Acclaimed cartoonist, graphic memoir author Alison Bechdel reflects on evolution of decades-long career

U.S. cartoonist Alison Bechdel portrayed as she works in her studio at the castle of Civitella Ranieri, central Italy on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foudation

For much of her career, Alison Bechdel was a little-known cartoonist whose comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For” (1983-2008), could be found in the pages of alternative gay and lesbian newspapers. In 2006, however, the release of her acclaimed graphic memoir, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” a highly personal autobiography about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, launched the cartoonist into commercial success. Her works now find themselves listed on the syllabi for college English classes across the country, and in 2013, “Fun Home” was adapted into a Broadway musical. Bechdel’s work also brought into pop cultural prominence the Bechdel test, sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test, a popular shorthand way to gauge levels of gender equality in a given film or TV show. In 2012, Bechdel published a second graphic memoir, “Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama,” which details her relationship with her mother, who died the year after the book’s release.

Recently, the Daily had a chance to chat with Bechdel about the trajectory of her career, the evolution of her drawing and narrative styles, as well as what she is working on next.

Tufts Daily (TD): “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?” are both very personal works. Where does creating for yourself meet communicating to others in those works, and how do you reconcile those different purposes?

Alison Bechdel (AB): Yes, my work is absurdly personal. I can’t believe that I write some of this stuff … My great fear is always that…it’s self-reflexive and hopelessly internal. But my hope is…that it’s a way of connecting with other people. I’m not very good at connecting with other people; that’s one of my weak points. Just socially, I’m kind of a shy person … I know I write this really personal stuff, but I feel like it’s a way of getting out of myself. Like if I go deeply enough into myself, I can somehow come back out with something of value to share with other people. That’s the fantasy anyway — I don’t know if it’s true.

TD: I’m also wondering in what ways you think your drawing style and or your narrative technique have changed over the course of your career, and sort of specifically as you’ve moved from sort of the more general work of “Dykes to Watch Out For” into “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?

AB: It’s funny for me to look at the progression of my drawing style over the years because it really changes a lot. I like to think it gets better. When I was first doing “Dykes” in the early ’80s, it was really pretty crude. I was basically just doing one quick pencil sketch and then inking it … I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just kind of making it up.

Over the years, I just started putting more and more effort into it, would do more sketches, more studies, more visual research and the drawings got better, but they also got more complicated. They started getting quite busy, almost illegibly busy by the end. And then my drawing gets a little different when I start doing this autobiographical stuff. I’m no longer drawing made-up characters … I’m drawing myself and my actual family members, and I think the style gets a little more cartoony and a little more realistic. And [in] “Are You My Mother?” the drawing gets even more almost photographic…because…I was looking at photographs as I drew. But I feel like — I don’t really like that. I want to move back into some kind of more cartoony way of drawing and that’s what I’m struggling to do now, rely less on photographs in that way.

TD: When you were drawing “Dykes to Watch Out For,” were you basing it on real people, like friends or anybody you knew, or was it totally from your own head?

AB: It’s totally from my own head. I mean [for] a couple people in there…I just stole the appearance of someone in my community, but mostly I just made them up. In fact, they’re all just different version of myself, aspects of my own psyche.

TD: Kind of on a similar theme of the evolution of your work, how did the climate for producing this kind of content change over the 25 years you were self-syndicating “Dykes to Watch Out For?” … Did you find there was a greater reception for it as time went on?

AB: Well, there were a lot of things going on over the 25 years or so that I was drawing “Dykes to Watch Out For.” In the ’80s, as I was getting started, it was a big era for newspapers, for alternative newspapers all over the country, and especially gay and lesbian newspapers which were just beginning to start up in most large cities by the late ’70s early ’80s. It was the existence of those papers that made my comic strip possible. I started, you know, writing to the different editors and seeing they’d run my comic strip in their papers … At the high point there were 40 or 50 papers…carrying my comic strip.

