Thursday, December 28, 2006

Suggestions for Further Reading: Fun Home

I am an illiterate idiot. At least, my days in college were not spent in the way college was once experienced, at least in my fanciful mind. Sure, I knew some other RTF and History majors who would stray into reading of the classics during their downtime, but when they were reading Proust or Joyce, I was flipping through X-Men, doodling in the margins of my notes, setting fire to the apartment I shared with CBG, reading non-fiction, the newspaper or magazines, and, of course, going to work. But all of those are excuses. I have the leisure time. At some point, I need to just cop to being willfully illiterate. Of course, I'm also fairly ADHD in my reading, so it's questionable that, even if I did purchase a copy of "Ulysses", I would make it past the first fifty pages.

Alison Bechdel makes me feel like an idiot or, conversely, that I've wasted my life reading the wrong things. Her graphic novel "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" is currently riding the end of the year "best in non-fiction" category in a few publications. This is remarkable mainly due to the fact that "Fun Home" is a graphic novel, it is autobiographical, it is personal, and it is everything many, many comics attempt to be, but utterly fail. Of course, Bechdel is very good at what she does.

I picked up "Fun Home" mostly due to a reading suggestion by an old college chum who I had once bonded with over Morrison's "Invisibles" and Jell-O shots. Amy usually had a few good ideas up her sleeve, and I figured she was wise enough not to just go off recommending books willy-nilly, not at the rate she reads. Also, I'd heard Time called it one of their books of the year. (Time does have a Comix reviewer, but I sort of quit taking him seriously a few years ago. I found his reviews too often slanted the subjective as if it were the objective, which I found a bit indefensible as much of the Time audience most likely knows very little about the medium.)

The book itself is currently available in hardback from Houghton-Mifflin (an interesting publisher for any graphic work, I thought). As per content, the story centers around the distant relationship of Bechdel and her father as Bechdel explores the awakening of her own sexual identity, the problematic issues of her father's sexuality and his untimely death.

Self-examination and auto-biography have been a staple of indie comics since Harvey Pekar drew his first stick man in a square, and with Craig Thompson's recent Eggers-like surge in popularity thanks to the Emo-Boy/coming-of-age tale "Blankets", publishers outside of small press seem to be taking notice.

Gay/Lesbian-coming-out tales are not unheard of in comic-dom, but where Bechdel separates herself from the little I've read is in her approach as she attacks the topic with more than the raw emotion of the topic. Instead, the book reads as a thesis in exploring her own story as a thematic reflection of the beloved literature which permeated her life as a child and young adult and the brief life of her father (and for which she obviously continues to hold a student's, if not a scholar's, interest). The depths of Bechdel's attempts at understanding are there on the printed page, and the sheer work which went into constructing the narrative as scholarship mode of telling the story speaks volumes.

Were Bechdel a lesser writer, the references would seem meaningless to those of us in the comic-consuming intellectual under-class. However, she chooses to illustrate (more often with words than her careful cartooning) the parallels she's selected and feels compelled to explore.

I am only familiar with Bechdel's prior work from the hilariously pointed title of her long-running strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" (a strip I'll be seeking out in collections or otherwise). In short, I'd never seen her stuff.

Bechdel's cartooning emulates the illustrations of early-readers I recall from around 1st or second grade, which utilizes clean, clear art and icongraphic symbols/features to differentiate characters rather than a realistic rendering style. At times her words overwhelm the seemingly simplistic drawings, but the juxtaposition between a child's recollection and an adult's 20/20 reflection plays well together.

Time's "Comix" reviewer is concerned with Bechdel's tendency to lean on words, hinting that he feels there's a useless repetition or disconnect between words and panels. I never felt that during the read, and even going over the examples he's cited, don't feel that he's made a particularly compelling case that Bechdel chose words over actions, given the reflective and meditative tone of the book.

Again, the comic makes me wish I'd spent less time signing up for Archery classes in college and more time in English courses. I am sure there were many items which passed me by in my first reading, but this graphic novel was a fantastic read, nonetheless.

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