The Secret To Superhuman Strength is a memoir about trying to control the experience of life. It’s about compulsion, aging, relationships, and Alison Bechdel’s life-long obsession with any and every fitness fad that glanced even remotely in her direction. Alongside her own relationship with exercise and the outdoors, Bechdel also delves into the lives of writers like Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to paint a picture of artists and their relationships with the outdoors as a means to escape society, the self, and those pesky looming reminders of mortality. And though it’s her most mature book, it also loses steam in the end.
It shouldn’t really be a surprise that Superhuman Strength is an evolution in Bechdel’s work, since it’s been nearly a decade since her last memoir was published. Unlike her previous books, this one is not told through the narrative lens of father or mother, but focuses wholly on Bechdel herself. Maybe because of this shift, the book has a certain level of nimble self-awareness that may not have been as present in Bechdel’s previous publications. It also differs in structure, and sometimes even in form, from those previous memoirs.
For one, the book is quite a bit bigger in size, giving Bechdel a little more space with which to play. Her art style (as tight and labored as ever) and her trademark navel-gazing self-analysis remain, but they’re now paired with moments of relaxed control. This shift is most obviously represented by the introduction of chapter heading pages that feature extraordinary loose ink drawings. The tactic is startlingly effective, as pages of colorful panels filled to the brim with detail are followed by thick, swooping brushstrokes surrounded by expansive white space. Another feature of Bechdel relinquishing control is her collaboration with artist (and partner) Holly Rae Taylor on a pop-magazine palette of colors, a choice that nicely fits the frenetic perspective of the memoir.
But perhaps the biggest (and least successful) moment of relaxed control is seen in the book’s ending. Though Superhuman Strength soars at times and offers plenty to chew on, it stumbles when crossing the finishing line. The almost neurotic analysis Bechdel awards most of the book is barely present at all it its conclusion. One could argue that’s the point, as the book seems to be about the nigh-impossible feat of letting go. Still, even if that final chapter does serve as a representation of Bechdel taking a step back, it isn’t very satisfying as an end to the complicated narrative woven throughout the book. The journey she leads the reader on feels rich and promises what should be an even fuller ending; instead, what the reader gets is a general sense of Bechdel coming to terms with something while having left the reader behind.
Overall, Superhuman Strength isn’t perfect, but it feels like a fitting conclusion to Bechdel’s memoir work (the creation of which is written about in this book— though more as background than a dive into craft). Readers who enjoy her other publications will find a lot to enjoy in this memoir, though those who have been put off by her previous efforts likely won’t find anything different enough to change their minds about it here. Still, Superhuman Strength is a hefty work of art. The questions that Bechdel puts forward aren’t easy to answer, and her exploration into the deepest parts of herself is unflinching and often filled with insight. The Secret To Superhuman Strength is daring, raw, and a bit lopsided, but it is unmistakably Alison Bechdel—and her voice, as ever, is worth reckoning with.