On the occasion of Alison Bechdel‘s latest graphic novel, Are You My Mother? (a memoir of her life with her mother), it’s time to celebrate the artist. The book has been reviewed twice in the New York Times (and, of course, many other places), and Judith Thurman did a wonderful profile of Bechdel in the April 23rd New Yorker.
In the NYT, on May 3rd, “Artist, Draw Thyself (and Your Mother and Therapist)” by Dwight Garner; and on April 29th in the Book Review, “Drawn Together” by Katie Roiphe. From Roiphe, some reflections on the graphic novel as a unique combination of the visual and the verbal:
In a sense, Bechdel’s innovative form lends itself to the subject: the graphic memoir can reproduce the layering of thought and mimic strands of simultaneous life — the bursts of insight and memory that coexist with a humdrum moment like reading in bed with your lover, or arguing in the kitchen with your mother — in ways that pure prose cannot. Things happen at the same time. Associations are made. The past is superimposed on the present. Thought bubbles and squares complicate and illuminate unobtrusively. There’s electricity to the form, to the interaction between pictures and words, between feeling and event, that gives Bechdel’s cerebral introspection an immediacy and drama it wouldn’t otherwise have.
On the phone with her mother:
I haven’t encountered a book about being an artist, or about the punishing entanglements of mothers and daughters, as engaging, profound or original as this one in a long time. In fact the book made such a deep impression on me that after reading it, I walked around for days seeing little bits and snatches of my life as Alison Bechdel drawings.
Background from the abstract of Thurman’s profile “Drawn from life” (the full piece is behind the magazine’s paywall):
Last February, Alison Bechdel was invited to give the annual Paumanok Lecture on American Literature and Culture at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. Previous speakers for the series have included Alfred Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Irving Howe, and Edward Said. Bechdel’s work is not yet part of the Western canon. She is the author of “Dykes to Watch Out For,” a cartoon strip that ran for twenty-five years, between 1983 and 2008, in more than fifty alternative newspapers, and of “Fun Home” (2006), a graphic memoir of her father, Bruce. “Fun Home” was the first and only work of its kind to be a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize. The fifty-one-year-old Bechdel described the subject of “Fun Home” to the audience as the story of “how my closeted gay dad killed himself a few months after I came out to my parents as a lesbian.” Bechdel’s lecture discussed the latest installment of her autobiography, “Are You My Mother?” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which will be published next month. Bechdel’s mother, Helen, who played a supporting role in “Fun Home,” is the star here. The characters in “Dykes to Watch Out For” are a motley crew of more or less radical lesbians, living in a Midwestern city, and striving to achieve a state of alternative normality. Bechdel looks just like her cartoon avatar, Mo. She lives with Holly Rae Taylor, a forty-four-year-old painter and their cat, Donald, about a half an hour from Burlington, Vermont. Bechdel is an intellectual populist and a pioneer, as a woman, in a genre that is not only largely male but macho. She is one of the five key figures, with Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Marjane Satrapi, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Lynda Barry, in “Graphic Women,” a scholarly study of gender in the comics culture, by Hillary Chute, an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, where she and Bechdel are co-teaching a course this semester. The “bubble” language spoken by Bechdel’s characters is the vulgate of modern America, and she illustrates her life’s most private moments with what feels, at times, like the gleeful exhibitionism of a streaker. But Bechdel’s narration has a quality that one of Flaubert’s biographers, writing of his letters, describes as “lucid comic anguish.” The first “Dykes to Watch Out For” appeared in 1983, in the alternative newspaper WomanNews. Bechdel joined the feminist collective that produced it in SoHo. She wrote book and film reviews, in addition to producing a monthly, then bimonthly, cartoon strip. In “Are You My Mother?,” Bechdel marbles Helen’s story with citations from the work of three writers—Virginia Woolf, the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, and the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
A Day in the Life drawing by Bechdel illustrates the New Yorker piece:
I’ve been a great fan of Dykes to Watch Out For from the beginning, a fact that once led to an odd shopping moment.
For some 30 years, downtown Palo Alto had a woman artists’ cooperative, the Artifactory (at Hamilton and Emerson Sts.; the building was pulled down in 1998, after a fire, and the Artifactory moved elsewhere). I regularly shopped for Christmas presents there. In 1986 or 1987, I picked up some jewelry (for my daughter) and a Dykes to Watch Out For collection (for myself and my guy Jacques). The woman at the cash register was deeply suspicious about my buying a Dykes book; she quizzed me aggressively, “Why are you buying this book?” (I suppose she thought I was a guy hoping to get off on lesbo sex). I gave her the honest answer, “Because I think her work is great — perceptive and tremendously funny”, adding “And by the way, I’m gay”. Then things were ok, and she offered to help find other things I might not have noticed.
I did wonder if she would have refused to sell me the book if I hadn’t given a satisfactory answer. Maybe so; the times were like that.