the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

with 3 comments

In anticipation of Alison Bechdel’s forthcoming graphic novel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, I recently read her award-winning 2006 release, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. In Fun Home Alison looks back on her relationship with her father, often juxtaposing her identity with his. Writing after his sudden death, the exact definition of which is inconclusive, Alison uses a non-linear narrative to weave his biography through time.

The book, compiled using memories, childhood journals, and second-hand accounts, opens with a young Alison playing “airplane” with her father. Balanced on his legs she holds her hands parallel to his. This touching moment, known to so many of us from our own childhoods, is cut short by her father’s obsessive maintenance of their Gothic Revival home. After just a few panels, he’s ordering Alison to get the vacuum and tack hammer. The rug is “filthy” and the strip of molding “loose”.

He was a moody man, capable of putting the household on edge. “The constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant. His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark,” Alison writes. Approaching her father’s life as one haunted by inner torment allows room for empathy and a desire to understand.

Although better known for Fun Home, Alison is the writer and illustrator of the longest running queer comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, a project she ended in 2008 after 25 years. Comparing her own experience as a lesbian — her self-discovery and coming out — she creates a bridge to her father’s homosexual tendencies.

In college, after mailing home a letter that read “I am a lesbian,” just four months before her father’s death, she learned about the life he tried to keep secret. On the phone with her mother, listening to stories of her father’s affairs, her childhood memories were given context: the young men who helped out around the house, her father’s arrest for giving beer to a teenage boy, and their trip to Greenwich Village for the Bicentennial. “This abrupt wholesale revision of my history . . . left me stupefied,” she writes.

Sharing her father’s love of literature, and its function as a window into the self, Alison analyzes the books most prominent in her father’s collection. The highlighted and underlined passages in Camus, his binge on Proust the year before (“Was that a sign of desperation?”), and his seeming identification with Fitzgerald characters.

Alongside the words, the artwork is an equal partner in Alison’s mind-blowing storytelling skills. According to Wikipedia’s sources, “She used extensive photo reference and, for many panels, posed for each human figure herself, using a digital camera to record her poses,” a process that would take her 7 years to complete. Her attention to detail extends to the handwriting in the letters her father wrote while in the army, the carefully placed cultural references, and the maps of her hometown.

It’s been 6 years since Fun Home’s publication and in April we’ll see the life of Alison’s mom through the same astute and questioning eyes. Falling neatly into the category of personal anthropology — an unsentimental, analytical view of one’s life with a focus on its wider cultural significance — Alison’s style should reveal a fascinating portrait of a woman who shared her husband’s burden.

::[Links]::
Buy Fun Home at IndieBound or your nearest indie bookstore
Pre-Order Are You My Mother? from IndieBound or your local indie
AV Club Interview
Bookslut interview
Guardian Interview
Graphic Novel Reporter Interview
NPR interview

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Written by Gabrielle

February 28, 2012 at 7:17 am

3 Responses

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  1. Like this

    imessageios5

    February 29, 2012 at 8:39 pm

  2. She appeared twice on Bat Segundo too.

    Edward Champion

    March 23, 2012 at 11:44 am

    • well then, we know she really is quality, aye?

      Gabrielle

      March 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm


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