Comics as Catharsis:

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Comic literature is truly an exciting field, as it expands its canon to include more than the super-hero genre that got things started in the 1930s and ’40s. Today, creators are taking advantage of this form to explore their own inner psychology. These writers and artists introduce readers to oft-times disturbing visual narratives, and since the reader is directly responsible for internalizing and synthesizing “action” in a comic, he or she is more directly engaged on a far more personal level than a cinematic representation would otherwise do where the audience simply views the film. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is one such example of a graphic novel making use of comics as a means of opening a discourse about the scars family members leave on their children and finding some form of closure through sharing these stories with others. This novel expertly shows how comics are moving in new directions and demonstrates a willingness to engage readers in new and challenging ways. And make no mistake about it: there are times when readers would do well to bring their literary credentials with them when pitted against Bechdel.

Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home contains many challenging experiences for readers, as she unfolds the details of her life as a young girl who discovers not only that she is a lesbian but also that her father is a closeted homosexual whose marriage to her mother proved stifling — at best — and downright damaging for everyone in the family. While it would be particularly relevant to analyze this book from the perspective of Queer Theory — the book is certainly well suited to such literary analysis — it is not something I am particularly interested in doing at this time. This is no acquiescence to Bechdel’s claim that “literary criticism is a suspect activity,” as she essentially subjects herself to a form of meta-criticism. This book does serve as an important entry in LGBT canon building within the field of comics, and studying it from this perspective would be a worthwhile pursuit[1]. However, there are other, less obvious aspects to Fun Home that set it apart from the rest, things which readers should be aware.

Instead, it is particularly interesting to note how this novel engages readers in a serious discussion of the ways our parents can scar us. While Bruce Bechdel is shown to have an explosive temper and be prone to the occasional violent outburst, it is the distance he creates in the household that seems to cause the most harm: “It was a vicious circle, though. The more gratification we found in our own geniuses, the more isolated we grew…and in this isolation, our creativity took on an aspect of compulsion” (134). Bechdel then goes on to show the period of time in which her obsessive-compulsive disorder took hold of her as a sort of coping mechanism for the underlying tensions in her home. The response from her mother is cool in tone, as Bechdel’s representation of her mother is with a pursed mouth, sideways glances, and body positioning that has her leaning away from young Alison — all indicative of someone who is unable or unwilling to physically make contact with her daughter. This is confirmed one page earlier when Bechdel informs her readers that, while she takes compulsive turns in kissing her stuffed animals, “no one had kissed [her] good night in years” (137). Furthermore, one need only look at the typical facial expressions Bechdel uses to present herself and her family members — they are ones that are often pensive with small dots for mouths reflecting tightened lips and eyebrows that are either furrowed in deep thought or lifted upwards as if anxious. At the risk of appealing to cliché, the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” truly finds meaning in this book. Bechdel’s art makes full use of image to convey emotion and feeling in each member of her family.

At an initial glance, Bechdel’s art does not possess the ultra-realistic style one might find with more commercially successful artists such as a Jim Lee or Alex Ross; however, Bechdel clearly makes use of style to suit her purpose. In most panels, the readers encounter a more cartoon-like style. This is effective because it serves two purposes: universality and subversion. With regards to universality, Bechdel makes use of the notion Scott McCloud discusses in his formalist text Understanding Comics when he explains the difference between iconic & simple art and complex & realistic art — where the former allows the reader to reconfigure the lines in his or her own imagination thereby encouraging greater self-identification (44-46). Bechdel draws the reader into her story with her simple — but not simplistic — art. Again, McCloud astutely points out “a simple style doesn’t necessitate [a] simple story” (45). And this leads into Bechdel’s second purpose in her choice of style where she subverts reader expectations.

