For over 20 years the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel drew the cult comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Beautifully drawn, ambitiously plotted and wittily subversive, it garnered an extremely loyal (if relatively niche) fan base and was syndicated across the alternative press.
Then, in 2006, her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was published to huge acclaim. Weaving together her childhood in the family funeral home, her closeted father’s death and her coming out, it was a New York Times bestseller and hailed a comics game-changer. Bechdel’s mother, therapists, girlfriends, Virginia Woolf and child psychologist Donald Winnicott are the subjects of her second book, Are You My Mother?
We caught up with Alison on a recent trip to London to discuss comics, self-flagellation and dreams.
How did it feel to meet with relatively sudden and massive success?
I’ve had a bit of a struggle with the success I’ve experienced. I spent so much of my career in the sub-cultural shadows, and sort of pushing and banging on the door to be let into the room with everyone else. All of a sudden that door opened and I went head over heels through it. I feel like I haven’t quite sorted myself out yet, like I’m still dusting myself off and picking up the things I dropped on the floor.
Why do you think comics are so attracted to autobiography?
I don’t understand it really. I think it has something to do with the hand drawn line that comes out of our bodies, but I haven’t been able to articulate to myself what makes the medium so amenable. When I started reading comics in my twenties it was all underground comics by R Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Harvey Pekar and I didn’t think of them as being autobiographical cartoons – it was just like, these are cartoons! That’s what I gravitated towards and what I started doing myself.
Would you say there’s a cathartic element to these comics?
I think so. I used to feel defensive when people would say “Oh is your work therapeutic?” and I would say “No! My work is art, its not therapy!” But I don’t mind about that anymore. It is therapeutic or why would I do it? You know? It’s cathartic. I do it because I’m trying to make up for something that I lack. Which is, I think, why anyone creates anything.
Sometimes it looks like there’s a bit of self-flagellation going on…
Yes, well, I feel like one of my struggles with this most recent book about my mother was to keep it from being too self-flagellating. It was a painful book to write and to some extent since I was writing about the process of creation it was also about that pain… but there’s only so much a reader can take of how much creative suffering the author’s going through, so I had to be careful about that.
How has drawing yourself in Fun Home and Are You My Mother? changed the way you view yourself?
I’ve grown to resemble my drawings in a way – I feel like I modify my own appearance to make myself easier to draw.
Would you ever return to Dykes To Watch Out For?
I do feel I need to revisit these characters and add some coda or resolution to the story because I’ve just left everyone hanging. I’m personally happy not to write about them any more but I feel a sort of aesthetic responsibility to the people who followed it for so long to give them some sense of closure.
Each chapter of Are You My Mother? begins with a dream. What’s your most recent?
I had a very interesting dream night before last that someone had given me a little baby boy to take care of. It was clear it was a boy because it had a little blue suit on. I had to take care of this kid and I felt very confident that I could do it. I could feed this child and keep him from getting killed. It was a good feeling. I don’t know what it means, but it was auspicious, I think.