by Holly L.
If you don’t think you know Alison Bechdel, cartoonist extraordinaire whose 2006 graphic novel Fun Home was adapted as a Broadway musical, you may have heard of the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test, a tool for evaluating the depiction of women in film (though the test can be applied to literature as well), has its origins in The Rule, a 1985 strip of her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. In response to being asked to go see a movie, a character explains her “rule” about movies having to meet three requirements: 1) it has to have at least two women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something besides a man. Bechdel has expressed surprise at the cultural influence of something that came about when she was out of ideas for her strip and heard her friend Liz Wallace mention her own version of the “rule.”
“The only movie my friend could go see was Alien, because the two women talk to each other about the monster. But somehow young feminist film students found this old cartoon and resurrected it in the Internet era and now it’s this weird thing. People actually use it to analyze films to see whether or not they pass that test. Still … surprisingly few films actually pass it.”
Bechdel got her start as a professional comic artist in June 1983 when WomaNews, a New York-based feminist newspaper, published her first strip. Her single panel art evolved into multi-panel strips and she was later picked up by several national alternative and gay weekly papers. Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF) chronicled the everyday lives and misadventures of lesbians in a mid-size American city. Bechdel referred to it as “half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel.”
Bechdel, who identifies as a lesbian since coming out at age 19, may be best known for her graphic novel memoirs that explore sexuality, identity, and familial relationships. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was published two years before DTWOF ended its run in 2008. This richly-detailed, poignant, and humorous autobiography delves into Bechdel’s past as the daughter of Bruce Bechdel, a closeted gay funeral home director.
The details of the author’s youth are as carefully rendered as the family’s gothic revival house was painstakingly restored by her father, an aesthete who, “treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” Bechdel compares her late father to F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author he revered, and the entire novel is peppered with literary allusions, which is fitting considering both her mother and father were teachers and voracious readers.
As Bechdel reflects on her relationship with her late father, I was moved by her ability to render him with sympathy despite his many flaws as a parent. I’ve heard some refer to Fun Home as a “gateway” graphic novel, as its themes of family and identity and its tender, comic narrative have a universal appeal, making it accessible to readers who may be new to the form.
Are You My Mother?: a Comic Drama was published in 2012 and was the first full length work of Bechdel’s that I read. Pregnant with my first child at the time, I was especially drawn to this fascinating portrait of Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother. A formidable figure, Bechdel’s mother kept her daughter at a distance, and stopped touching or kissing her good-night at the age of seven.
A frustrated artist stuck in a deeply unhappy marriage, Helen Bechdel might be what English pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called a “good enough mother”- a mother who, in her imperfection, gives her child space to grow and develop independently of her. Bechdel spends quite a bit of ink on Winnicott and his object-relations theory, and on psychoanalytic therapy, where Bechdel has spent many hours over the years. In addition to examining her intense relationship with her mother, she also chronicles her romantic relationships with women over the years as a self-confessed “serial monogamist.”
I think that many readers will sympathize, as I did, with Bechdel’s simultaneous desire to please her mother while also trying to establish her own creative identity. A scene that I found especially touching involved Bechdel’s mother taking dictation from a young Bechdel, as she narrated the events of her day: a mother-daughter diary collaboration as well as a foreshadowing of the years of therapy to come in Bechdel’s future.
Bechdel’s most recent graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, came out in 2021 and focuses on the author’s lifelong obsession with working out.
Starting with a childhood preoccupation with the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads she saw in her comic books, Bechdel became fixated on exercise as a means of quieting her anxious brain and controlling, and even transcending, her physical form. Although I was a bit skeptical when I first heard the subject of the book, any misgivings were laid to rest as I quickly became absorbed by the narrative, following Bechdel on a diverse tour that visits Jack Kerouac and the Beats, the Romantic poets, and Transcendentalist thinkers, along with figures from Bechdel’s life.
On this journey, Bechdel uses exercise to explore bigger subjects, digging at the question of why we exercise, which can be extended to why we do anything. Organized by decade, this is a book of substance and plenty of style, with Bechdel’s trademark precise drawings enlivened by her partner artist Holly Rae Taylor’s brushstrokes of vivid color. As much as I loved her previous two memoirs, they dealt with pretty heavy subjects, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength, while just as thoughtfully crafted as any of her other works, is a bit lighter, making it a perfect candidate for a great summer read.
Holly is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting, preferably with a strong cup of tea and Downton Abbey in the queue.