March 2007

John Zuarino

features

An Interview with Alison Bechdel

Having exploded onto both the books and comics scenes with her graphic memoir Fun Home in summer of 2006, Alison Bechdel has become a household name for comics aficionados as well as the uninitiated. However, she has been an active cartoonist since the early '80s. Her long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For recently celebrated its 500th episode, and the gals (plus one straight man in a man-skirt) are still going strong, despite the fumbles and follies of the Bush administration. 

Fun Home has garnered vast media attention, both for the writer as well as the graphic medium. Time called it “book of the year,” and a library in Missouri even tried to have it banned from its shelves over incidents of frontal male nudity and explicit sexuality. Librarians claim that, because the book is illustrated, it will attract children.

On the morning in which this interview took place, Bechdel spoke at a forum on gay identity in comics with Ariel Schrag, Abby Denson and Jose Villarubia at the New York Comic Con. What started out as a discussion of queer identification in comics turned into a free-for-all: audience members suggested that the panelists incorporate gay themes into children’s books. The forum ended with Villarubia reprimanding a Latino comics fan for strongly identifying with Speedy Gonzales, an offensive Mexican stereotype that has been blacklisted from several television stations.

After dodging hundreds of sexual angst-ridden storm troopers and fanboys in Jedi uniforms, I sat down with Alison in a well-hidden niche near the event space at the Jacob Javits Center in New York.

How is the writing experience different between fiction and memoir, or rather, how does it differ when writing a Dykes to Watch Out For strip versus seven years on Fun Home?

The main difference is that with my comic strip, it’s pretty much a known quantity. I know what I want to say before I say it, and then I just have to figure out how to get it all in under ten panels. But with Fun Home it was the opposite. It was like discovering what I wanted to say as I went along. It was a very elusive process. It was actually seven years altogether that I worked on it, and it was probably not until halfway through that time that I really had a sense of the shape and structure of the book. I was just kind of muddling around for a long time.

There’s the incident at the library in Missouri where they wanted to ban your book as well as Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Where does the case currently stand?

My understanding is the library is reviewing its acquisitions policies, which apparently they didn’t have before. But that just sounds like a stalling excuse to me to get the book off the shelf and keep people quiet.

Over a flash of frontal male nudity or something like that. 

I don’t know, there is one explicit sex scene in my book, but it’s a little crazy. It’s sort of exciting too in a way because I feel it’s very much about this moment in the evolution of the graphic narrative form where people don’t know what to do with graphic novels, and there’s this assumption that because they’re illustrated they’re going to draw children in. It’s just part of that whole adjustment to what to do with these books and starting to think of them as a category.

Let’s talk about today. You went to Angouleme this year for their comics festival. How does it compare to something like the NYCC?

I thought it was really intense and overwhelming, but nothing compared to this. It was like ten percent of this, ten percent of the intensity.

Intensity as in fandom or…

Well, I only saw one person in costume at Angouleme. I guess they don’t do that there. But there was a Batman statue. I took my picture next to it [laughs]. 

I think they might be a little more rigorous about what counts there as comics. I mean, there aren’t any World Wrestling champions or a lot of Star Wars guys. What’s that about? That’s not comics!

There’s another regular NYC convention whose ads have been reduced to just “Girls Girls Girls!

Yeah, girls in their Princess Leia outfits.

…slave Leia outfits…

[Laughs] I don’t get it. Why would you want to be ogled by a bunch of fourteen-year-old geeks? Well, actually forty-year-old geeks….

You also did some work with Jennifer Camper over the past couple years, like in the Juicy Mother anthology, where you contributed the two-page “Oppressed Minority Cartoonist.”

Oh, yeah. I actually did that for The Stranger’s queer pride issue on special commission. That was very cathartic. 

Do you feel that still applies to the work you do now?

No.  I did “Opressed Minority Cartoonist” at the pinnacle of my bitterness. But I can’t tell you what it has done for my mood to have Fun Home get so much recognition. Really, I was getting pretty depressed there.

Especially at a big literary publisher…

I know! A great stroke of luck.

So Dykes has been going on for, what, twenty-five years? 

Twenty-four. I try not to make it any longer than it actually is [laughs].

It seems like it rejuvenates itself through current events, which keep feeding it and feeding it.

