So far, Alison Bechdel has provided our culture with three impressive works: Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and Are You My Mother.
First she wrote the long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran bi-weekly in alternative publications across the US for 25 years — from 1983 to 2008. DTWOF chronicled the changing lives of a group of friends — as they dated, danced, marched on Washington, as they moved on from graduate school to their careers, as their careers were swept out from under them, as they raised children, bought property, said goodbye to parents, as they confronted closed minded neighbors and teachers. The characters aged realistically, the new questions, challenges, and complications of the latest stage in their lives always reflected in the next storyline.
At the same time, DTWOF served as a platform upon which the characters would debate the news of the day. The newspapers in their hands and the voice from the nearby TV would broadcast terrifying tales of war and descrimination. They lived through and felt judicial decisions and tragic events — two of them traveled to Vermont for a civil union, the lawyer among them fell into a deep depression after the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore, they held their breaths on 9/11, they felt the pinch of credit card debt in their own pockets and the anxiety of antidepressants in their friends’.
In short, DTWOF is a 25-year-long marriage of the personal and the political that chronicles a slice of History as seen by a close-knit group of (mostly) lesbian friends living in a small city in the United States.
In 2006 at the height of her comics excellence, Alison Bechdel published Fun Home, the best-selling, award-winning absolutely astounding comic memoir that like MAUS or Persepolis before it redefined the genre and seemed to open readers’ eyes to just what a graphic narrative could be. With Fun Home she focused her eye on herself and her father’s story, prying him open like a reluctant bud, petal by petal, to discover the intersection of the personal, political, historical, literary, the places where we live out our metaphors and the places where metaphors live in the world. She frames her work with a sophisticated narration, one that draws us close with asides and admissions even as it lays forth the larger story — including references to Proust, Joyce, Camus, and Fitzgerald — sprawled out in the (typically in comics wordless) “gutter”: yes, Bechdel asks us to literally “read between the panels.”
Bechdel’s work is unflinchingly visceral and unflinchingly intellectual. Fun Home is as much about how literature affects and reflects our lives as it is an affecting reflection of Bechdel’s childhood. It is as much about the crisis of the memoirist — who must face her own gaps of memory, her own doubts about her recollections and conclusions — as it is the tale of an unusual family wrapped in a web of strange coincidences living out a slow-motion tragedy.
This book has proved so affecting and so popular that it was adapted into a musical which has been playing off-Broadway and opens on Broadway this month.
In 2012 Bechdel published Are You My Mother? — a companion to Fun Home in that Fun Home focused on her relationship with her father, and this book on her relationship with her mother. The books are wildly different, though, from their core conceits to the finer structures of the narrative. Are You My Mother covers a vaster span of time, including during the writing of this book, and is structured around dream interpretation and the work of psychologists including Sigmund Freud and Donald Winnicott. It is a more mature work more focused on the process of becoming well and reconciliation.
In 2014 Bechdel was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” Several of us here at Drake teach her work, and many of us regarded her as a “genius” long before the MacArthur foundation laid that weighty title upon her. Individually, different professors’ angle of interest in Bechdel’s work varies — based on our focus on formal concerns, graphic narrative or memoir as genres, feminist political thought, and so on — and her comics prove endlessly rewarding because they are so rich in personal truth, skillful portrayal, critical inquiry, theory-based analysis and virtually every other realm of the literary.
The Susan Glaspell Writers and Critics Reading Series brings writers and critics to Drake University to speak to students and give readings of their work and ideas.
All of our events are free and open to the public.