Readers who look at the body of Bechdel’s artwork and fail to give her credit as a skilled artist equally fail to recognize some of the most poignant moments in the novel. Bechdel’s detailed photograph sketches are used sparingly in Fun Home, dividing each chapter with depiction from a moment from her life, in addition to the double-page spread of her father’s young lover — and Bechdel’s babysitter — Roy. These images eschew the cartoonish style employed throughout the bulk of the novel for a very clear purpose. Each image seems to convey a very specific emotion that is carried throughout that given chapter and the novel as a whole. In the opening of the first chapter, we see an image of a younger Bruce Bechdel that is both sexual and masculine; yet there is also a longing in his eyes as he stands at a doorway to some unknown place. New to the novel, most readers will not think much of this picture and begin immediately reading about the stern and polished looking man on the next page. But after reading Fun Home, these images take on new meaning. The lack of polish with which Bechdel depicts her father seems to indicate Bruce as he may have been — or wanted to be — apart from his family and the imposing role of heterosexual patriarch.

Even in chapter four’s dividing page, the image Bechdel produces of her father in the woman’s bathing suit is a beautiful one. What reader would have expected this was Bruce Bechdel before the start of the chapter? How many were fooled into thinking this as an image of the innocent and beautiful Helen Bechdel only to discover it was the innocent and beautiful Bruce? Certainly Bechdel’s awareness of the mutability of identity and the performance of identity comes out here; but more significant than being a “good Queer Theorist” is that Bechdel highlights the scars Bruce must have had inflicted on him when we look upon his past, inner self and compare it to what we have seen of him up to this point in the novel. Readers might not agree with or be comfortable with the lifestyle of transgender and cross-dressing, yet no one can deny the fact that Bruce is no longer the innocent person that he was in the picture Bechdel painfully and beautifully renders.

Each of these pictures contains elements of beauty, longing, nostalgia, regret, and hope. The picture of Roy carefully depicts the beauty of the photograph that Bruce composed and took — a sort of David for the Appalachian Michelangelo that will never truly be realized because it would out him as being not only a homosexual and adulterer but also a pedophile. And yet, the most painful picture is the one readers encounter at the close of the book in the divider for chapter seven with the young girl preparing to jump into the arms of her father. The action is suspended, and unlike a movie or traditional text that would deliver resolution to the reader, Alison and Bruce will forever remain in a stasis apart from one another, locked in an eternal jump without ever reaching each other. Perhaps this interpretation comes across as heavy-handed, and yet, it is interesting to note that, while Bechdel thanks her mother and two brothers twice, nowhere does she make any reference to her father[2]. Fun Home appears to be Bechdel attempting to reach closure with her father, but as the painstaking details of her and her father in these images suggest, there is still an unresolved space between them both despite her claim in the final panel that “he was there to catch me when I leapt” (232). He might have caught her, but it’s not an image Bechdel allows us to witness, and I’m not sure we can trust her words when her images don’t completely match up.

Finally, it’s worth noting that readers who do not carry a certain literary background may find themselves somewhat confused and left out at times. Bechdel makes many literary allusions to Hemingway, Faulkner, and especially Joyce who serves as the primary vehicle for the closing chapter of Fun Home. Furthermore, readers bringing stereotypical preconceptions about comic books, as being the “stuff of kids,” will be sorely mistaken at the complexity of the vocabulary and philosophy Bechdel deftly weaves into her memoir. Although each reader’s reaction to a novel is nuanced, I believe there are three common responses to this use of complicated vocabulary, philosophy, and inter-textual referencing. First, readers from an academic background may find themselves in familiar territory and well equipped to traverse the difficult territory Bechdel lays before them. Second, casual readers may be turned off from the continual unfamiliar references and complexities contained in Fun Home, making the title something of a misnomer. These two responses would seem to be fairly common, yet it is a third response that I suspect underscores the very response Bechdel had in interacting with her father when she was younger. And it is this response Bechdel aims to elicit from her readers that highlights the sophisticated level at which Fun Home operates. She is doing more than simply trying really hard to act serious for literary critics — she elevates form to elicit the an emotional response from her readers similar to that which her father continually evoked from her — distance.