Looking back now, it’s kind of amazing that that happened because then it all started to implode, partly because of the internet, partly because of just what was happening in gay and lesbian culture. There was no longer the same need for this tight-knit sort of subculture that we had for many years because there was more and more mainstream acceptance of gay stuff … That community became less necessary. Institutions started falling away, like these newspapers [that] started folding, [or the] many queer bookstores or women’s bookstores [that] started closing. And that too was largely compounded by the internet and by Amazon. And by the early 2000s, it was getting much harder for me to make a living from the comic strip. It was hard to figure out how to get money for it on the internet — no one had quite figured that out yet. I was losing all these papers. The bookstores that sold my books were folding. It was getting pretty scary. So fortunately, I had this other project on the back burner, this graphic novel … All of a sudden comic books and graphic novels were becoming a big publishing trend. The fact that I had that graphic novel coming up sort of saved my bacon.

TD: In “Are You My Mother?” there is a line, “You can’t live and write at the same time.” Yet journaling and writing seem to have been quite central to your life. Can you expand on that reflection and how you reconcile the impulses to experience and record?

AB: I am struggling to do that right now in the book I am writing, a new graphic memoir I’m writing, which is kind of about how I think too much. How I have this hyperactive mind that’s always thinking and narrating and writing and how I long to just be more spontaneous, to just exist and do things. But the fact is, I could not be writing this book if I did not have all these crazy, excessively detailed diary entries from my whole life, which I’m using to figure out the story, figure out why things happened the way they did in my life. So it’s a funny conundrum. I’m using all those observations, all that hyper-thinking and trying to keep track of myself, as a way of pushing through it, trying to find my way to a place where I don’t need to do that.

TD: So it’s an on-going process.

AB: It is, but I would say that I’m less — well, I don’t know — the one way I’m still keeping track of my life is I’m sitting here in my basement writing memoirs, but I’m also keeping less track in a way because I’m not writing these minute journal entries about every move I make like I did when I was younger. So that seems like some improvement.

TD: Do you think you’ll always be drawn to doing this sort of personal, introspective work? Is that the trajectory [you see for] your career?

AB: I don’t know. I don’t really feel a pull to write fiction. I feel so much more interested in the real stuff of life. I don’t rule out that I would go back to some kind of fiction, but I don’t really see that as necessarily. I guess I used to see that as some kind of evolution or forward movement, but I’m not so sure now. I feel like it’s perfectly legitimate to write about yourself as long as you feel like. So maybe that’s what I’m going to do.

I’m trying to remember what I was going to say before. I do know that when I was, I used to get criticized a lot for not drawing more femme characters, that my characters were too butch or too unattractive. And I would struggle to balance it out and have more femme characters.

TD: Did you feel obligated to balance it out? Or would that not have occurred to you without those outside voices telling you that you were doing it wrong?

AB: I always felt like I wanted to — I wasn’t just telling my story, I was kind of reporting on the community, and I knew I could only report on a tiny swath of the lesbian community. I tried to be diverse in as many ways as I could. So I had a little bit of obligation to listen to people when they said they wanted more femme characters.

TD: How have your feelings on “Ulysses” (1922) changed since that first reading in college?

AB: My feelings about “Ulysses” changed when I realized I could use it to my own ends in telling that story about my dad … I had been very sort of dismissive of it, like it seemed like this crazy, unreadable, elitist project. But as I found myself reading it, since I was going to attempt to write about it, I understood more of how it worked as literature … I would say that writing “Fun Home” for me redeemed all of that literature for me, that I’d been put off by for one reason or another … It was like a graduate course that I pushed myself through. I came to understand something about literature in writing that book that I had not understood from all of my English classes.

TD: What was that?

AB: I guess I never could really understand how a story could be about more than what it appeared to be on the page. I was very literal in college. It was just like, oh, this is a story about this guy walking around Dublin. But then with my more adult perspective, I could understand this more mythological aspect of it.

TD: I wonder if the mediums of drawing and writing, which are your bread and butter, were helpful to making that connection.

AB: At that point in my life I had learned how to tell stories with pictures and that enabled me to think about stuff in this combined way, this image-and-text way that enabled me to get somewhere that I hadn’t been able to do with just words.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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