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March 05, 2010

Alison Bechdel and Fun Home

Writing about web page

Date: 4th March 2010
Venue: Paul Robeson Centre, Penn State University

Last night I went to see Alison Bechdel talking about her most recent book, Fun Home. In the eighties, Bechdel invented the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For , inspired by the political and gendered issues of the time, and she has done a great deal of work since, including the 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Thinking about why she became a graphic novelist, Bechdel suggests that it might have been because her parents had so many diverse interests in the arts; in poetry, literature, acting and interior decorating. Bechdel felt a little squashed by her parents’ interests, and rather than becoming an artist or a writer as their ambitions for her dictated, she became a graphic novelist/writer.

Bechdel gave us a great deal of insight into how she began to write and draw as a child. For her influences, she talks about the cartoonist Charles Addams and the clever slippage in his work between words and the images.

Charles Addams

Bechdel recognized this kind of slippage in her own family. It was a family that she would later question when she discovered that her father had been suppressing his homosexuality because he longed to be respectable. Like the Gothic houses of Charles Addams’ sketches, Bechdel’s family house was a lovingly restored Victorian mansion that her father took pains to perfect.

Bechdel kept a diary as a child but was always aware of the power and complexity of language. This awareness first manifested itself by Bechdel contradicting herself. As a child, she would write down events from the day, but would often include a tiny doodle of the words “I think” as if to admit that she might be incorrect or fallible. Later this uncertainty manifested itself in crossing out the names of people written about in the diary which worked as a kind of ritual to protect them. Even later, Bechdel was crossing out entire pages and obliterating entire entries.

In addition to this slippage of words, first recognized in Charles Addams, another influence on Bechdel as a child was the map in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows:

It is not the map itself that intrigues Bechdel, so much as the detail and the animation of the characters, e.g. Toad driving his car badly through the landscape. It is this kind of animation that Bechdel wants to achieve through her use of pictures. This ambition also explains why Bechdel, when she is creating a graphic novel, creates photographs of the poses and obsessively looks up images related to the subject that she is drawing on. She calls herself a ‘method cartoonist’.

After explaining her intentions as a writer/artist, Bechdel read the first chapter from Fun Home alongside a projection of images. She read to us about growing up with her father’s perfectionism, his frustration and his sudden bursts of affection.

Fun Home

Though there is a great deal of humour in the descriptions of Bechdel’s family life, the conclusion of the chapter is hugely moving when she describes her troubled relationship with her father and her loss of him to suicide in her early twenties. I would really recommend Fun Home to anyone interested in stories about the family.


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