Had Bechdel employed these “academic trappings” unconsciously, it would come off as somewhat pretentious and ostentatious in nature. I argue that she consciously uses these words and concepts to create a space, at times, between the reader and herself in a way not dissimilar from the way her father distanced himself from his family through his academic nature. The third response, then, is to become aware of this distancing and relate to Bechdel on an intimate level. Furthermore, Bechdel’s inconsistent adoption of this style suggests it is not necessarily natural to her, though she becomes adept at it by the end of the novel paralleling the “Ithaca moment” of the final pages of the last chapter (222). Clearly, they grow closer when she adopts his language, as seen during their discussion of literature when she is a student in his class and in her college English courses: “Dad didn’t have much use for small children, but as I got older, he began to sense my potential as an intellectual companion” (198). She goes on to reinforce the learned nature of her father’s language when she tells the reader: “We grew even closer after I went away to college. Books — the ones assigned for my English class — continued to serve as our currency” (200). Yet, Bruce goes too far as “his excitement left little room” (201) for true discourse with his daughter. It’s a subtle point but one that disaffected readers should not overlook — Bechdel does not allow herself to become overly obtuse in her literary references and complex terminology because it was an unpleasant experience that she went through with her own father. Through experiencing this occasional distance she places between the reader and herself, we experience the scars she bears; however, she does not impose the full separation from author to reader as her father did with her when he indulged in his intellectual pursuits while failing to think about whether he lost his daughter in the process. In this regard, readers might feel confused at times, but Bechdel, our literary parent figure through her role as storyteller, does not wholly abandon them.

Fun Home, like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The World’s Smartest Kid and David Small’s Stitches, is an exceptionally complex graphic novel that explores the problematic nature of family and its effects on its creator. Many readers might not be familiar with the inner workings of Joyce’s pre-postmodern masterpiece (but who is really?); yet, how many people have experienced strained and dysfunctional relationships with their parents? It is no surprise these books continue to garner both critical and popular attention. Super-hero comics are not the things of the past — they still possess a significant amount of potential for academic discourse; however, the works of creators like Bechdel, Ware, and Small provide additional outlets for the developing literary canon of comics. Not only are comics able to operate apart from the cape but they can also succeed where other mediums, such as conventional literature and cinema, might fall short. In their approach to these heady discussions, comics can demonstrate the sophistication and nuance expected from high literature while maintaining a certain level of accessibility for casual readers.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York: Mariner Books, 2006. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper, 1994. Print.


[1]. Recommended reading would be Adrielle Mitchell’s “Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Anthological Study of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.” http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v4_3/mitchell/

[2] See the initial dedication page in the beginning of the book as well as the Acknowledgements.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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4 Comments

  1. Great article as always, Forrest, and again about one of my favorites.

    I was very comfortable with the literature in Fun Home, but couldn’t take the psychology in Are You My Mother? so well. Maybe even because of that the second book seemed even more radical and interesting, in terms of structure, while I still prefer the first.

    • Mario, many thanks. :)

      Since reading Fun Home, I have Are You My Mother? on my reading list… which has been sadly neglected due to a variety of other projects in the works. I also felt pretty comfortable with her allusions to the literary canon and mixed references to theory; however, I also realize I’ve spent a number of years studying this stuff. Had read this when it was originally published, I’m less certain I’d have paid as close attention to all of the details she provided.

  2. Jon Cormier says:

    Back when I read this I remember noticing that a lot of her comics panels kind of undercut what comic readers expect. She would draw panels that were just recreations of other images but also a lot of panels of text. It sort of cuts to the very idea of a comic being both words and images when the images are also words. Kind of helps reinforce the idea of things being unsaid but also reflective in their two lives.

  3. “…a lot of her comics panels kind of undercut what comic readers expect.”

    Exactly. After reading this book the first time, I remember going back to a few sections and lingering over the pictures and seeing how the panel composition and other artistic elements really helped drive home various issues of concern–isolation being one that I found continually present. I also think her use of text panels works well as we’re supposed to be “in her head” and this gives us that inner monologue that we’d experience.

    If I were a better writer and scholar, I would have spent more time picking out the flaws of the book, of which there are some to be found, but I thought it more interesting at this point to really focus on the strengths of this work (which you’ve pointed out as well).

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