Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, or How "Cartoons are like maps" Part 1

Alison Bechdel
Introduced by Hillary Chute

Wednesday, March 5, 2008
7:30 PM

He used his artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is impeccable.

One of the things I really do love about the English Dept here at Rutgers is its incredible ability to have something happening every week (if not every day!) This Wednesday, for example I had the pleasure of attending the Alison Bechdel lecture/ presentation/ reading hosted by the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series (click here for more info) and thought - because I haven't been as prolific in my "Rutgers" blog posts as I was last term - that we could all revel in my fanboy-ness and (re)live the event through my (albeit limited) talents as a blogger.
Here goes, my 'retroactive live-blogging' for the event:

The evening began with the mandatory 'Thanks to everyone who made this possible' spiel, given by the soft-spoken (though, if I may so myself at the risk of sounding too much like a groupie - also brilliant) Richard Dienst. Following Richard, was a wonderfully witty and hilariously deadpan introduction by a former Rutgers Alum Hilary Chute. In her own words (and quoting her editor at the Village Voice at the time when Hilary wanted to interview Alison) she traced Fun Home's rave reviews (named one of the top books of 2006 by TIME, EW, the NYTimes and People - yah, try finding another book not bearing a certain Ms O's sticker that can cut across such diverse print behemoths!) and introduced her, not without offering a rave review as well: "I was ... blown away." And I couldn't have said it better myself.

[Sidenote, though not really: First thing Alison said once she got to the podium, "Look at all these people!" /end Sidenote]

Later in the talk [and I know, this entirely violates my whole 'retroactive live-blogging'™ approach] Alison said that the one thing she feared the most was to bore people. I can safely say (and the seemingly endless and overwhelming applause at the end of the talk seemed to agree with me) that she didn't bore anyone, nor could she. I mean, we are talking about a woman who wrote the bitingly sad (and funny!) Fun Home and who, in the middle of the talk, still had the grace to comment on Richard Miller's boisterous and greatly welcomed laugh. Boring is not something I think she'd be able to provide: not to a rapt audience at Rutgers, and not anywhere else.

Alison began her talk by discussing the influence of Charles Addams' cartoons (y'know... the cartoons that inspired those movies featuring a deliciously devilish Angelica Huston and introduced Christina Ricci to the world?) summing up the feeling she had when she contemplated Addams' cartoons (in the same she contemplated her own house, her own family) simplistically as "nothing matches up." "Nothing matches up" as in, word and image, reality and fiction, secrets and appearances.

Tracing her own 'coming into being as a graphic novelist,' Alison talked about the way the comic-book form, by bridging the gap between image and word, was the best outlet with which to both rebel against her parents (who wanted her to be a writer or an artist, never thinking she'd go with both!) and be able to live in that space between image and text. If language is deceiving and images shroud themselves in appearance, what better way to get beyond, within that, than to embrace the comic book form?

Like maps, she said (here also reminiscing about The Wind in the Willows' map we get in Fun Home) comic books offer a layout of words and image that apprehend reality and bridge that Saussurian gap Bechdel had been so suspicious of ever since she was a little kid, littering her diary entries with squiggles to mark the ways she wasn't sure what she was writing was accurate, real, true.

For more on this event (the reading and the Q&A session) check here and you can check Alison's blog here:


Anonymous said...


A Heteroclite Author Speaks

Her life story is a paean to her strength of character and her reverence for the sanctity of truth telling. As such, she takes pride in promulgating the most intricate details of her own personal truth, despite the inherent pain that lies therein. Her name is Alison Bechdel, cartoonist extraordinaire, and author of "Fun Home", a graphic memoir with "tragicomic" dimensions. This autobiographical work was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and was number one on Time Magazine's best books of the year list for 2006. Bechdel is best known for her comic strip, "Dykes To Watch Out For" which first emerged on the literary fringe scene in 1983 in a feminist journal called Woman News. For 25 years, Bechdel has been churning out her strip on a daily or weekly basis, depending on her need for down time, and has published her entire collection of comics in 11 books of the same name.

