Bechdel’s graphic memoir touches and entertains
Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 13:08
Alison Bechdel caught the literary world’s collective eye with her first graphic memoir, "Fun Home," which relayed the story of Bechdel’s late father, someone who lived most of his life as a closeted gay man. The melancholy but beautiful tale of her father’s life and how Bechdel fit into it won readers over in 2006.
Bechdel’s most recent graphic memoir "Are You My Mother?" which she self-classifies a "comic drama," offers an analytical but endearing approach to the life in the maternal half of Bechdel’s parental relationship.
While "Fun Home" is an attempt to understand her father posthumously, "Are You My Mother?" is clearly more of a struggle for Bechdel, as her mother is still alive. Through an almost methodical look at her mother’s life, Bechdel discovers she has become the sort of artist her mother longed to become.
Each chapter of the book begins with illustrations of particularly bizarre (but meaningful) dreams she had while writing "Fun Home." Oddly, though, the dreams seem to center around her mother. Each poignant dream shows that Bechdel, while working through her convoluted relationship with her father, was haunted by the holes still missing in her understanding of herself.
Once again, as she did in "Fun Home," Bechdel uses literary figures as a sort of therapy, working through her relationship with her mother similarly to how she worked through her father’s life. Perhaps because of her father’s death or because of the secret she learns he has been hiding, "Fun Home" seems to be more carefully examined and concrete. "Are You My Mother?" is messier, it is more fragmented, and it perfectly represents Bechdel’s relationship with her mother.
This difference in structure suggests Bechdel understood her issues with her father more readily. She didn’t know what it was that prevented her from feeling empowered by her mother; someone who Bechdel feels practiced feminism without passing it on.
She explores a question of what a few close readers of "Fun Home" might have wondered after finishing the memoir. How would Bechdel’s mother feel, portrayed as so cold, unfulfilled, and having her life opened for the entire world to read?
Bechdel’s literary references are just as impressively diverse and smart as they were in "Fun Home." She integrates works from the common: Freud; the comical: Dr. Seuss; and the obscure: Don Winnicott, a mid-20th century British child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
If in "Fun Home" her main comparison to her father was F. Scott Fitzgerald, then in "Are You My Mother," Bechdel lets us know that her mother was Virginia Woolf.
Even though the same monochromatic color scheme can be found throughout, with red (rather than the teal of "Fun Home"), gray and black, the detail Bechdel puts into each of her panels treats the reader to Bechdel’s world. She includes sketched renderings of photographs of her mother. As always Bechdel is unafraid to break out of the panel’s restrictions with her artwork. She breaks down the traditional comic book building blocks by using a photo-collage effect on some pages.
While Bechdel doesn’t seem to withhold anything about her mother – who she claims stopped kissing her goodnight at the young age of 7 – through this often hilarious, always touching graphic memoir, Bechdel redeems and comes closer to understanding her seemingly cold and distant mother.