(Photo Credit http://idler-mag.com/)
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, a Family Tragicomic is a conversation I had with my friend Chi. This is not unusual when it comes to independent comics conversations. You see, my friend Chi knows a lot about independent comics, quite possibly a great deal more than I do. Unfortunately, I was asked to write this column first and I'm not willing to give it up. Not even in favour of my good friend Chi. I guess you're stuck with me. Come to terms with it.
Anyway, when I received my second-hand copy of Fun Home from Amazon (I always buy comics second-hand and so should you, frankly, unless you're a textbook spot-ridden nerd who actually doesn't mind paying fuckloads of money for essentially the same product), I sent a message to Chi, telling him that I was about to start Bechdel's graphic novel memoir, and had he read it, and if he had, what did he think of it. Turns out he hadn't been as lucky as me, as my message brought along an ominous epiphany: he had indeed ordered Fun Home on Amazon himself (you see?!), but it never arrived (track your deliveries, folks). But he said that he heard really good things about it, and that apparently it was 'painfully autobiographical'. Now thank God I have a friend like Chi, who provides accurate reviews even when he hasn't actually read the thing.
'Painfully autobiographical' is indeed a topical description of Bechdel's work. But that should not put you off it, nor should you by any means assume that Fun Home is the kind of book that deserves to be relegated on the 'misery memoir' shelf of a WH Smiths alongside the Torey Hayden's and the much cooler, druggier but ultimately equally soppy James Frey's.
Fun Home was first published in 2006 and spent a couple of weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. A slim book at 230 pages, with black and white illustration shaded in with greyish-blue watercolours, Fun Home is an account of the author's childhood and teenage years as she grows up in central Pennsylvania. Mainly, it narrates the discovery and public embracing of her homosexuality. The memoir pivots emotionally on the relationship between the author and her father Bruce, who instead repressed his own homosexuality and killed himself soon after Bechdel came out officially as a lesbian. While you'll agree this has the potential for a pretty unhappy plot by any standard, thankfully, Alison Bechdel's treatment of her personal history is lightened up by dark humour and unsentimental objectivity; an approach we've grown accustomed to, in recent years, thanks to the work of authors like David Eggers, Augusten Burroughs and – among fellow graphic novel artists – Phoebe Gloeckner. Bechdel's drawings make me think of a grown up version of the classic Calvin and Hobbes strips where all the children have the eyes of the characters of Doonesbury stitched onto their round little heads. It is a world where childhood reveries meet the dark, coveted secrets of adulthood in a full-frontal crash with no seat belts on. The story of Bechdel's relationship with her father is narrated through vignettes from different eras, beautifully seamed together by a reticule of literary references to the authors who were meaningful to the pair and served them as a mirror to understand themselves and the world. Homer, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Wilde and Proust are all mentioned in Fun Home, but Bechdel's narrative voice never sounds patronizing or coldly academic. Fun Home is, instead, a tribute to living life through literature, where 'reading about things' is often a necessary threshold to cross in order to access real life experiences. Can anyone relate? I, for one, am all with Alison Bechdel.
For those who are into the odd bit of trivia: Alison Bechdel's baby brother John, cute and floppy-haired in the book, has since turned into this man. I guess people deal with their difficult childhoods in different ways, hey.