Alison Bechdel has been entertaining us with Dykes to Watch Out For since 1983. Initially one-box sketches, the Dykes evolved into a long running comic strip lesbian soap opera. Today the strip (recently ejected from Planet Out but available here, and in book form), encompasses Raffi, son of Clarice and Toni, Carlos (Raffiís male role model), Stuart, partner of bi-dyke Sparrow, and Janis, an adolescent transgender child. Dykes to Watch Out For, although rarely discussed this way, is a rather wonderful piece of utopian fiction. Bechdel has cited as her formative influences Charles Addams, Mad magazine, Norman Rockwell, and Edward Gorey. You can see all of this both in the mildly surreal humor which drives the story lines and in Bechdelís attention to drawn character. So much of the story is carried in reaction shots, in poses, and in the awareness of racial and gender differences. One of the most fascinating aspects of her work is the way each of her characters moves and carries themselves in ways appropriate to their culture. I have to remind myself that these are static shots Iím reading.
This year Alison Bechdel has published a novel. I ordered it expecting just that. What I received was a graphic novel within the hard covers of a conventional novel. Before I opened it to see what was inside, I was struck by its beauty, a beauty to which on-line pictures cannot do justice. The cover is a dull metallic sea blue, the illustrations white and silver, the impression that of an eighteenth century sketch. And it isnít the only cover. Underneath the dust jacket the boards are bright orange and open out to a silhouette of the house and family, each member ensconced in their own space, an image that will come to dominate the novel. The lining papers are pale blue flowers. The influences which Bechdel cites shadow the drawing. The cemetery at the end of Chapter 2 is recognizably Goryesque. The house and its inhabitants are frequently shown in Charles Adams poses. Norman Rockwell influences the down-home scenes, the family gatherings that are ever so slightly discordant.
Fun Home is what the young Alison and her brothers come to call the funeral parlor which her father runs, and which he has inherited from his father, and from his father before him. The Bechdels live in a small town in which there have been Bechdels for one hundred and fifty years. There are several hundred in the Ďphone book, and Bechdels marry Bechdels. Alisonís father met her mother while at college, in a short period of escape. Itís a Wonderful Life reads as a weird, accurate yet disturbing parable for Alison. The modern tragic reading of the film makes perfect sense to her, for Alison grows up in a household that feels subtly wrong. Her mother is fanatically neat, combining house work with amateur dramatics. Her father moves them into a gothic pile and spends the next fifteen years restoring it to Southern colonial grandeur. Neither seems to communicate much with the other. The children are professionally cared for but there seems little emotional time.
As Alison grows older she begins to realize that her father is obsessive. She also canít help notice that while he is fanatic about house restoration, the obsession is with the decor, with fabrics, furnishings, flowers. His own clothing ó velvet jackets, ruffled shirts ó becomes part of the setting. He is also secretive: visits to the city involve his odd absences. He doesnít seem to have friends his own age, but is close to some of the male students from the local college. An "inciting a minor to drink" charge gets dropped on condition that he sees a psychologist. As Alison and her brothers grow older they drift to their separate sections of the house. When Alison goes to university and discovers her own sexuality, the penny drops: her father is gay. When she tells him she is a lesbian, her mother confirms this fact. Her father continues to talk in the oblique code he has always used.
And then he walks across a street, is hit by a truck and is killed. Both Alison and her mother are convinced it is suicide.
I have given this detail away at the end of the summary, but Bechdel provides it at the beginning, and it is the event around which the book is constructed. Bechdelís father becomes a series of Chinese puzzle boxes, no one of which is ever completely unpacked. This describes the book itself. Inked with black lines and shaded with blue the images are layered. There are the pictured scenes. There are the words in the speech bubbles. There are the text boxes offering a gloss, frequently drawing from myth and legend. These components have to be read together or only part of the story is told. The layers reiterate the experience of childhood, the half contextualized information. Frequently the really important information is in those classical references dropped and picked up again at different stages in Alisonís childhood. That blue shading keeps the story distant, moments of memory. Dictionary definitions in pale blue and black underscore the coldness, the formality of a life lived in emotional confinement.