FEBRUARY 26, 2022
ALISON BECHDEL, Eisner Award–winning author of The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Mariner Books, May 4, 2021), two other memoirs, and the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, talks with Etelka Lehoczky, a comics critic for NPR who’s interviewed Bechdel twice before.
ETELKA LEHOCZKY: When I opened The Secret to Superhuman Strength, I was immediately struck by your drawing style. It seemed much lighter and looser than 2006’s Fun Home — whose style felt very tense to me — and even 2012’s Are You My Mother?, which was looser than Fun Home. Was that a conscious decision?
ALISON BECHDEL: I feel like I never make conscious decisions about style. I’m just always drawing by the seat of my pants as well as I can manage. But when I look at all my various phases of work, I can see they’re different stylistically.
Your line here reminds me a lot of the early Dykes to Watch Out For comics, which were very fluid.
That wasn’t a conscious choice. But if it’s true — and I agree with you that there’s something less rigid, less precise about this book — I think it’s the effect of trying to kind of recapture that feeling of spontaneous drawing that I had as a child. That was sort of an intentional project, in a way, as I learned how to do the sumi-e brush drawings that I also incorporate into this book. I had a daily practice of doing a quick brush drawing every day. The idea was to just sort of urge myself along — to not get stuck in perfectionism. I think that’s the result: looser, less perfect lines.
In general, the art seems more playful here than in your earlier books. That felt appropriate considering that one of the ideas you’re interrogating is that physical sports are a kind of play. Was that how you experienced working on this book — as play?
I think play is the perfect word for it. If I compare this book to Are You My Mother?, the line is just much more playful. In Are You My Mother?, I was using photographs as references, which I also did in this book.
But you hewed more closely to those photographic images in Are You My Mother?, right? You actually drew some of them.
Yeah, yeah. This was a freedom from that kind of tight following-the-real-thing.
When you say “following the real thing,” I wonder how creating this autobiography may have felt different from telling stories about your parents. Did you feel freer because you were able to simply be in your own story instead of having a responsibility to these other two people?
I hadn’t thought about it that way. But I do think that was probably at work. If it’s my own stuff, my own material, I can play around with it. But with the books about my parents, I felt very conscious of having to, you know, convey the authentic truth. Well, not that there’s any — I don’t know about “truth” anymore.
No, don’t say that! We’ve got to hang on to truth, or where are we?
I know. I know. I know. I know. It’s an awkward thing. Because I — the truth has always been really, really important to me. But at the same time, I know my truth about my family is very different from other family members’ truths, but then you go down the whole “alternative facts” vortex.
You mention in the book that you had originally intended it to be a small, tidy project, but it turned into something very different. That made me think about how a person’s third book can be a new beginning. People compare an author’s second book to their first book, but with the third book there’s more of a sense of freedom. Did you experience that — especially considering that your first two books were about your father and your mother?
Well, yeah. First, there’s the problem of Fun Home, which was this unexpected success. And then there was trying to create Are You My Mother? in its shadow — a book which, the longer I worked on it, the more I was convinced was going to disappoint everyone. There’s a small core of people who seem to love it more than Fun Home, which is very moving. It just wasn’t as, you know, “commercial” a book. So yeah — I felt freed, with this book, of that scrutiny. I didn’t really care anymore. I was just kind of done with all of that. I wish there was some way to learn about that before going through it — how to follow up a successful book. But I guess you just have to go through it.
You’ve written about yourself before — that is, you’ve written comics about your experiences. But this really felt more in the spirit of Are You My Mother? It was that same kind of open exploration. How did the book change from your original conception to take this form?
It was supposed to be a book I could write quickly that was about this very popular subject of fitness and exercise, which I certainly knew enough about. But I was writing the proposal for that book as my mother was dying. Maybe you could think of that “exercise book” frame as a defense against what was really happening in my life, which was this loss. And reckoning with my own mortality, which I think is really at the bottom of all of our parents’ deaths. It makes your own death so much more real.
So, by the time I got through, it was a different book. I couldn’t go back to that simple idea. I was really interested in exploring the nature of mortality. I felt like I had somehow wrestled myself free of both my parents with those memoirs — that I had separated from them just by main force, by my own efforts. But then my mother’s actual death took it to a different level.
I think one reason people responded so well to Fun Home was that the story happened to perfectly fit a narrative structure that was familiar from fiction, you know?
And Are You My Mother? was so much more exploratory and open, as opposed to this kind of tight step-step-step.
Yeah. A wonderful critic, Heather Love, wrote a really great review of Are You My Mother?, calling it a pre-Oedipal story, as opposed to the simpler Oedipal story of Fun Home. I think that’s so accurate. Are You My Mother? is about this really murky space between the mother and the child in the very earliest days. There’s no language there, you know, it’s a mess. And it’s a more disturbing, difficult space than that clear battleground that we have with our fathers.
