'Dykes' cartoonist tells memoir in graphic story format

By Donald V. Calamia

Alison Bechdel examines relationship with her father in "Fun Home"

When most authors decide to write their autobiography, they sit in front of their computer and pound away at the keyboard.

Not Alison Bechdel.

Instead, the creator of the popular syndicated comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" set about to tell her life story the best way she knew how: with her pencils, pens and art board. The result, a graphic memoir entitled "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," hits bookstores June 8.

It's a story Bechdel has wanted to tell for nearly 20 years. "But I didn't have the skills to tell it when I was 20 - emotional, creative or technical," the cartoonist recently said. "Also, I couldn't imagine revealing the big family secret, that my father was gay. That was a major obstacle."

"Fun Home" - the nickname Bechdel and her brothers gave their grandmother's house that also served as a funeral home - is the author's exploration of the complicated relationship she had with her father while growing up. A man whom she calls "an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface and a Daedalus of decor," Bruce Allen Bechdel's only passion was seemingly the family's 1867 Gothic Revival house which he lovingly restored to its original condition over an 18-year period. He was also a twelfth grade English teacher and a funeral director - and to the townsfolk, he was the ideal husband and father. But even as a child she instinctively knew that there was more to her father than she was allowed to see.

Ironically, it was Bechdel's coming out to her parents while away in college that cracked open her father's secret. But the full picture wouldn't become clear until a year after her father's death - or was it a suicide? - when she discovered three intriguing pieces of evidence while rummaging through a box of old family photographs. One was of a 17-year-old wearing only his underwear - a teen she remembered as both a student of her father's and a one-time family babysitter; another was of her father at a similar age wearing a woman's bathing suit. The third showed him at age 22 sunbathing on the roof of his frat house. "Was the boy who took it his lover?" she questions.

"As soon as I had the slightest bit of perspective on what had happened, I could see that it was just a really good story," the author said. "And I realized that what the book was really about was not his suicide or our shared homosexuality, or the books we read. It was about my creative apprenticeship to my father. It was about becoming an artist."

It took Bechdel until she was almost 40 to write her book, "right at that weird midpoint in my life where my father had been dead for the same number of years he'd been alive. I knew that this project would have to be more ambitious and revealing, more literary, than what I'd been doing in my comic strip. That meant confronting my father's artist fixation head-on. I had to dismantle his inhibiting critical power over me before I could tell the story. But telling the story was the only way to do the dismantling. It was like trying to vacuum under a rug while you're still standing on it."

Noting that her father graduated from college a dozen years before Stonewall and she graduated a dozen years after, Bechdel says that their two stories form somewhat of a longitudinal sociological study. "In the book I try to sort out how much of the way his life turned out was his own responsibility and how much was the result of larger forces beyond his control."

She doesn't come up with any answers, however.

Bechdel, calling herself "a method cartoonist," enjoyed writing her autobiography as a graphic story, relying on her childhood drawings and diaries, as well as her father's letters and family photos to craft her tale. "You can do things in graphic storytelling that you can't do with words alone. There's a whole different syntax at work. 'Fun Home' is a labyrinthine story that jumps around a lot chronologically. I don't think I could have told it coherently using just words."

Reflecting back on the creation of "Dykes," Bechdel believes she did so as a reaction to what happened to her father. 'I felt that to a certain extent, he killed himself because he couldn't come out, so I was determined to be utterly and completely out in my own life. I know I had the luxury of doing that because of the progress made by earlier generations of gay men and lesbians. And I've always been acutely conscious of that queer genealogy, because for me it's also a literal genealogy. My father made my life possible in more ways than one."

At times funny, and at other times tragic, the intimate and compelling "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel will be available at bookstores beginning June 8. Published by Houghton Mifflin, the 240-page, two-color graphic story retails for $19.95.

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