in “Fun Home,” to which “Are You My Mother?” behaves as a companion piece.
“Fun Home” has since been workshopped into a musical play, landing as a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; it graduates to a Broadway production later this year. But while Bechdel’s penchant for dark humor keeps her work amusing, not everyone can appreciate the tone: There have been attempted library bans of “Fun Home” (something she takes in stride as “a great honor”) and an even larger hubbub about the book’s inclusion on freshman reading lists at South Carolina’s College of Charleston. The latter resulted in some punitive budget cuts which were later reluctantly restored.
Bechdel continues to exorcise demons in her work, though she’s shifted focus, currently constructing a new narrative about physical fitness. Although it’s still coming together, the work is another journey of self reflection, depicting her own pursuit of fitness and how that fits (or doesn’t fit) into our larger societal conversation about exercise and physicality.
“I went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival at a very young age and it deprogrammed me from a lot of the societal norms about physical beauty,” Bechdel says. “You spend a week in the woods with a group of naked women of all shapes and sizes and… I guess it functioned like an early intervention as far as body image goes. We have to learn to love our bodies without torturing ourselves. Fitness, for me, isn’t about how I look so much as how I feel. Those are some of the things I want to talk about now.”
5:10 p.m. Jan. 22
603 East Liberty St., Ann Arbor