The reason I asked is because the first half of this book felt like Are You My Mother? in that way. It felt like an open, wandering quest. Then I started to notice the cyclical patterns you were layering in. Did you discover those patterns as you worked on the book, or did you always intend to express them?
I’ve always had a clear sense that my life goes through these cycles. I have certain struggles and issues and I just keep circling them, but hopefully at a slightly higher level each time — like this upward spiral. But how to convey that is really difficult. Because really, it is the same thing happening over and over again repeatedly in your life — which is not how you tell a story. I boiled a lot of stuff down, you know, just evaporating out a lot of stuff. As I took stuff out, slowly those cycles became more clear. I felt like I was able to control them better.
I feel like a lot of life is characterized by the kind of groping that defined Are You My Mother? and is also visible in this book.
It’s a weird book. It’s a book about a whole life from birth up until the moment the book was finished, which is an odd constraint. Because so much happens that isn’t going to fit in there. And, you know, for me, I know there’s no real meaning to life. For me, the meaning is the pleasure of determining that meaning. I feel like I find it — it’s like a found object — as I’m sifting through all these records and material of my life. And I just really enjoy that process.
I zeroed in on the page where you mentioned “flow state” for the first time. It showed Coleridge and Wordsworth clambering over a stream. Arguably, the whole book is about your yearning for a flow state. Is that something you decided to emphasize as you looked back over your life, or is it something you’ve been aware of all along?
I have very much been aware of that all along. Even when I was a child, I’ve gone through my life with this sense that at some earlier stage I was intact, I was connected, I was in the zone. And with each successive stage of life, I get further and further away from it.
I experience that in every part of my life, but I can see it most clearly in my relationship to drawing. Drawing used to be this completely blissful, pure, spontaneous activity, and it has become much more labored and conscious. You know, it’s a microcosm of what happens to us as we develop adult consciousness. You do lose that immediacy — that wholeness, that spontaneity — because your brain is developed. But I have always had a sense that I am on my way back there — that, somehow or other, I am going to get back to that state.
That makes me think about Lynda Barry’s idea that children draw in a way that’s intuitive and naturally adept, but this ability fades when they start writing down language. I wonder if maybe there’s something about drawing that is anti-linguistic?
For me, writing and drawing are so bound up. Even as a little kid, I was putting letters and numbers in my drawings before I even knew how to make words or do math. I just loved the way those things looked.
At this point in my notes for the interview, I had another question about that page where Wordsworth was following a stream. It makes me think about how a line is a kind of flow. It can’t be controlled: it’s going to come out of your hand no matter what. Do you feel like your quest for “flow” has changed your line over the years?
I feel like I’ve got this arc. With Dykes to Watch Out For, I started out quite loose and sketchy because I just didn’t know what I was doing. The more I learned, the harder I worked on Dykes, the more successive layers of sketches I did. In the beginning, I don’t think I was even doing pencils. I was just drawing stuff. By the time I was in the thick of Dykes to Watch Out For, there was a lot of preparatory sketching happening. The work got much, much tighter. Not necessarily more realistic — although that did happen with time — but certainly more detailed and just better. You know, stronger drawings.
Then, as I started doing these memoirs and had to crank out a lot of drawings over a relatively short period of time, it started to get a little tight, like I was losing some immediacy. I was trying too hard — I was kind of gripping too hard. And now I’ve just kind of backed off in this book.
Is that why you decided to incorporate sumi-e painting? Because you can’t sketch for it?
Yeah, exactly. It’s completely spontaneous. There’s no preparation possible.
It’s interesting to me that you refer back to Dykes to Watch Out For. Has your work on the strip been helpful to you more recently?
Yeah, in the project I’m just starting on, I feel like it’s going to have a lot of the feel of Dykes to Watch Out For in it. Dykes to Watch Out For wasn’t a long narrative that I had a lot of time to contemplate. Also, it was episodic — it had to happen every two weeks. That gave it a freshness and a kind of spontaneity even though it was, of course, still very labored. But it was a way of just being in the present. That’s what I’m trying to get back to.
Like you said, Dykes to Watch Out For started out very loose and light — there wasn’t a ton of background, for example. Then, in later years, the strip’s artwork became much more complex. Do you think that was because you were evolving into a book author?
