April 15, 2008

Dyke to Watch Out For: Alison Bechdel

Print More

… And the crowd went wild. It wasn’t for OAR and it definitely wasn’t for T-Pain. It was for graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, when she spoke and read from her most recent work, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, this past Thursday in Lewis Auditorium.
The event was the fourth of the Spring Reading Series presented by Cornell’s Department of Creative Writing. It was sponsored by two Cornell alumni and co-sponsored by the Lesbian, Bisexual, & Gay Studies Program and the Gender & Sexuality Reading Group. Bechdel was welcomed by director of the creative writing program Stephanie Vaughn and introduced by professor and chair of the English Department Molly Hite. Hite described Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, as one of the few “genuinely political and genuinely funny strips,” a description that rang true for the audience when Bechdel displayed various slides of the strip.
Bechdel described her childhood home as one within which there were many secrets, explaining that there was “a real disjuncture between appearances and reality.” The big family secret, or at least pretend secret, was that Bechdel’s dad was gay. Bechdel spent a large part of the evening speaking about her father, whom Fun Home is centered around: “The book is about his suicide and also the opposite of suicide … how my father taught me to be an artist.”
When it became apparent to Bechdel that she was a lesbian, she wanted to be open. It was this motive in part that led to the creation of Dykes to Watch Out For. She is “able to explain something in this combination of words and pictures” that is impossible anywhere else.
Bechdel’s captivation of the audience was due in large part to her ability to comment on her life’s devastating trials while also adding a comic spin to them. In fact, Bechdel spoke the way she writes. She lightened anecdotes of her father’s rage, abuse, and male lovers with humorous anecdotes of her father as well as gentle pokes of fun at her family’s straight-laced manner of living.
Bechdel said, “I grew to resent that my father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture.” Bechdel never let the audience cry at her expense for long, however. Heart wrenching remarks such as this one were always juxtaposed with comedy to ease the effect of Bechdel’s tear jerking childhood: “In this aspect, it was not like being raised by Jimmy [her father], but by Martha Stewart.” Bechdel also described her reaction when her father redecorated her childhood bedroom: “But I hate pink. I hate flowers,” to which her father replied, “tough titty.”
In the first chapter of Fun Home, Bechdel writes in-depth about her father’s intense love for decorating and furnishing. Not only are her pictures astoundingly detailed and powerful, her language is poignant and graceful. She writes, “my father could spin garbage into gold” and “He [her father] was an alchemist of appearance.”
Bechdel’s audience adored her throughout the entire event. She enchanted both those who were already fans and those who just came to check out the reading. Although Bechdel only read the first chapter of Fun Home, it was enough to grab the audience’s attention and spark further interest. Should you read Bechdel’s novel and comic strips? I will leave you with the answer that Bechdel said she gave when she was first asked if she wanted to be published: “Hell yeah.”