With fearsome and fearless disclosure, Alison Bechdel lays bare a memoir in this 2006 graphic novel. Her “tragicomic” has twin centers – her relationship with her father and her emerging sexuality. While her father is an exacting aesthete quick to ignite in a fit of pique, Bechdel presents herself as a slow burning kiln quietly observing, adapting, and assimilating. Through this window into her family life, the reader sees (and with such striking graphics, the reader truly does see) Bechdel’s father obsessively restoring an old house and subverting (or failing to subvert) his sexual identity, while Alison develops a growing awareness of her own homosexuality and her own obsessions.
“I didn’t know there were women who wore men’s clothes and had men’s haircuts. But like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home –someone they’ve never spoken to but know by sight — I recognized her with a surge of joy.”
Throughout her childhood, Bechdel seems to have been drawn to her father like a moth to a flame – unable to resist him, endlessly fascinated by him, and frequently burned by him.
“His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.”
He is achingly central to her narrative and sense of self. His remoteness in her childhood and his death when she is in college are two sides of the same coin, and the simplicity and elegance of the way Bechdel captures the paradox of his presence is something to behold.
“It’s true that he didn’t kill himself until I was nearly twenty. But his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials…smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. But I ached as if he were already gone.”
Bechdel has the admirable gift of being equally eloquent verbally and graphically. Though at one point she bemoans the limits of language, she does so with crisp beauty: “Again, the troubling gap between word and meaning. My feeble language skills could not bear the weight of such a laden experience.” She seems to believe that her father’s literacy and his role as an English teacher made the world of words his domain, yet perhaps it was his love of beautiful things that drives the artist in her. In my opinion, Alison Bechdel has mastered the art of blending the visual and the verbal in a way her father could only have admired.