Alison Bechdel, who is best known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For wrote the autobiographical comic, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, with one of the most intelligent and insightful autobiographical comics. Her graphics avoids the normal confessional, self-obsessed nature of much autobiography by focusing not just on Alison herself but on her and her father’s complicated relationship. The subtitle’s “Tragicomic” also signals an interesting theme throughout the book: the way her and her dad are complete opposites but so similar at the same time.
The narrative unfolds in an unusual manner that makes it difficult to describe especially with the graphics that end a completely different element to the story. The story weaves around the central events of her father’s death and her learning, a few months earlier, that he was gay but if she had known that before his death, would it have made them closer or push them further away? 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 all the tough things going on in her life.
She made up things such as redressing and dressing in a certain order, or never using odd numbers. This is shown with incredible detail in her pictures. In the graphics, it also shows her representation of her mother is with a pursed mouth, sideways glances, and body positioning that has her leaning away from young Alison. It makes it seem like her mother doesn’t want any physical contact with her. 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 ears” (137). If the reader looks 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. Bechdel’s art makes full use of image to show emotion and feeling in each member of her family. Bechdel’s art does not possess a ultra-realistic style. She clearly makes use of style to suit her purpose.
In most panels, the readers encounter a more cartoon-like style. Bechdel draws the reader into her story with her simple but not easy art. Her detailed photograph sketches are used sparingly in Fun Home but every time they are used, you get to see so much into her life. For example, the drawing of the picture of her father’s lover, Roy, it was done with such consistency and carefulness. Each image seems to show 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. 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. 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 a nd yet, the most painful picture is the one readers encounter at the close of the book in the divider or 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 .
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. 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.