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More Fun in the New World

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

For more than twenty years, cartoonist Alison Bechdel has chronicled the lives of an ensemble cast of lesbians in her more-or-less weekly comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For (also affectionately known as “DTWOF”).  In the process, Bechdel has gained a loyal following of readers devoted to her diverse, distinctive characters.  (An archive of the strip is available online.)

Nonetheless, for her mainstream publishing debut, Bechdel has chosen the hottest topic for a cross-over “literary” comic book: herself.  Fortunately, Fun Home stands out as an unusually strong example of the now-familiar memoir genre.

Through the eyes of a young girl, and then of a young woman, Bechdel illustrates the realization of her lesbian identity – physically, intellectually, spiritually, and politically.  But the story of her father, the head and proprietor of the ironically-named “Fun Home” – that is, the family-run funeral home – becomes the narrative’s centerpiece, providing the “tragic” element of this “tragicomedy.”

In addition to his role as undertaker, Bechdel reveals that her father, Bruce, also served time as a high school English teacher.  But his obsessions lay elsewhere, such as his compulsive need to transform the family home, a true fixer-upper, into the simulacrum of a nineteenth-century Victorian mansion, complete with an elaborate garden.  And his iconoclastic exterior concealed a still deeper secret.  Although a married man with three children, Bruce was drawn toward teenaged boys, including his students and a family babysitter.  And drawn to act on this forbidden desire.  This double life threatened to destroy the Bechdel family.  And in the end, it may have literally led to Bruce’s destruction, as he died from a mysterious “accident” that bore the earmarks of suicide.

Several sequences of Fun Home contrast Alison’s childhood rejection of traditional “feminine” clothing and interests with her father’s dandified embrace of style, gardening and home décor.  And given the vantage point of the protagonist – a child for much of the book – Bechdel expertly clues the reader into the father’s secret life without revealing clues beyond the young Alison’s comprehension.

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Father and daughter share an interest in literature – particularly those literary works dealing with issues of gender and sexuality.  And so Bechdel alludes throughout the book to famous works such as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as well as the works of other transgressive authors like Colette and Oscar Wilde. 

And as her protagonist begins college, and experiences a sexual and spiritual awakening, Bechdel provides a virtual primer in feminist authors of the time such as Kate Millett, Mary Daly, and Rita Mae Brown, as well as earlier proto-feminists like Virginia Woolf, Colette, and Anais Nin.

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Bechdel’s art has the casual wit of a daily strip artist like Lynn Johnston.  But she is also a master of the precise figures and bold lines of a Rick Geary.  And in one panel, also adopted for the book’s interior cover, Bechdel evokes the humorous schematics of Chris Ware with a blueprint representing the separation of the members of her family through both physical distance and individual interests.

Click to enlarge  Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

And while Bechdel uses a standard strip layout for DTWOF, she opens up her style in the full-length memoir to embrace much larger panels, and even the occasional full-page splash.

In one of the book’s most moving and effective scenes, Bechdel divides two facing pages into a total of 24 tiny, nearly identical panels, each of Alison riding in a car as her father drives beside her, staring ahead at the road.  Alison inquires whether Bruce knew she was a lesbian when he lent her a book by Colette.  He doesn’t even look at her as he replies, and yet they share a true moment of connection in the elliptical dialogue that follows, marked by pauses – nearly half of the panels are silent.  As the two realize their lives have in many ways mirrored each other, they unconsciously put their hands to their chins in a parallel motion.  Bechdel establishes the depth of the connection between Alison and her father, a connection which they do not, and perhaps cannot, physically express.

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Fun Home is set in the period beginning in the early 1970s, when Bechdel came of age, up to 1980, when Bruce Bechdel died.  While this decade reflected the awakening of the 1960s, and the increasing freedoms that resulted, it also remained a time of secrecy and furtive resistance for gays and lesbians, and Bechdel illustrates this repression through her own anxious experimentation, and even more profoundly through her father’s hidden life.

The recent publication of Fun Home by a major publisher like Houghton Mifflin is a powerful statement that times have changed, that it may no longer be necessary for gays and lesbians to live in the closet.  Surely we live in more tolerant times than in prior decades…

Or do we?  As reported in the comics press, a group of “concerned” citizens in Marshall, Missouri met for the second time on October 11, 2006, to decide whether to ban from the public library such “pornography” as Fun Home and Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Their final decision was a Solomonic one:  to impose a “material selection policy” to determine what books should appears on the library shelves. Whether or not censorship results will depend on who’s on the committee assigned to make such selections.  In any event, Fun Home and Blankets will remain off the shelves until the committee is formed and issues its decision.

Should the average child be exposed to Fun Home’s frank depictions of sexuality? Probably not.  Should a book dealing with complex themes of gender identity, sexuality, and acceptance be kept out of the reach of teenagers, and even adults, simply because a member of the community is too “sensitive” to deal with such subject matter?  Definitely not.

So fight censorship and intolerance.  Buy a copy of Fun Home immediately. And maybe leave it in a library when you’re done with it. 

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Jeff Loew has been named a finalist in the "Be A Visionary" contest sponsored by Visionary Comics Studio and Markosia Enterprises.  His story,"I Married Ghost Girl," appears in the Arcana anthology, Dark Horrors, listed in Previews (SEP06 3063) and available soon in fine comic shops everywhere. Find out more about Jeff's work at his website, www.movingpanels.com.

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