Comics Herstory: Alison Bechdel
It’s hard to get into comics without having heard of Alison Bechdel, whether it’s because of the famed Bechdel Test, a way of determining gender bias in film, or her enormously popular and literary graphic novel, Fun Home.
Bechdel was first published in WomaNews, a feminist newspaper, with a single panel comic that would provide the basis for Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF). The comic would continue to find ground and develop regularity. The strips were originally unconnected, without regular characters or plot. After time, however, Bechdel developed a series of regular characters and a continuous plot that often featured social commentary about politics and lesbian culture. The strip ran until 2008, when Bechdel decided to focus more fully on the book that would later become Are You My Mother?. DTWOF has since been collected in twelve books, including The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which collects most strips. This comic remains an important narrative today, and was the origin of the Bechdel Test.
Fun Home, Bechdel’s first graphic novel, was published in 2006. It details her complex relationship with her father in a nonlinear fashion, using literary references to recreate young Alison’s experiences to the truest possible extent. Fun Home is an important example of graphic memoir, pushing the boundaries of traditional comics in an attempt to help the reader–and Bechdel herself–understand this relationship. The repetition of events and phrases and obsessive determination in telling the most truthful possible story also provides an interesting commentary on the responsibility of a memoir and the reliability of memoir.
Fun Home has been described as a “comic for people who say they don’t like comics” because the story is largely reliant on literary references as a lens for understanding the relationship between Bechdel and her father. Literature and psychology are seemingly two of the few ways Bechdel can relate to and understand her parents. Her recent book, Are You My Mother?, uses the psychology of Donald Winnicott to build an understanding of her relationships with women with a particular focus on her mother. As with Fun Home, it is dense and complex, but an interesting and important example of graphic memoir.
Recently, Fun Home was produced as a Broadway Musical and was nominated for twelve Tony Awards in 2015. It went on to win five. Bechdel drew a comic for New York Magazine reacting to the musical adaptation of Fun Home.