Funerals and Beauty Parlors: the Work of Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel

There’s a subject I’ve been saving up for some time for this column: one of my favorite comics creators.

I’ve referenced her many times, and she’s a great inspiration to me and to many others: Alison Bechdel. And this is her moment. Just a couple of months ago, she was the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur fellowship (known as the “Genius Grant”). Her work has been adapted for the stage, most recently in 2013, converting one of her bestselling graphic novels into a musical. To see mainstream recognition of this type of an artist I’ve admired for many years is deeply gratifying, to say the least.

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Bechdel appeared on the scene in 1983 with the start of her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which first ran in a feminist newspaper called Womannews. Within a year, the strip was syndicated, appearing in a number of other papers.

A sampling of Bechdel's long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (click to enlarge)
A sampling of Bechdel’s long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For.
(Click to enlarge.)

Dykes is considered one of the earliest representations of lesbian characters in pop culture (I wrote about similar pioneering work by Paige Braddock in this column just over a year ago). Bechdel modeled her work after soap operas and intricate, character-driven Victorian novels, melding a continuous story with topics of interest to her personally. Many of these had to do specifically with the evolving landscape of lesbian life in cities across the country, featuring women’s music festivals and such, but many others (again like Paige Braddock’s Jane’s World) had to do with Bechdel’s take on current events.

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The strip’s characters run the gamut from stereotypical lesbian women to identities that were (at the time) virtually unknown to the mainstream, like drag kings, transgender people and characters in lavender marriages. In this way, it was an education and an insight into what had been, to most, a closed community, but served to humanize the characters and gave them relatable dilemmas. Bechdel never hesitated to lampoon the insularity of gay female culture, using, for example, over-the-top lesbian bookstores and women’s studies courses in academia to show the bubble in which some lesbians chose to exist.

Bechdel was so prolific with the Dykes to Watch Out For strips, and the material was so popular with audiences, that they were collected into no fewer than 12 books. Bechdel had some fun with the compilations, giving them titles like New, Improved! Dykes to Watch Out For and Dykes to Watch Out For: The Sequel. The collections were released from 1986 through 2008.

But the aspect of Bechdel’s work that most people are familiar with are her two beautiful, introspective, jewel-like books, which she calls “tragicomedies.” These books are deeply introspective and autobiographical, sometimes uncomfortably so. The first, Fun Home, focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. The second, Are You My Mother?, obviously concentrates on her mother.

Our parents are always our greatest and most challenging subjects, as I’m hardly the first to note. The people who formed us and our earliest ways of looking at the world around us are, however cryptically, the source of any creative person’s angst and joy. In Bechdel’s case, the material is very rich indeed.

One of many powerful passages from Fun Home.
One of many powerful passages from Fun Home.

In Fun Home, she writes about growing up in a funeral home run by her family. The central figure in this odd little kingdom (not my metaphor; it’s Bechdel’s) is her father. It’s hard to summarize him or the events that are chronicled in Fun Home, but suffice it to say that the author’s father is a closeted gay man wrestling with his identity. His family is intensely keyed into his struggles, and Bechdel illuminates them with brilliant insight (and lots of therapy and detours into literature). At one point in the story, Bechdel’s father is caught buying beer for (and trying to seduce) a high school student, which unravels many threads around his closeted identity.

The book’s conclusion is ambiguous, reflecting the author’s struggle with the image of her father and the mystery of his death. We see her both as a product of this complicated man—clearly, there is a link in their sexuality, but they share many other characteristics—and as his observer. Fun Home spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, an achievement so remarkable for a comics work that, naturally, reviewers and editors pronounced it a totally genre-busting work and thus worthy of such salutation.

From Fun Home (Click to enlarge.)
From Fun Home
(Click to enlarge.)

Are You My Mother? takes place after Bechdel’s father’s death and delves into her relationship with her mother. Much of the story takes place during Bechdel’s college years, during which she finds her identity, and her time as a young adult. Psychotherapy is interwoven deeply with Bechdel’s narrative, and she lavishes pages upon theories of psychology that she’s explored in an effort to understand herself and become an individual in the shadow of her two complicated parents.

Bechdel’s work crosses too many themes for me to come up with a collection of even a dozen to explore here. This is one of the most amazing things about reading her: spending some time in that wonderful mind. But beyond her exploration of family dynamics and psychology, one thing that has really stayed with me each time I’ve read her books is her exploration of masculinity from so many angles.

Are You My Mother? is an evolution of the techniques used in Fun Home, yet somehow of a piece with it.
Are You My Mother? is an evolution
of the techniques used in Fun Home,
yet somehow of a piece with it.

There are a number of signature techniques Bechdel uses that would be ripe for parody, if the work weren’t just so damned good. Bechdel is one of those writer/illustrators that I so admire (given that I haven’t the ability to so much as draw a stick figure), and her work is even more remarkable when you view it as the fusion of two processes taking place: the visual and the verbal. Bechdel doesn’t decouple her words and images often, but you can read them independently of each other; Fun Home and Are You My Mother? contain easily as much text as prose novels, yet somehow aren’t the gigantic tomes that other memoir-oriented, autobiographical writer/artists tend to create.

Even more remarkably, though she and her family are the subject matter of the stories and we’re given deep insight into all sorts of therapy and deconstruction of both, none of it feels self indulgent or narcissistic; rather, the prevailing sense is of a person working hard to make sense of where she came from and what this means about what she has to give to the world.