NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — There’s a fine line between graphic novel and graphic memoir. In her “A Story about Life” (2009) board game, featured in Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Bechdel writes that truth, compared to fiction, can be dull. In order to make it as interesting as fiction, truth needs to be compressed.
58-year-old Bechdel has achieved great success compressing her life’s story. The MacArthur Genius’s best-selling 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — titled after the Bechdel family’s nickname for their funeral business — explores the author’s relationship with her closeted gay father, his unexpected death, and her own coming out. The memoir has been translated into 25 languages and was adapted into a Broadway play that, in 2015, earned five Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
But Bechdel wasn’t always a marquee name, as Self-Confessed! reminds us: decades before achieving commercial success with Fun Home, she was rejected from art graduate schools. This career retrospective takes us through her life, chronicling how she went from her dysfunctional family’s funeral home to studying studio art at Oberlin College to being appointed Vermont’s third Cartoonist Laureate in 2017.
For hardcore Bechdel fans and newcomers alike, the exhibit offers fresh insights into her creative process, her cultural influence, and her understanding of queerness and feminism. “The secret subversive goal of my work is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings,” Bechdel once said in an interview. Even those who haven’t read Bechdel’s work might know of her from the “Bechdel Test”, derived from one of her comic strips and used to evaluate representation of women in fiction and film: To pass the test, a book or movie has to have at least two women characters who converse about something other than a man.
It was at Oberlin where Bechdel came out as a lesbian; in the Fun Home play, after falling in love with a girl in her dorm, her character sings, “I’m changing my major to Joan.” Self Confessed!, which includes a mockup of the set and clips from the Broadway performances, showcases Bechdel’s “inappropriately intimate” sapphic humor.
Her comics career kicked off with her “Dykes To Watch Out For” (DTWOF) strip, about the lives of a group of lesbian friends, which was first published in WomaNews, a feminist newspaper. The strip ran from 1983 to 2008 and was syndicated in more than 50 alternative papers around the country; it has also been collected into books.
In 1986, Bechdel created “The Amazon’s Bedside Companion: A Sapphisticated Alphabet” — what she calls “a catalog of lesbians” that takes the form of a children’s alphabet book. It’s reminiscent, in its macabre humor, of Edward Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”
“A is for Alice who liked to cook soup,” the book reads. (“The Joy of Lesbian Cooking” is pictured on the table behind Alice). “B is for Blanca who sat on the stoop, C is for Cleo who wouldn’t eat meat”–she tends a huge block of tofu on the grill alongside the T-bone of her butchier companion–“D is for Deirdre who worked on Wall Street (crossed legs propped on a desk, phone off the hook).”
As visitors enter the gallery, Bechdel’s ginormous board game “A Story About Life” (2009) encompasses an entire wall. Again reflecting her life, the game’s moves ask a player to choose between two paths: “You go to a party, have fun, write a novella about someone at the party, it gets rejected, you drink too much and then write a bestseller and collect $9,500,000”; or, “you marry a person at the party, divorce, and your children enter rehab.” (At the other end of the gallery, a table-sized version of the game invites visitors to play.)
Bechdel followed Fun Home in 2012 with Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, which explores her relationship with her mother, girlfriends, therapists, and her interest in psychoanalytic theory. She brilliantly overlays readings from psychoanalysts, images of their own seminal experiences, and the writings of Virginia Woolf with scenes from what she perceives as her tormented childhood. The book passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
Presenting a graphic novelist in a museum comes with its challenges. For one, there’s a lot of standing around reading. Yet Self-Confessed! offers plenty that can’t be found in Bechdel’s published books, including early drawings, pages from her daily diary drawings, and large works in ink on Kraft paper about her life: at a computer wearing Crocs, in the grips of a vice, on waterskis, and always with a black cat. In the margin of one drawing is a note: “Fix cat. Make it Siamese?”
The show provides a behind-the-scenes look at Bechdel’s cartooning process, which begins in Adobe Illustrator. She plans, writes, and lays out her story on the computer before moving on to the actual physical drawing. She sketches from reference photos and props, often photographing herself posing as her family members. She refines each image with a succession of pencil drawings, sometimes scanning and editing them digitally. Bechdel paints a separate ink wash layer for shading, adding depth and complexity to the images, and breaks from the standard grid of her pages when the story or image calls for it.
Bechdel played an active role in producing Self-Confessed!, which originated at the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont, in Burlington. She created original, large-scale illustrations on the walls of the Fleming; these illustrations have been transferred, in vinyl, to the walls of the Zimmerli.
“It’s a funny inversion,” says Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s Curator of American Art, who organized the exhibit’s presentation. “In the graphic novel, the printed page is final, so we have reproductions of the printed page on the wall with the actual drawings in cases. Alison thinks of the drawings as preliminary, but to a curator, it’s the hand-drawn object that is precious.”
Bechdel, who is a James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont, lives in the town of Bolton, near Burlington. In a cartoon from the book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (2008), she explains how she wound up living in Vermont: “In many ways I’m your typical Vermonter — chai-sipping, artisanal-cheese-eating, NPR-listening, Subaru-driving, left-wing-freak-show-who-came-from-somewhere-else homosexual”, she writes. While living elsewhere, she received a letter from a complete stranger: “I loved your book,” it read. “If you ever find yourself in Vermont, come visit my old farmhouse on an island in the middle of Lake Champlain.” Within three months, the cartoon reveals, Bechdel was living with the letter writer. (She subsequently left that relationship and, in 2015, married Holly Rae Taylor, an artist and self-described “compost maven.”)
Bechdel’s success is parodied in “Essential DTWOF” (2008), where we see the self-archivist at her desk, surrounded by piles of her own work, such as “Brides of DTWOF,” “DTWOF Strike Back,” “Dawn of the DTWOF,” “DTWOF: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and—the penultimate sequel—“Perimenopausal DTWOF.”
Younger audiences may not realize that when Bechdel began making cartoons, lesbian culture was feared, ridiculed, even reviled — they were “Dykes to Watch Out For.” “By drawing the everyday lives of women like me,” the cartoon Bechdel says in the introduction to DTWOF, “I hoped to make lesbians visible not just to ourselves, but to everyone.”
Now this community is visible in fine art, and followers are lining up to become a part of the world Bechdel has created.
Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers (71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ) through December 30, 2018. Bechdel will speak at Rutgers on October 10, 2018.