Early in her career, Alison Bechdel, then a cult cartoonist — “at the pinnacle of my bitterness,” she would later say — was invited to contribute to a special gay pride issue of Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger. She fired off a comic strip titled “Oppressed Minority Cartoonist.” She drew herself at her desk, flanked by a bottle of Scotch, mid-tirade. Why had her work been pigeonholed? And why had she complied so willingly, chronicling only lesbians, her “oppressed minority group”? In the last panel, her rant is interrupted by a phone call inviting her to contribute to that very gay pride issue. “I’d be honored,” she capitulates.
In the 20 years since, Bechdel has been rewarded with lavish, mainstream acclaim. But after two celebrated graphic memoirs, “Fun Home” (2006) and “Are You My Mother?” (2012); a hit Broadway musical adaptation of “Fun Home”; and one MacArthur “genius” grant, among a slew of other prizes, another crisis beckoned. Again, Bechdel found herself at her desk feeling parched and uneasy. What was this “distinct sense of dread?” she asks in her new book. “Where had my creative joy gone?”
“The Secret to Superhuman Strength” is Bechdel’s first book in nearly 10 years. It chronicles her lifelong susceptibility to every passing exercise fad — the more unnecessary gear required the better. In childhood, it was men’s bodies she loved to draw — she was a “connoisseur of masculinity,” she wrote in “Fun Home,” a worshiper of Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne.
She graduated to karate, yoga, in-line skating, cross-country skiing, biking, running, hiking and mountain climbing. The book is divided by decade, each with its own enthusiasm, carrying us into the present day, as Bechdel and her partner, the painter Holly Rae Taylor, cloister themselves in Vermont during the pandemic. She depicts them as tonsured monks, “ascetic and contemplative,” working on the book together, Taylor helping Bechdel with the color.
Color? It’s the first sign that something new is afoot in a book full of familiar flourishes: the intertextuality (Proust and Joyce provided scaffolding for “Fun Home” as Kerouac and Margaret Fuller do here); the devotion to therapeutic homilies cut by sardonic asides; and the figure of Bechdel herself, drawn as a bit of a cross between Tintin and Waldo, vibrating with anxiety, doing her best to flee herself on bike or skis or simply on foot.
For years Bechdel balked at using color. “My dad was a huge color freak, and he really inhibited and intimidated me,” she has said. In “Fun Home,” she wrote about how he nearly came to blows with a female houseguest over whether a patch of embroidery was fuchsia or magenta. Black-and-white comics were a kind of solace, and when Bechdel did venture into color, she used it sparingly — the blue-green wash of “Fun Home,” the matte brownish-red spot color of “Are You My Mother?”
The color comes as a shock in the new book, like the great reveal in “The Wizard of Oz”; just as Dorothy opens the door and steps into a dazzling, saturated world, we see Bechdel on the first page, through an open door, in a frame of color (and exercising frenetically).
The juicy pastels and candy colors alternate with stark black-and-white pages. Bechdel is evoking two states of being. In color, we see the frenzy of the everyday — Bechdel flinging herself up and down mountains, laboring over her work, drinking too much. In black and white, everything extraneous is leached away. In these scenes, there is stillness, a walk in the forest — that long, painfully sought moment of self-forgetfulness.
Virginia Woolf wrote that she wanted to go beyond the “formal railway line of sentence” to depict how people actually feel, dream and think — “all over the place.” Bechdel is so associated with her material — her father’s possible suicide; her coming-out story, which she juxtaposed in “Fun Home” with her father’s furtive affairs with men — that her artistic and technical ambitions are often overlooked. Like Woolf, she is preoccupied with depicting the texture of thought and memory — their ambushes and heretical swerves.
She is always annotating the very story she is telling, a metacommentary that the graphic form seems to invite. (Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is an important influence.) In her crowded, clamorous frames, the mind is portrayed as a womb, a warmly cluttered studio, library stacks, a dungeon. “Are You My Mother?” begins with her anticipating telling her mother that she is writing a book about their family — the book that would become “Fun Home.” In captions, she comments on the difficulty of writing this section: “The real problem with this memoir about my mother is that it has no beginning.”
The real problem of this new memoir is stranger: How does a writer so fond of depicting thought and argument, dreams and recursive therapy sessions depict what lies beyond the mind? How does a writer with such an intricate visual and narrative style unravel her attraction to exertion and difficulty?
Bechdel writes that fear of falling made her a rigid skier. She began practicing falling, then letting go at full speed: “Instantly I began to ski with a new and liquid ease.” It’s that accumulating ease we feel in this book — a supple, loose-limbed grace; an absence of fear that translates into simplicity, discipline and modesty. Ten years ago, Bechdel might have expanded her story into a sprawling cultural history of exercise and self-improvement in America. (I half suspect there was once such a draft — part of me wants it still.) What we have instead feels culled, distilled, full of mountainscapes, waterfalls, silences.
There are admissions here about drinking too much, using sleeping pills, learning to combine drinking and pills. The real recovery memoir aspect, however, has to do with shedding a harrowing artistic process. Bechdel has said that she experienced the painstaking work of memory upon which her books are based as a kind of penance — she recreated her childhood home down to the wallpaper designs and transcribed her parents’ love letters.
Penance but also preservation. I think of the novels of Yiyun Li that feel like collaborations with the dead, long contentious arguments to keep them alive, keep them close.
After writing “To the Lighthouse,” Woolf wrote that she was no longer haunted by her mother. Bechdel has devoted a book to each of her parents and outlived them both. She works in color now. Her parents are small presences in this book, and shockingly benign. It is her own mortality she turns to, and all the questions that work and exercise have helped her evade. “The only thing to transcend is the idea that there’s something to transcend,” she says at the book’s conclusion, standing in the snow with Taylor. “Onward to the grave!” But her posture doesn’t suggest resignation. She looks up, registering a bird on a high branch. Her head is bared to the winter sky, cocked a bit as if to say, “Now what?”
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