September 4, 2012

Graphic Novels, and Alison Bechdel

Graphic novels have been slowly creeping into our house.  I'm not very hip, so I've been slow and skeptical (and mostly just ignorant) of all the wonderful titles out there.  And I'm not talking about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, although Lily has enjoyed them all.  (I don't quite consider them true graphic novels, in the comic panel-by-panel sense.)

I mean, years ago I saw the movie Ghost World, based on Daniel Clowes book, but it didn't quite inspire me to pick up his works.  And before that, I'd long been peripherally aware of the praise for the Maus books, but again wasn't inspired to pick them up.  Blame it on some clueless English-major snobbery on my part.  But last year, after reading great reviews,  I finally got my hands on my library's copy of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and enjoyed it immensely. (Unfortunately I haven't yet gotten my hands on the sequel.)

Earlier this year, Lily picked up the young adult graphic novel, Smile, and she read it in about one and half sittings. It's fast and funny and addictive (and horrifying: all that dental work, from one bad fall!).  I know, because I picked it up and read it, too. And of course I'm a huge fan of Maira Kalman, though I don't regard her works as graphic novels, but more as works of illustrative art. 

It occurs to me as I list these books that they're all memoirs, or in the case of Kalman, rooted deeply in memory.

Which brings me to the two books I recently finished, both memoirs, both graphic novels, both by Alison Bechdel.  I'd read an excerpt from Bechdel's first book, Fun Home, when it was included in a Best American Non-Required Reading anthology a few years ago.  I remembered liking it, so when I saw the full-length book at the library I grabbed it right away, along with its sequel, Are You My Mother?

And I found that I could hardly put either of them down. 
Fun Home, as the subtitle says, really is a tragicomedy.  It opens with the suicide of her father when Bechdel is away at college, but dwells mostly in Bechdel's childhood, growing up with her fussy, irritable father, who was a closeted gay man living in the small town where he grew up.  Bechdel's humor, and her adult awareness, make it amusing to read about her father's fussing over the restoration of their historic gothic house and its flower gardens that were his chief obsession when she was a child.

There are also darker notes: the "fun home" in the title refers to the funeral home that Bechdel's father ran part-time (inherited from his father's business), and thus Bechdel and her two brothers grow up with a certain casualness toward death and dying (which proves a problem when her own father is laid out dead). Also hinting at darkness is the strained relationship between her parents, and the tension she feels at showing any affection toward her father and how wrong and embarrassing it feels, the few times she witnesses any physical affection between her parents.  More hints of darkness come from the young men whom her father dotes on, many of whom he meets in his job as a high-school English teacher.  And against all of this backdrop is Bechdel's own growing awareness that she's a lesbian.

The pull of the past, the pull toward truth, after a childhood with a father whose life was a carefully constructed lie, is the heart of Fun Home.

The sequel to Fun Home is Are You My Mother? which was published earlier this year.  This book is not as easy and entertaining (for lack of a better word) as Fun Home, but it's deeper and more thoughtful. Here, Bechdel attempts to answer questions about her mother, who is still very much alive: who was she before her marriage, and why, as a beautiful, smart young theater actress, did she agree to marry Bechdel's father, and stay with him through years of deceit and anger? Why did her mother stop giving nightly kisses to young Alison as a child, and cease showing her affection in general?
Bechdel also discusses her qualms about writing a memoir -- in fact, much of the book deals with the time when she was working on her first book, and hoping to avoid her mother's anger and disappointment by revealing so many long-buried and uncomfortable family truths.  (Something that I, with my own stalled-in-progress memoir, can relate to all too well.)  There is also quite a lot of time spent discussing therapy and psychoanalysis -- both Bechdel's own experiences, plus the history and theories of one ground-breaking children's development theorist.  Add this in with plenty of references to Viriginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, and it makes for a thought-provoking, if slower, reading experience.
But one that I enjoyed very, very much.

In the course of writing this post, I re-discovered the name of Lynda Barry, and her books Cruddy and One!Hundred!Demons!, both of which have a huge fan base, and have been on the backburner of my "must read" list for a long time.  So obviously, my forays into the world of graphic novels are just beginning.  I have a lot of catching up to do. 

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