I first encountered the work of Alison Bechdel through her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, which ran weekly in the fondly remembered Coming Up! (which later became, and still remains, the more prosaically titled San Francisco Bay Times). I found that the dramas and dilemmas of a group of lesbian friends interconnected by past, present and future romantic relationships quickly became can't-miss reading. On those rare occasions when DTWOF was inexplicably missing from the paper I went through a mild form of withdrawal. I felt a special empathy for the often hapless Mo, the most political of the group, who seemed like the character that Bechdel most closely modelled on herself.
A selection of most of the DTWOF strips has been collected between hard covers as The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), which follows Mo, Lois, Sydney, Ginger, Clarice, Sparrow, Jezanna and all the rest as they grow and change over the years. Bechdel herself has described DTWOF as "half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel." Perhaps not endless, unfortunately; DTWOF has been on hiatus since The Essential... was published.
But even the many pleasures of DTWOF—the range of characters, the clever writing, the allusions (sly or direct) to the political and cultural issues of the day—didn't prepare me for the power of Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Alison grew up with a closeted gay father who was domineering and emotionally volatile, and the book brilliantly and insightfully depicts the effects of his barely concealed secret life on the rest of the family. Bechdel portrays her father with sympathy, but also anger; identification, but also wounded incomprehension: he died under ambiguous circumstances which point to suicide.
Bruce Bechdel was a high school English teacher in a small town in central Pennsylvania, and had also taken over his family's business, a funeral home (the ironically-named Fun Home of the title). While his violent outbursts and inability to express affection created a gulf between father and daughter, as Alison grew older that gulf was partly bridged by a shared love of literature. Fun Home is filled with quotations from and allusions to Camus, Proust, Fitzgerald, James, Wilde, Joyce, Adrienne Rich, Catcher in the Rye and Wind in the Willows; literature is one way that both Alison and her father understand and come to terms with their experience.
In Fun Home Bechdel's father emerges as self-involved and occasionally self-dramatizing. As does her mother, a New York-trained actress who wound up performing in community theater productions of The Heiress and The Importance of Being Earnest. Bechdel has now published another graphic memoir, and as the title (borrowed from P. D. Eastman's classic children's book) Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) suggests, her relationship with her mother is also emotionally fraught.
Many of the strengths of Fun Home—emotional honesty, thoughtfulness, and an clear-eyed portrayal of everyone involved—are also present in Are You My Mother?. But the later book has some weaknesses as well. In place of the rich literary allusions that suffuse the first memoir, the second primarily invokes the work of psychologists Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) and D. W. Winnicott (although Virginia Woolf and Dr. Seuss are also referenced). Not only is the psychologists' prose more jargon-laden than that of the previous volume's literary writers, it seems to inhibit Bechdel somewhat—it begins to feel as though Miller and Winnicott are speaking for her. By the end of Are You My Mother? I wanted to hear fewer of Miller's and Winnicott's insights, and more of Bechdel's.
But I don't want to sound too critical. Are You My Mother? is very rewarding, and will undoubtedly be on my list of favorite books from 2012. To say that it doesn't quite reach the standard set by Fun Home is like complaining that Dubliners isn't A Portrait of the Artist.
By the way, I bought my copy at the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago, probably the best store for new books in the United States. Yes, I paid list price, which thanks to Bechdel and her publisher is only $22 (and had I been a Seminary Coop member, I would have gotten a discount). If you choose to buy Are You My Mother?, which I strongly recommend, please support local independent booksellers.