MacArthur Fellow Discusses Childhood, Cartooning Career

Cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, known for her novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, spoke at Boston College last night as part of the Lowell Humanities Series.

“There’s an old saying that cartooning is a field for people who are mediocre writers and mediocre artists, and I would say that in my case, those things are pretty much true,” Bechdel said. “But what this saying about mediocre artists and mediocre writers fails to take into account is that writing and drawing, together, is its own thing.”

Her work has been widely translated and anthologized, and has appeared in several publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, and Slate. She was a recipient of a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship. She currently teaches at the University of Vermont.

“There’s something about the way words and pictures work together on a page that has always just seemed really brilliant to me,” she said.

Bechdel began her career with her self-syndicated, award-winning comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008. The comic strip, published in the Funny Times and various LGBTQ newspapers, revolved around the daily lives of a group of LGBTQ characters.

“One of my preoccupations in my comic strip was always the tension between being an outsider and being a citizen,” Bechdel said, who came out in college. “I liked being an outsider as a lesbian. I felt like it gave me this kind of privileged view, an objectivity on how things work, that I wouldn’t have if I were inside the system.”

She stopped her comic strip after a 25-year run in 2008, partially because of political and personal reasons.

“If the lesbian and gay civil rights movement actually started achieving its goal, we would, kind of, in a way, make ourselves obsolete,” Bechdel said. “There would be no more lesbian bars or gay newspapers or women’s bookstores, because there wouldn’t be the same need for them. We would just be like everybody else.”

Two years before the comic strip ended, her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was published. Time magazine named it the Best Book of 2006, and it was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Fun Home has been adapted into a Broadway musical that will premiere in March for previews, and open in April.

During her talk, Bechdel showed the audience a video of how she created the graphic novels. She writes and draws simultaneously, using font made out of her own handwriting, on Adobe Illustrator. Once she finishes creating all the pages of the book, she puts them together in InDesign. Then, she prints them out to draw the actual images with pencil, coloring them in Photoshop.

“I started writing comics about my own life, but I feel like the only memoirs that I have gone on to write count on the same mission as the comic strips,” Bechdel said. “They’re very personal stories, but they’re also stories about the way our most intimate selves can’t escape their historical context.”

Fun Home chronicles her tense relationship with her late father, Bruce Bechdel, who was an English teacher and director of a funeral home, the “Fun Home.” He died shortly after she discovered that he was gay. Growing up, her family hid the fact that her father had had affairs with men—when she came out, this made her want to be upfront about it, she said.

In 2012, her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, was published. While Fun Home told the story of her father’s experiences coming of age before the gay rights movement, Are You My Mother? chronicles her mothers experiences growing up before the feminism movement. Bechdel also explores the relationship with her mother and her mother’s attempts at becoming a writer.

“One strand of [Are You My Mother?] explores my own mother’s desire to be a writer,” Bechdel said. “And the ways that she inadvertently taught me to write and to be a writer—the writer she wanted to be.”

Featured Image by Libby Faus / Heights Staff

February 12, 2015