That’s really good to hear. I hope that that’s true. I work very hard at keeping it from lapsing into torpor, and it’s really easy for that to happen with a serial strip. I guess it’s sort of an inertia thing. People have a certain expectation, and they want what they got, what they’ve had before, but if you keep doing that, it dies. You have to find a way to change it just enough, but not too much to startle people.

Do you see the strip ending in the near future?

I don’t, but people are asking me that all the time now. I don’t know why. Are they seeing something I’m not? Is it getting stale?

I don’t think so, personally.

Well, it’s true that it’s not as financially viable as it would be to devote myself completely to books. It might be a smart thing, actually, but somehow I don’t think so. I feel Dykes is like a steady investment. A municipal bond. It has supported me for many years, not just financially, but as a really great outlet -- especially during the Bush administration. I think I would go insane without somewhere to vent this stuff.

When the Bush administration first came into power in 2000, the strip really took on a different tone than before.

I think it got a lot more depressing in 2000. I think that’s definitely a turning point of despair in the strip. People used to complain and ask, “Why is everybody looking so old and haggard, and why are they all drinking? Why isn’t everyone having sex anymore?”

In Fun Home, and a little bit in Dykes, you take on a very literary tone with Joycean and Homeric references. Do you see the graphic novel heading towards a literature classification?

Yeah, I think it’s happening now. Like the whole Time Magazine thing with my book. They called it the book of the year, not just the graphic book of the year, but the book of the year. It’s kind of startling. It makes me very happy for the graphic novel format just in the same way that I’m always happy that I get perceived as just a “cartoonist,” and not a “lesbian cartoonist” like in the old days. That’s how I would get boxed up.

It’s a similar kind of thing at work, and I think because my book is so ostentatiously literary, that it’s about literature, it got a lot of literary attention. That wasn’t my secret plan, but I think that’s part of why it got more literary scrutiny. Other graphic novels have gotten that attention too, but it just sort of reached a crescendo with my book.

You mentioned in the Nerve.com interview that your next book will involve your mother.

[Laughs] I shouldn’t have said that. Now she’s going to find out. Well, the next book is about relationships. What I really want to write about is self and other, which seems like a very vexing problem. I’m just interested in why people get into relationships. What is it that we want, and are there really other people or is it just me? And am I making this whole crazy thing up? Inevitably, if you’re talking about relationships, you’ve got to talk about your mother because that’s who your first relationship is with. So in that sort of incidental way, yes, the book will be about my mother, but it’s not going to focus on her. She really has forbidden me to write about her [laughs]. I don’t think you can really enforce that. Your mother is too much of your life to not be allowed write about her.

You kind of wrote about her at the same time you were writing about your father in Fun Home.

I did try to keep her out of it as much as I could, but there are more things I would like to say there.

How did you get started in comics? 

[Laughs] I never really got into the industry. I lived in the margins of the industry for my whole career. But I grew up with MAD Magazine. That was a very big influence graphically, and that whole satiric sensibility. Edward Gorey was a big influence, Charles Adams. And then when I was older, like after college and after I came out as a lesbian, I discovered things like Howard Cruise’s Gay Comix. That was a pivotal moment because I discovered all these gay and lesbian cartoonists who were writing about their own experiences. It made me realize I could do that too, and that’s when I started my strip. But it was the early '80s, and comics were geared more towards little boys than they are now, so it never occurred to me to try to pursue a career in the comics world. 

There was this gay and lesbian literary world starting up with small presses. That seemed like the natural fit for books and collections of my strip, and I’d publish in gay newspapers. So I just had this parallel existence in that world until now with this divergence with Fun Home. And now I’m at all these Comic Cons! Angouleme and here… and I’m going to go to San Diego….

What papers do you publish in, by the way?  I’ve never really been able to find them.

There are about forty or fifty papers around the country. It’s a constantly dwindling number, probably closer to forty now.  They’re all folding. They’re struggling, and so is gay and lesbian culture. I think gay papers are having a harder time. When you get down to it, there’s not really a need for it anymore. I know it sounds kind of elitist, and I know not everybody’s as tolerant as they are in NYC, but really there isn’t the same kind of necessity for those papers anymore, so they’re disappearing. And New York has always been a very difficult venue, I don’t know why. It was in the New York Blade for a while, but I don’t know what the deal is with them. 

I never heard of the Blade.

See? There you go [laughs].