Well before Sean Hayes was winning Emmys for his role as a lovable gay guy on Will & Grace, Alison Bechdel was realizing her own sexuality, at a time when the Gay Rights Movement was just getting its footing. She contributed to the cause in the late ’70s with a comic strip series aptly titled Dykes To Watch Out For, which she kept going until the end of the Bush administration. The Bechdel Rule is pop-culture feminism legend—it’s based on a strip where a woman mentions she won’t go see a movie unless it satisfies the following: “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who Two, talk to each other about Three, something besides a man.”
But she didn’t really break out until releasing her 2006 graphic novel, Fun Home—an unashamedly personal memoir that grapples with the relationship Bechdel had with her somewhat-closeted father who committed suicide. This year, she has simultaneously worked on Fun Home’s companion piece, Are You My Mother?, as well as taking on the guest editor position of the just-released Best American Comics 2011. The A.V. Club talked with Bechdel about her upcoming projects, the importance of zines, and what it’s like to grow up in a funeral home.
The A.V. Club: What was the selection process like for Best American Comics?
Alison Bechdel: Jessica Abel and Matt Madden are the series editors, and they do all the really hard work of trying to look at everything that has been published during the specific time period. They cull through it and send me about 100 different selections of mini-comics, graphic novels, comic book issues—all kinds of stuff—that I had to whittle down to maybe a quarter or a third of that.
AVC: How did you pick selections from bigger works?
AB: Excerpting stuff was really difficult, and in some cases impossible, like Dan Clowes’ book Wilson. I couldn’t figure out any way to get an excerpt that made sense and captured its essence that wasn’t like 50 pages long. You can usually find a theme that will stand on its own if you look hard enough, so I was able to do that for a bunch of them, but it’s always nice when there’s short ones that you can run in their entirety.
AVC: Were there any cartoonists you were introduced to during this process with whom you were particularly impressed?
AB: I loved Kate Beaton’s stuff. I had not seen her work before. I hadn’t seen Dash Shaw’s work before either, even though I know he’s been around and cranking stuff out. But his book BodyWorld is really incredible. Honestly, there were a lot of people I hadn’t heard of, because I’ve kind of not been keeping up. It’s hard to keep up, because there’s so much stuff coming out that it’s just crazy.
AVC: Yeah that’s true, especially with online comics popping up everywhere.
AB: Yeah, and there’s all the old standards still doing tons of great work, you know? There’s stuff like Chris Ware and Joe Sacco in this issue, too.
AVC: How important do you think self-published media are?
AB: Really critical. It’s so heartwarming that people are still doing it in this digital age. It’s just really moving and exciting. You can’t really replace a beautiful little mini-comic. It doesn’t translate to the computer, you know? So all of this handmade stuff has really given me hope for humanity.
AVC: You started out with Dykes To Watch Out For. Was that published in a zine-like fashion for a while?
AB: When I first started out, I was hand-sewing postcards of my comics ... you know, making them on the copy machine at my office job, being constantly terrified that one would get stuck in the machine and I’d be found out. And this was the early ’80s, before there was the kind of comics scene there is now, before “zines proper.” But I’d go to women’s music festivals and sell hand-bound books of my cartoons, and then I had my comic strip syndicated to gay and lesbian papers.
AVC: It seems like your career sort of grew out of Dykes, and that allowed you to skip out on having to freelance illustrations.
AB: When I first started doing Dykes, I was doing freelance illustration, just really low-level stuff. That’s how I started making a living at home through my work. I didn’t do a lot of it—well, that’s not true; I did tons of stuff. I still do, occasionally. Not for, like, The New Yorker or anything, but maybe fliers for coffee shops.
AVC: You’re not still doing Dykes, right?
AB: No, I stopped doing the comic strip three years ago. It’s so weird. It’s become my past.
AVC: Why did you decide to stop working on it?
AB: A combination of things, mainly because it wasn’t sustainable financially. I mean, the newspapers that had paid me for it were all folding. And I was so lucky with my graphic memoir, Fun Home, to catch this wave of the whole graphic novel frenzy, which enabled me to get a contract for another book. So what I get paid to do another book would be like, a decade of my comic strip. So it made sense to stop doing the comic strip and start doing books, which is really what I feel more ostensibly drawn to doing at this point in my life. I really, really like being able to tell longer, denser, more complicated stories. I kind of outgrew what I could do in 10 to 12 panels
AVC: When you put out Fun Home, were you expecting it to get the kind of reception that it did?
AB: No, it was totally this amazing surprise. I figured my Dykes To Watch Out For readers would read it, but I didn’t know it’d go beyond that.
AVC: How have your perceptions of Fun Home changed since seeing the reactions from both the general public and your own family?
AB: Well, I don’t know; people really seem to love it, and they keep loving it. It’s weird. It was cool when it came out and got a lot of attention, but you know, people are teaching it in college classes. I get invited to schools a lot, so I’m kind of having to reckon with the fact that it wasn’t just a blip. There was something about it that people are responding to. I guess it gives me courage to pursue this next one about my Mom, to know that Fun Home really struck some sort of nerve or chord.
AVC: When you were writing Fun Home, you had hoped that it would unify your family. Do you have similar goals for Are You My Mother? Or are you not quite so optimistic?