On Wednesday evening, March 5th, at a presentation of her 2006 graphic memoir, "Fun Home", Ms. Bechdel was introduced to the audience of over 400 at the Rutgers University Student Center by Hillary Chute. Ms. Chute is currently a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows and last year she earned a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University with a dissertation titled “Contemporary Graphic Narratives: History, Aesthetics, Ethics.” Her interest in comics began when she read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” in a graduate class on contemporary fiction. She introduced Ms. Bechdel by reading an e-mail exchange that she had with her senior editors at The Village Voice concerning "Fun Home".

Bechdel told the audience that she had been working on this book for seven years, yet in reality she has been working on it all her life. Having retained her early childhood diary entries, family photos and an iron clad memory, she set about to re-create the world that she grew up in on the pages of gray and green cartoon panels. Her first major cartoonist influence was the work of Charles Addams, whose gothic house was an eery reminder of her own, a place where, according to Bechdel, "things don't appear what they seem". The major focus of the book surrounds the complex relationship with her "cryptic, perfectionist dad", Bruce Bechdel who died at the age of 44. It is not clear whether his untimely demise could be attributed to a tragic road accident or premeditated suicide. Bechdel says that her book is an "intricate structure, based on books that her father was obsessed with." The works of Camus, Joyce, Ulysses, Colette and Proust are intertwined into the narrative and the literary allusion, the influence of literature on life, and the influence of life on the interpretation of literature play a prominent role in the text.

During a slide show presentation of pages from her book, Bechdel read a chapter entitled "The Artificer", which speaks volumes about the underlying pathos of her father. Bruce Bechdel was employed as a high school English teacher and was the town's (Beech Creek, PA) funeral home director (one meaning for the "fun home" of the title), and Bechdel notes that her father "appeared an ideal husband." Aside from some epochally misguided escapades with local teenagers, Bechdel obsessively channeled his energies into the florid renovation of the family's gothic revival house. ''He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not,'' Bechdel says. She continued, ''My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret.'' While earnestly contemplating how to come out to her parents as a lesbian while in her freshman year at Oberlin College, Bechdel learned that her father was engaging in sexual relations with underage teenage boys and even had a run-in with the law for serving alcohol to minors.

Bechdel also laments the fact that her father was at best emotionally distant and at worst verbally abusive. "My father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture." says Bechdel. "He was emotionally absent and while he was alive, I ached as if he were already gone." She also spoke of the "fully developed self-loathing" of her father that manifested itself in the form of a man "obsessed with his appearance" while showing "no physical form of affection" to his children. What seems to have irked Bechdel the most was the subtle dishonesty, outright lies and appearances of "normalcy" that her father attempted to extol. Because of this Bechdel says she "developed a fetish for the truth, for detailed authenticity". "Appearances are deceiving and I wanted to be upfront about being gay. I've always felt the tension between being an outsider and being accepted and I wanted everyone to know that I was a 'big dyke'." she says.

For Bechdel, becoming an artist and writer meant, "bridging symbol and reality. Images and words solved a problem of self-obliteration." In the last segment of the evening Bechdel revealed the technical aspects of the creative process in the making of "Fun Home" by showing a most fascinating and informative slide show of the convergence of panels and words in her work and even a mini-video of herself drawing and painting the characters and scenes from her home drawing board.

The evening concluded with Ms. Bechdel autographing copies of "Fun Home" and "Dykes To Watch Out For" for her legions of loyal and devoted fans, and did so until "the cows came home" as she stated on her blog. Bechdel's face appeared visibly worn as the evening wound down. Despite it all, she graciously greeted the seemingly endless line of admirers. While most writers on a book tour relish the notoriety, lavish attention, adulation and accolades bestowed upon them, it would appear that being the subject of such praise is a most daunting task for Bechdel. As she confided to one woman, "I'm really an introvert."

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