Alison Bechdel Seeks Self-Understanding Through Exercise

The acclaimed author of “Fun Home” and “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” will speak at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus on Saturday.

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
Alison Bechdel

I’m about to hang up the phone as my late-September interview with Alison Bechdel is winding down when I finally ask her about the faint, rhythmic crunching in the background. She laughs and acknowledges she’s out walking. “It’s only just in the last few days that the leaves have started to come down, and I’m trying to step between them, but I can’t manage it every time,” she says apologetically.

There’s no need to apologize, of course, because her latest book, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength,” is an encyclopedic ode to Bechdel’s need to keep moving. The graphic memoir, her third, chronicles her journey through a mindboggling array of fitness pursuits, from yoga and bosu balls to Nordic skiing, mountain climbing, Pilates, karate, cycling and much, much more. Only a fool would expect her to conduct an interview while sitting still. 

But make no mistake—while Bechdel’s accounts of her life often begin with her early admiration for the guy in the Charles Atlas ads who recreates himself to get even with the bully who kicked sand in his face, this is not a get-fit manual. Rather, it’s a continuation of the project of her first two memoirs, “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?”: the pursuit of self-understanding.

"The Secret to Superhuman Strength," by Alison Bechdel

More precisely, she tries to lose herself through exercise. To turn off the ceaseless, some might say neurotic, but often brilliant self-analysis that comes through so clearly in all of her memoirs, which are filled with provocative, educational digressions into literature, psychology and the history of thought.

Bechdel, a graduate of Oberlin College, first gained an audience as the author of the long-running, self-syndicated comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” about the lives of a group of friends, many of them lesbians. (One of her characters judges movies for gender bias using a litmus test that has come to be known as “the Bechdel test.”) Her work became more widely known with her 2006 graphic memoir, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” which subsequently became a musical and won the “Best Musical” Tony Award. In 2012, she published “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama,” and in 2014 she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. Last spring, she published a third memoir, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength.” Bechdel will speak at CCAD’s Canzani Center in conversation with Hilary Price, the creator of the comic strip “Rhymes With Orange,” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, as part of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I think of your three memoirs—“Fun Home,” about your father, “Are You My Mother,” about your mother, and now your recent “The Secret to Superhuman Strength”—as a kind of a trilogy. Do you view them that way, and was it different creating the third one, which focuses less on your parents and more on a pursuit that is all your own?

I didn't intentionally construct this latest book as the third part of a trilogy, but I can certainly see how it can stand that way. That makes sense to me. I feel like my two parents were just such outsized figures in my life. I had to sort of write them out of my system to sort of free myself from them in many ways. My big topic is the self—and carving out my own sense of self from my parents has been a bit of my life project. So in this third book, I'm still writing about myself, but at this point, I'm writing about not so much finding myself as becoming free of my self. You know? That feeling of losing myself in a creative pursuit or an athletic pursuit is this great feeling that I’m always in quest of.

"Fun Home," by Alison Bechdel

It's all very mysterious, you know? I feel like it's much more difficult to get into that state with my creative work. It takes a lot longer and requires a lot more discipline than just going out for a run. For me, exercise is sort of a hack or a cheating way to get a little hit of that flow state. And I think just getting glimpses of it through exercise probably helps me to work toward it creatively, you know, just having that promise of it, makes me work harder to get it.

Do you have any creative exercise that you do now to get into flow? 

I do have some drawing exercises that I do. I feel sort of sheepish because I go for long stretches without drawing. And it's really bad. If you're a cartoonist, you need to keep your eye and hand in trim. But I have gotten into the habit, over the past four or five years, of making, every day, a simple drawing with a brush of something I did that day. They’re sort of like 

diary drawings and a way to just remember particular moments of my life.

The stories in your memoirs are complex and layered. You have almost a kind of voiceover telling one story while the pictures tell another, and sometimes there are artifacts like transcribed letters or diaries and copied photos telling yet another story. What is the process that you go through to construct these complicated narratives? Does it just flow?

Oh God, no, it doesn't flow at all. It's a quite laborious process. I write in Adobe Illustrator in a drawing program, and I have a lot of complicated ideas that I'm dragging onto the page on my computer until the page is almost black with all of my attempts to articulate some idea. It's mostly text, but it’s also images I’ve just lifted from the internet to stand in for a drawing, or I could have sketches that I plug in. Or photographs. It's very complicated and involute and I get lost, myself, a lot of the time when I'm working—but at a certain point I'm able to just start deleting things. I start to get a handle on it, and I can delete like 90 percent of this crap I have on the page, and there's my story. But it takes quite a bit of doing to get to that point.

One of the things that appeals to me about visual storytelling [is] the ability to follow several threads of thought at once. I like the way you can, as you say, layer all different kinds of information into a scene. Sometimes I think I have a little touch of ADHD, and comics is just a really good way for me to talk about two or three things at the same time. 

Why did you decide to go all-in on color in this most recent book, when it wasn't a big part of your past work?

I felt like this is so much about this sort of exuberant take on life and the world that it just made sense for it to be in full color. Anything less would seem a little flat. But I knew it would be an immense amount of work. I don't know how people who, you know, write and draw their own comics like I do—not like mainstream comics where they have a whole assembly line—I don't know how people have the bandwidth to do all that coloring themselves. But I wanted to do it, so I ended up persuading my partner, Holly, to pitch in and help me with some of the coloring. She basically did the coloring. 

I've never collaborated with anyone. That's one of the things I've always loved about comics—you can do everything yourself. You don't have to rely on other people. So that was a bit of an interesting exercise to open my process up like that. I would rather do everything myself, but It was kind of fun. It was fun to see something happening that I didn't have complete control over. 

You’ve written a lot about your worries that your first two memoirs would be painful for your mother. But now that she has died, that worry has gone. Is that connected to your decision to use that ebullient and joyful color? Not to suggest that there's any joy in the loss of your mother, but perhaps in the freedom of writing about yourself, without worrying about that person who might be looking over your shoulder?

Well, maybe there is, I hadn't really thought of that. But I certainly experienced a feeling of freedom after my father died. I mean it was very, you know, very ambivalent. I felt really bad and awful that he died, but it also opened up possibilities in my life that I wouldn't have had if he were there telling me what to do. So yes, my mother’s death had a similar freeing effect.

"Are You My Mother?" by Alison Bechdel

Following the publication of “Superhuman,” a lot of your interviewers wanted to talk with you about menopause, and you seem to really relish being asked about it. Is it important to finally be talking about menopause?

You know, now that I've actually sort of moved through the thick of all that transition, I don’t feel as keen to talk about it. But it is interesting. When I was going through menopause, the only people who had any interest in hearing me were other women who were going through it themselves. Everyone else was, like, horrified; bored; any number of things. Scared. Very scared. And while I don't feel quite as vociferous on the topic anymore, it was interesting to me how, just as a topic, it’s not really explored in the culture. There's no great menopause novel, you know? And there should be.

You've been to Columbus before. Anything particular you're planning to do or that you've done here before you want to do again?

I hope I get to go to the [Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and] Museum. The highlight of my last visit to Columbus was getting to explore this treasure trove of old cut-out newspaper comics down in the bowels of the library. An archive of old newspaper strips, like actual little episodes of “Mark Trail,” cut out. I almost feel like I hallucinated this or dreamed about it, but I'm kind of hoping I get to go back and look at that.