Alison Bechdel’s comic psychodramas

Author Alison Bechdel. Photo by Elena Seibert.
Author Alison Bechdel. Photo by Elena Seibert.

Editor’s note: This book review is by John R. Killacky, the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. This article was adapted from one originally published in the St. Louis Beacon (www.stlbeacon.org), reprinted with permission.

For three decades, Alison Bechdel, who lives in Bolton, has been challenging and transforming aesthetic boundaries. First as a lesbian, whose comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For” was widely syndicated for 25 years, and then as an award-winning graphic novelist with “Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic.” Time Magazine named it the Best Book of 2006 and it was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

This groundbreaking graphic memoir literally and figuratively drew us into Bechdel’s dysfunctional family, particularly her relationship with her father, a stern obsessive man who was a high school English teacher and ran a funeral home. It was not until she was in college when she came out as a lesbian, that she discovered her father had been a closeted gay man. After only one conversation between them about their shared gay identity, a few weeks later, he committed suicide.

Bechdel’s journal became an international literary sensation; a best-seller that also had people calling for it to be banned in public libraries. This work was game changing for the genre, as Bechdel disrupted the primarily male and straight pantheon of comic literature with her unabashedly queer sensibility. Her book was virtuosic, ingenious in its visual construction and literary execution, demonstrating that graphic novels were not solely the domains of youth.

Now Bechdel returns with a new graphic work, “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama,” filling in the backstory of her tumultuous family growing up and during the writing of her earlier bittersweet memoir, but now with her mother at center stage. The journey is both poignant and hilarious as Bechdel excavates memories to forge emotional connections with her aloof and distant parent, as their Electra complex is played out and she seeks reconciliation and resolution.

Bechdel looks back and tries to understand, yet distinguish herself from her mother, drawing from photographs, early diary entries, letters, sketches, and transcriptions of present-day phone conversations. She has been obsessively journaling her life since she was 10, so there is ample basal material here.

Living with a closeted husband and raising three children took its toll. Her mother told a 7-year-old Bechdel she was too old to be kissed goodnight any longer, and her two brothers were more valued than she. Her emotionally estranged parent was most alive and joyful out of the home, acting in community theater productions.

Non-linear and recursive, scenes shift back and forth in time and are replayed over and over again, from multiple points of view from the girl child, as well as the now adult narrator. Literary references abound. Virginia Woolf’s diaries are juxtaposed throughout, as well as psychobabble from Sigmund Freud, Donald Winnicott and Alice Miller, along with Bechdel’s own therapy sessions with analysts.

Her signature drawing style, honed over decades of creating comic strips, is precise, uncluttered and forthrightly direct — extremely effective in helping to detail emotions and story. Each frame adds nuance and detail, propelling the narrative forward and enhancing the text. It is lovely to see familiar characters from her previous “Dykes to Watch Out For” chronicles reappear in this memoir, as well as scenes from her father’s tale, now portrayed through another perspective lens.

In her inimitable style as graphic alchemist, Bechdel has created another audacious book: insightful, engrossing, entertaining and courageous. Throughout she dares herself to begin and begin again, challenging herself to stop “writing around something.” As scenes are revisited, more information is teased out; feelings are ever more intimately exposed.

However, the dialectics in this mother-daughter saga are not solely focused on doom and gloom, shame and blame. There is also much hilarity in the illustrated odyssey. Bechdel’s first-person narrator is continually tripping herself up with anxiety and self-doubting neurosis, complicating many of the situations in her fraught maternal relationship. While the child within may not be sated in the resolving tableaus, Bechdel recognizes her mother did indeed give her “a way out” to become the gifted artist she is today.

Alison Bechdel will read from her latest graphic novel at the Flynn’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery in Burlington on June 16, Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick on June 19, and Bear Pond Books in Montpelier on June 26.

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