Cartoons, Sexuality, and Politics: A Conversation with Novelist Alison Bechdel

Submitted by JessicaW on April 29, 2011

There was standing room only in the Dolan School of Business Dining Room on the night of April 14th when novelist and cartoonist Alison Bechdel graced Fairfield University with a discussion of her life and presentation of a chapter from her graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. This event was sponsored by the Humanities Institute and the Center for Academic Excellence as well as the Honors Program, Women’s Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, Politics, Communication, and the English Department.

Bechdel began her presentation with copies of rejection letters from publishers and graduate schools projected onto a screen for everyone to see. These letters represented part of the hardships Bechdel underwent in her early career until her eyes were opened to cartoon drawings and graphic novels, which is how she expresses herself now.

Bechdel’s childhood is one of the main influences in her life, besides her earliest cartoon influence, Charles Addams. She grew up in an antique home full of secrets and something she referred to as a “disjuncture between appearance and reality.” When she was young, she was so terrified of lying and sinning that even in her diary she wrote “I think” in front of each and every sentence. Her childhood obsessive compulsive disorder worked in tandem with her thoughts that language was unreliable and appearances were deceiving, which led her to believe that maybe a graphic novel could be a happy medium between the two. She turned to comics because they were judgment-free and no rejection letters were involved.

Bechdel’s comics are political. There always seems to be tension between being an outsider and being a citizen, and the political world seems to function just as the domestic world does in her mind as well as her cartoons.

According to Bechdel, becoming a cartoonist was her form of rebellion against her parents because it was something that they both were not interested in. She stated that cartoons “distill the chaotic 3d world” and layer pictures and words for stronger effect. The process of creating the cartoons by using Adobe Illustrator and a digital font of her own writing is an extremely labor-intensive process but pays off in the end. This process is the same one that was used when Bechdel made her graphic novel, Fun Home. Fun Home is a memoir about her intimate relationship with her father and what she learned from his death, and she is currently working on a memoir about her relationship with her mother.

During her presentation, Bechdel discussed Chapter 4 of Fun Home, which begins with a drawing of one of her actual family photos. The chapter focuses on her father, who was hit by a car and killed. While she was growing up, Bechdel realized that she and her father were inversions of each other: she was the butch daughter who wanted muscles and tweed, while her father was a “sissy” and wanted pearls and velvet. After his death, she found photos of her father’s love interest, their family gardener, in only his underwear in an envelope labeled “family.”

Bechdel’s cartoons, graphic novels, and autobiographies helped her learn about her family’s secrets and become open with her lesbianism as well as her father’s homosexuality. Although her mother was not very happy with her revelation of their family’s secrets, Bechdel is comfortable with the line of work she has chosen.

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