What would happen with Dykes, I think, is that I was more and more determined to get down the richness of life in a three-inch-square drawing. It was like this endlessly elusive goal. I was drawing with a finer nib, I was drawing smaller, I was getting more words into the comic strip even though those things always had to fit into the same space. If you look at an early strip, then a later strip, there’s three times as much narrative in the later ones. I feel like what I was doing, essentially, was outgrowing the bounds of that form — like I needed a bigger space to do what I was trying to do.
Earlier you mentioned paring down your life to fit into this book. Did you also pare down individual panels? Did you have to resist the urge to put in a ton of detail?
Honestly, time became such a constraint with this book that if there’s not a lot of detail, it’s just because I didn’t have time to do it.
How do you feel about the way it turned out?
I really like it. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the whole color thing, but the color just does something magical for me. It makes it all sort of “float” in a really delightful way.
There was one other way the book seemed to call up the Dykes to Watch Out For period, but it’s kind of a silly one. At the very end of the book — when you’re drawing your life during the pandemic — I saw you make the kinds of goofy jokes that I felt like I hadn’t seen since The Indelible Alison Bechdel. Are you regaining a sense of lightheartedness that you couldn’t put into the other memoirs?
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s true. And especially with this project I’m doing now — it’s actually fun. My work has felt sort of — just hard for a long time. I’ve suffered in the past, and the work came out. I’m starting to realize that, really, it’s not necessary to suffer in one’s work. And I’ve been actually having a lot of fun.
When you’re writing about another person, especially a parent, you sort of owe them seriousness, don’t you? You can be goofier when you’re just writing about yourself.
Yes, but also, for me, this whole memoir project has had the constraint of only talking about what actually happened. So that’s also something I’m playing with in my new project. It’s not quite a memoir.
Speaking of constraints, in the book you say that throughout your life you’ve made Houdini-like escapes from one self-imposed constraint after another. I wondered what constraints you imposed and then escaped from to create this book.
It was sort of a high-wire act, because my idea was that I was going to identify this constraint and free myself from it. I’m not quite sure I’ve done that. It’s hard to ever know how a book has worked. Because it’s never quite done. Even now, I know The Secret to Superhuman Strength is in bookstores, but the way people respond to it — the way I feel about it a year after finishing work on it — all of that is still kind of settling.
And I guess I’m just trying to avoid your question, which is: What was the constraint? Well, it’s my own resistance to myself, the way I constantly edit myself: get in my own way, inhibit my own pleasure. I went for years without drawing at all during the time that I was working on this book. And I love drawing. Why wouldn’t I find a way to draw regularly? I wanted to undo whatever the mechanism was that was just spoiling all of that for me. And I do think I did that.
The classic constraint I think of in relation to this book’s subject is the constraint the body places on the self. That duality isn’t particularly evident here. Is it because you don’t think of your body that way?
You know, there’s so much about the body that I just didn’t get to in this book — which is ridiculous, because it is a book about the body, or at least the body and the mind together. I guess I do have a certain consonance that I feel with my body. It’s almost like I don’t need to talk about it, because it’s not a problem. That’s sort of what’s going on.
You describe how, when you first started running, it was something your parents just didn’t get — it was completely off their grid. Could that be why your relationship with exercise isn’t tied to the idea of constraint? Because it was a way of being separate from them?
Yeah, you know, as I was working on this book I really started to realize that exercise, for me, was a way of being held. It was a way of coming up against the outside world — whether it’s the weight of a dumbbell or the incline of a hill — that made me feel held and contained. And it was very comforting, almost like a substitute for a parent.
On the cover, you depict yourself doing a stretch that looks impossible, and yet because it’s done in paint, the image is very soft and fluid. Is that how you feel when you exercise: a combination of constraint and freedom?
My idea for the cover was that I somehow wanted to evoke one of my favorite book covers of all time: a paperback edition of Zen in the Art of Archery from the ’70s. It’s an old sumi-e painting of an archer drawing a bow like he’s about to shoot. It’s beautiful. And the way the text is incorporated is very beautiful. I kept trying to come up with some version of that, and I just couldn’t quite capture it. So that yoga pose I’m doing on the cover of the book is the Archer. It’s this very removed way of alluding to Zen in the Art of Archery.
I should also say that I can’t actually do that pose.
I feel like I should wind up this interview, and I hate to finish without talking about Margaret Fuller, who’s a strong presence in the book. She was such an ass kicker. I got the feeling that she and the other writers you drew on here — as opposed to those who figured in the first two memoirs — were not writers your parents had read. Is that true?
Yes. That is true. I didn’t think about it that way. I didn’t learn about Margaret Fuller till I was in my 40s, amazingly. I can’t believe it’s taken so long for her to get any …
Yeah, cred. I want to see a Netflix series about her. That would be amazing.
Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly about comics for NPR. She’s covered a variety of literary and cultural topics for The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.