Although first-years and orientation leaders may have been anticipating the first day of classes Wednesday night, they had one more learning experience to go through together. At 8 p.m. they filed into Spingold Theater, where Alison Bechdel spoke to them about her graphic novel: “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” the first-year mandated reading for the summer.
“I’ve always been excited about the mystical way pictures and words combine together,” she said, “and I’m going to try to show that to you.”
Published in 2006, “Fun Home” was, in Bechdel’s own words, “freakishly successful.” It was a finalist for the Book Critics Circle Award in 2006 and won the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work in 2007. The graphic memoir describes Bechdel’s experiences growing up, discovering and coming to terms with her own homosexuality, as well as discovering that of her father’s after she comes out to her parents.
True to her craft, she used images and humor to lead her audience into her literary background and personal point of view, beginning with photos of rejection letters from graduate school.
“There’s a saying that comics are the medium for mediocre artists and mediocre writers, and in my case it’s true,” she said. But by triangulating between language and appearances, as she described it, she was able to reach something closer to the truth.
One time, when showing her agent a rough draft of her graphic memoir without illustrations, she recalled how her agent felt concerned that readers would be unable to follow the dual storylines, the past shown through images and her future self narrating via text. Nevertheless, Bechdel was confident that she would be able to get her story across when the two were combined and, when her agent saw the two together, she agreed that the result was a coherent and fully-formed story.
Before writing “Fun Home,” Bechdel wrote a comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which she described as a hybrid between a soap opera and an editorial. It allowed her to explore the tension between being an outsider and a citizen: Although she was determined to be very open about being lesbian, “I also yearned on a deep level to be seen as normal, so the comic strip became a way to normalize my difference.” She also used it as a way to write commentary on politics and culture, transposing some of her own reactions to political news into the lives of her characters.
As time went on, however, Bechdel became less and less interested in making things up, and more interested in telling true stories. She recalled reading “The Addams Family” comics as a child and relating to the images of houses filled with antiques and secrets, a sense that something was going on that she didn’t fully understand. These childhood experiences helped lay the foundation for the medium in on which she would later draw for her memoir.
But part of the reason she wanted to write her graphic memoir was also to work through her feelings about her father’s death, which occurred soon after she came out to her parents. She wondered, if she hadn’t sent that letter to her parents, maybe he wouldn’t be dead. Describing the logical fallacy, “Post hoc ergo propter hoc,” which says that because one event follows another, it was caused by the first event, she said that, “my brain knows that post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, but my psyche continues to fall for it.”
In writing her memoir, she stated that she wasn’t interested in reaching out to a particular audience; ultimately, she wrote it for herself, to help her figure out her own thoughts and feelings and tell her story from her perspective. But in doing so, she gave the rest of us something to think about as well.