Even growing up in relatively ‘normal’ household can be a psychological and emotional minefield, from which few can claim to have escaped unscathed (aren’t we all harbouring a few traumas and idiosyncrasies left over from childhood?) For Alison Bechdel, author and illustrator of the autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, these oddities are drawn out in a series of funny and often painful memories that punctuated her steps to adulthood.
Bechdel grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where her father worked as both a high school English teacher and a funeral director. He was also an ardent restoration enthusiast, painstakingly restoring their crumbling gothic revival mansion to its former glory. This set up is both darkly amusing and faintly absurd, indeed Bechdel suggests that, ‘It was somewhere during those early years that I began confusing us with the Addams family . . . on warm summer nights, it was not unusual for a bat to swoop through our living room.’
The real story here, however, is how Bechdel’s identity and sexuality become entangled with the story of her father’s life and eventual suicide. Poignantly Bechdel depicts the heady summer of 1972. America is in the throes of the Watergate scandal, a teenage Alison gets her period and her father goes on trial for providing a minor (young male) with alcohol, with the other implications of this being hinted at but never specifically named. Bechdel’s mother is also rehearsing for The Importance of Being Earnest; the play that received great success at the very time Oscar Wilde was put on trial for sodomy, an irony that is not lost on the adult Alison. The message of this summer was clear: America was changing, in attitude, politics and ideals – there was going to be a generational shift away from the nuclear family and traditional American Dream.
Years later when Bechdel goes to college and comes out to her parents she reflects on her father and his own closeted sexuality. Ultimately trying to conceal such a massive part of his identity has put a massive strain on his family and his own well being.
After reading Maus a few weeks ago and discussing it with a friend, he strongly suggested that Fun Home ought to be the next graphic novel I read (admittedly we’re just reading our way down the New York Times bestseller list here – but nothing wrong with that). I was so sucked in by Fun Home that ended up polishing it off in just a single day, although I’ll be thinking about it for a lot longer, and will no doubt return to it. The illustrations are top notch – apparently Bechdel used the painstaking process of photographing each pose to get the figures right, a technique that certainly pays off. The colouring was also fantastic, something I really appreciate having read the monochromatic Maus and Persepolis so recently. And of course the storytelling drew me in, Bechdel narrates in a meandering way, following a circular narrative that mirrors the way you would normally think or remember. She begins a sketch, is distracted by another event and then returns to complete the sketch later. This might sound a little confusing, but for an autobiography it works well. Both of Bechdel’s parents were English teachers and Bechdel herself has a love of reading so this book is stuffed with literacy references from the misadventures of Scott and Zelda to Joycean meanderings; so if you’re a lit chick (like me) you’ll probably get a big kick out of this. If not then you might miss a few jokes, but there are enough other things going on (the narrative, the illustrations) to keep you hooked.
Alison Bechdel also illustrates Dykes to Watch Out For which I’ll probably be looking into at some point. Original artwork for Fun Home and some of her other books are also available to buy here. Kind of wish I hadn’t seen that though because I obviously really want some but can nowhere near afford it!
6 million is the figure that springs to mind first when I start thinking about the Holocaust, but try as I might I can’t seem to find exactly where this figure comes from. Conservative estimates range from just under 6 million, right up to a staggering 26 million depending on your definition. What’s fairly certain though is that these figures don’t include those who died indirectly as a result of the Holocaust years, or maybe even decades later. The suicides. The broken hearts. Nor do these figures give any idea of the number of people who struggled with the fall out of the Holocaust to the end of their natural lives, often having an impact on their children and loved ones.
In 1992 American cartoonist Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel, Maus. Spiegelman interviewed his father Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, about his experiences with the aim of turning them into a graphic novel. Tricky stuff this, the Holocaust doesn’t really lend itself easily as a subject for a cartoonist. Spiegelman made the decision to portray the characters in the story as animals, the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, and the Americans are dogs. There is no human or sub-human here, just small animals helping or terrorizing each other arbitrarily.
What is fascinating about Maus is that is more than just the story of Vladek’s experiences during the war. Maus becomes the story of how the Holocaust continued to effect him even as an old man in America, and how this in turn had an impact on Art Spiegelman himself. Vladek’s foibles are want to drive his young son insane, he is stubborn, tight fisted with money to the extent that Art complains his father fulfills the stereotype of the money grabbing old Jew. Vladek is unable to see any little useless thing go to waste; picking up bits of wire off the street, trying to return opened boxes of cereal to the supermarket. Added to all of that is the nightmares and the sadness, even after surviving Auschwitz and losing their first son in a ghetto liquidation Vladek’s wife Antje committed suicide in 1968.
Suddenly it becomes clear that the legacy of the Holocaust outlasts its original victims. Art Spiegelman himself spent time in a mental institution, dealing with his own problems, but no doubt with those of his parents looming large. Maus is more than just a graphic novel to entertain and educate, it’s a book that helps to get out the story of the children of the survivors, and for Art Spiegelman surely a form of therapy to deal with his troubled family history.