AB: I did have a fantasy when I was writing Fun Home that somehow the book was going to heal the rifts in my family, but that certainly didn’t happen in the way that I thought it would. But, I guess, on some level, I still feel like exposing these private stories is some kind of work I need to do. I don’t think that it’ll help my family, but I do think it might help people in general. Which sounds so arrogant, but why would I do it if I didn’t believe that on some level?
AVC: Your mom was a little on the fence about Fun Home. Do you think she’ll read Are You My Mother? Or is she too nervous?
AB: She has seen some of it, but she doesn’t seem tremendously interested. She’s careful to distance herself from it. Like, this is my story, or my version of events. We don’t really talk about it that much.
AVC: Both of your parents were English teachers, so it must seem odd that Fun Home is being used regularly in college courses.
AB: It’s kinda freaky. I wish my mother could appreciate that irony. It’s weird; it’s so funny to me that Fun Home has become this college text, and we’ll see if that lasts, but if I had tried to create a book that would be read be college classes, I couldn’t have done a better job.
AVC: Do you find yourself referencing a lot of literary works in Are You My Mother? Or were those references employed in Fun Home because of your relationship with your dad?
AB: I’m worried about this, because I do this a bit in the book about my mother. It made sense in the book about my dad, because so much of that was about our bond around literature, so having excerpts and quotations from that literature made sense. But I find myself still doing this in the book about my mom, even though the themes are very different. The book about my mother is also about the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, so I do a lot of quotations from his theoretical work. There’s also some Virginia Woolf and some other literary stuff, but mostly the quotations in this book are about psychoanalysis.
AVC: Your childhood journals played a huge role in Fun Home. Are they also a big part of Are You My Mother?
AB: It’s a big strand of my story, mostly because of this one funny episode when my mother took over writing my journal for me because I was crazed with this obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I was obscuring all of my entries. It was taking me all night to make a simple diary entry, but I feel like something that’s sealed into me is that time with my mother listening to me and writing down what I said, and I feel like that’s kind of the template for what I’ve done with the rest of my life.
AVC: Do you find that your compulsions creep up in your work now, or are they totally in the past?
AB: I could not do what I do if I were not obsessive compulsive to a certain extent. I don’t act clinically OCD. I’m not going to check things so many times I have to take drugs for it. But the kind of complicated and painstaking work I have to do to make my drawings, it just kind of harnesses that compulsive energy in a constructive way.
AVC: I read somewhere that you took pictures of yourself posing to draw all of the figures for Fun Home.
AB: It’s a lot of work, but it would be a lot of work too if I didn’t do that. It’s mostly a drawing aid—a kind of shortcut. It’s mostly because I’m not that good of a drawer. I don’t know how people just draw stuff out of their head. I’m always creating these schemes. If I have to draw someone sitting in a chair, I have to go find a chair, sit in it, and take a picture of myself sitting in it.
AVC: Are you still doing that?
AB: Oh God, I’m doing it even more insanely. For each chapter, I have maybe around 500 photographs that I’ve taken. I’m sketching one second, then taking a picture, then sketching from that picture. It’s just a part of my drawing process at this point.
AVC: Do you have your stories laid out before you start drawing, or do you piece them together in some sort of sporadic way?
AB: It’s very complicated to explain how I do it. From the outside, it looks like I write it and then I draw it, but the way I write is very visual. I might not actually be making drawings on a page with a pencil, but I’m laying stuff out. I’m making panels and imagining what they’re going to be, even though I’m not doing a lot of actual drawings. So when I get that all written, which takes forever because I really don’t know what I’m doing, or where the story is going until it gets there, then I actually start illustrating.
AVC: Did growing up in a funeral home trigger weird reactions from people?
AB: People always seemed fascinated by it. Kids at school, and even kids on my street, were always interested, and it was always this cool thing to be like, “Oh yeah, dead people. Yawn.”
AVC: Did you ever have any paranormal experiences in there?
AB: No, I never did. I’m very afraid of ghosts, so I try not to think about them, and I think that probably makes me immune to them.
AVC: So, are you scared of horror films?
AB: Oh yeah. Jesus, the last scary movie I saw was when I was 19. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
AVC: What was it?
AB: The Amityville Horror. I hate to even say the words
AVC: Speaking of movies, that’s a smooth transition to the Bechdel Test.
AB: You know, I have such double-edged feelings about that whole Bechdel Test thing. It’s so not my idea, but people keep wanting me to claim it. I just stole it from a friend of mine one day when I desperately needed an idea for my comic strip, and it was a brilliant idea. It’s really funny to me that the idea hadn’t got much traction in the popular culture until now. Like, finally, 30 years later, the world is ready for basic lesbian, feminist principles.
AVC: Was there a particular movie that sparked that idea?
AB: I think what sparked it was the movie Alien, because it was the first movie in a long time that had any kind of remotely autonomous female character. But in the comic strip I did about this, one of the women says Alien passes this test because the two women in the movie talk to each other about the monster, and I’m not a big movie person, but Alien was sort of a watershed.
AVC: Do you tend to look at comic books in the same way?
AB: If I really applied this test to my intake of popular culture, I probably would never read anything. I don’t use it as a filter for myself—instinctually, if something has interesting women in it then it interests me, but I don’t have a list of things that pass or don’t.