Review: Fun Home

Artist(s): Alison Bechdel.

I hope I’ll be forgiven for this abrupt statement: Fun Home1 might be the most important queer-themed graphic novel since Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby. Narratively and psychologically ambitious, this autobiographical story of Alison Bechdel’s youth and her relation to her deceased father has made a very strong impression on me, for various reasons.

Of course, Alison Bechdel is best known for her continuing strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which she started in 1983 (see here for a list of collections). I haven’t written a review of that strip only because I haven’t bought all the collections yet, and after reading Fun Home, I certainly feel like correcting that.

The book’s beginning encapsulates the events which will be expanded upon in the following chapters: Bruce Bechdel, the author’s father, was a funeral home manager (yes, that’s where the title comes from) and high-school English teacher with a passion for historical restoration–the old, dilapidated house they’d bought was completely refurbished by the man. He also had sex with teenage boys, and died in circumstances which leave room for two possible explanations: accident or suicide, the latter being favored by his daughter.

Like an archaeologist excavating the same site over and over again, each time unearthing new evidence of a past, mysterious life about which much is forgotten and even unknowable, Alison Bechdel gives us a book made of chapters which reveal more and more of her growing-up and her family life, without claiming that we’ll know and understand everything by the end of the 232-page narrative.
This elegant structure is given intellectual flesh by the widespread use of literary references. Bruce Bechdel was an avid reader, and he passed down his interest to his daughter. The retelling of real-life events is offset against Fitzgerald, Joyce or Homer’s works, in a subtle mirror effect which never seems forced, mainly because Bechdel comments on it, and takes great pain with pointing one way or the other the differences between real life and literature. Art is never used as a conceit to shoehorn weird but factual coincidences into a simple analysis, but as a way of approaching the complexity of life–or maybe of distancing oneself from painful memories.

Alison and her dad, decidedly at odds

Alison Bechdel and her own father’s homosexuality (maybe I should write “homosexualities”, since they lived it so differently) is not the only theme of the book, but it’s one of the main ones. As you can see in the two-page excerpt, the author highlights the way masculinity played a role in her relationship to her father: she asserts her interest in traditional images of maleness, while showing at another point how butch lesbians were seen at the time of her childhood.

Another aspect of her portrayal of masculinity is in her art: while she doesn’t draw men as if they all were international gymnasts, they still look more muscley than not. In short, they’re traditionally masculine, even her father who likes to dress better than everybody else and fusses about the décor of his house. On the other hand, it seems to me that a lot of women, including her younger self, are often drawn in a somewhat androgynous way. Or maybe I just noticed those female characters more than the others.
The art in general is as good as anything she’s done on her Dykes strip, but since she draws pages instead of strips, she now has the opportunity to develop a more subtle storytelling, especially in her use of words and images. A good part of the narration is done in captions, which are illustrated by the panels. But she also uses images as a complement to words (and vice-versa) or even as a counterpoint to the text. In short, if the breakdown of the pages is mostly traditional, the words/images relations are varied and often clever.
Her elegant line art is nicely complemented by a blue wash which adds depth to her black & white. It is also interesting to note that she’s used photographs, often of herself posing, for all the characters. The body language of the characters is nevertheless never stiff or photo-realistic. Photos are just one of the tools of the trade (you can watch her working in a short but very interesting video on the publisher’s site).

Fun Home is such a rich and dense book (and a handsomely designed and printed one, too) that I’m undoubtedly going to reread it more than once. I’m also certainly going to put in the hands of all my friends, gay or straight. A graphic novel that’s as openly queer-themed as it is universal is rare enough to be a cause for celebration.

  1. This 240-page graphic novel is published by Houghton Mifflin. You can buy it from Amazon.

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