If superheroes dominate the “mainstream” of comics, then autobiographical comics are the dominant genre of the “independents.” From R. Crumb’s trailblazing confessionals to James Kolchalka’s daily diary strip, making comics about oneself seems irresistible to independent artists. Successful autobiographical comics succeed by finding something insightful in everyday life (John Porcellino) or by virtue of transforming an unusual life into a powerful narrative (Marjane Satrapi and David B.). When less successful examples falter, they end up being the comics equivalent of someone’s LiveJournal—too confessional, too personal, and wholly uninteresting.
Alison Bechdel, who is best known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (ongoing since the early ’80s), has entered the autobiographical comics genre with one of the most intelligent and insightful autobiographical comics I have ever read. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic avoids the normal confessional, self-obsessed nature of much autobiography by focusing not just on Alison herself but on her and her father’s complicated relationship. The subtitle’s “Tragicomic” also signals an interesting theme prevalent throughout the book: opposites and their convergence.
The narrative unfolds in a discursive manner that makes any summary difficult. It weaves around the central events of Alison’s father’s death—possibly a suicide—and Alison’s learning, a few months earlier, that he was gay. All this happens in the wake of her writing home from college to come out to her parents. Each chapter follows certain narrative threads, often passing back over already narrated events. The story of the father-daughter relationship is built up piece by piece, and does not form a full picture until the very last panel. Events take on richer meaning as we pass them in different contexts.
The book works as an excavation of the past to uncover the father’s secret life and the obvious and not so obvious strings that connect father to daughter. Bechdel’s look into her and her father’s past is not only extraordinarily insightful but also makes for an entertaining and engrossing story. She spins her tale with richness that is absent from most fiction, let alone conventional autobiography.
Early on, Bechdel provides background detail by narrating her childhood in rural Pennsylvania with her parents: a father more concerned with decorating than his family, a mother who seems almost invisible. (A particularly subtle aspect of this autobiography is how little we learn about Alison’s mother and brothers.) Mr. Bechdel works as both a high school English teacher and the town’s funeral home director (one meaning for the “fun home” of the title), and Alison notes that her father “appeared an ideal husband.” It is with some irony that we later see her mother acting in Oscar Wilde’s The Ideal Husband. Far from just a joke, however, the mention of Wilde touches on an important theme: the kind of “passing” done by homosexuals, and also the throwing off of that “passing” in recent times as we see the differing attitudes between the two generations.
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. Alison shares her father’s interest in literature, and these literary elements provide a wealth of opportunities for enriching the narrative and the character analysis. At the beginning of the story the myth of Daedalus and Icarus is evoked, and both figures provide a lens for viewing the father: an artificer of surface and a fallen tragedy. As the story continues Camus (suicide), Fitzgerald (young love and wildness), Joyce (spiritual fathers a la Bloom/Dedalus), Colette (sensuality and the homosexual milieu), Proust (his two divergent and convergent paths), and others are intertwined into the narrative.
As far as comics go, Fun Home has a lot of textual narration. An unfortunate tendency in comics is to over-narrate, saturating the images with redundant blocks of text, but Bechdel shows her skill with the form by integrating the text and images in a way that avoids redundancy and complements each other beautifully. The narration provides context to an image, or often follows a thread parallel but supplemental to the images.
The prose is well-written, concise, and occasionally poetic with alliteration, though never flashy or overburdened. Similarly, Bechdel’s drawings—neither flashy nor beautiful—are extremely effective in telling the story. Her style is a realistic yet simplified representation of the world. Her character representations are particularly telling in the way we see mirrored expressions in Alison and her father, drawing a visual connection to accent those made by the story.
In the brief forward, Bechdel mentions using photographic references to accompany her memory, and this might account for the abundant detail found in many of the scenes. It is in the details where this story gains strength, the kind of details one might find contrived or “unreal” in a novel but that seem incontrovertibly truthful in an autobiography. Bechdel draws on photographs (always represented by a cross-hatched more realistic drawing style), maps, journals, and the aforementioned range of literary texts to build the story and send it off on its many directions.
The layouts of panels on the page are similarly simple and effective, rarely less than four or more than five panels on each page. When Bechdel breaks from this convention, it adds a certain power and attention to those pages. There’s a two-page spread showing a picture Alison finds in her father’s things of one of the young men her father hired as yard help/babysitter stretched out in his underwear on a bed. A three panel page is dominated by a large close-up of Alison and her father. The drawing of him looks strange, entangled because Alison has brought up gay stereotypes. The narration tells us of the fear in his eyes.
Near the end of the book, one of the last conversations Alison has with her father is shown across two pages in a flurry of small square panels, 12 on each page. The narrative here covers an extremely short period of time, divided into short pieces of dialogue, silent pauses, and small shifts in posture, all seen from a unvarying vantage point. This closer, almost minute, look at a scene is rare in this book that bounds across time and place to cover the experiences of a life, and Bechdel’s use of an altered layout draws extra attention to this important scene.
Although Bechdel’s name is familiar to me, I must admit that this is the first work of hers I’ve seen. I’ll further admit that Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic makes it glaringly obvious that she is an artist I should have been paying attention to. This is a graphic novel autobiography that easily rivals the best works in the field.
(Endnote: The book will be printed in black, white, and blue. Unfortunately I read an early black and white review copy and could not get color images. While I regret not being able to show the art in its full glory, it will give me a good excuse to reread the book again in when I get a color copy.)
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