in conversation

In Conversation: Alison Bechdel

In her latest book, the graphic memoirist examines her relationship to exercise and, in turn, herself.

Photo: Jeanette Spicer
Photo: Jeanette Spicer
Photo: Jeanette Spicer

By the time Alison Bechdel sat down in earnest to draw her third book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, she was drinking less and had stopped going to therapy. She felt — dare she say it? — happy. The cartoonist, whose comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” was a serial fixture in queer newspapers from 1983 to 2008, is best known for her graphic memoirs Fun Home (2006), which became a hit Broadway musical (it’s now being adapted into a film featuring Jake Gyllenhaal), and Are You My Mother? (2012). While both of these books are deeply personal excavations into her family history, Superhuman Strength examines her relationship to the world through her body and exercise. Her partner, Holly Rae Taylor, did the coloring work, which meant Bechdel needed to relinquish some measure of control — a theme throughout her work and her life. “I was very trained to be completely stuck in my head,” she says from her studio in Vermont. “Queerness brought me into my body; therapy brought me into my feelings. With this book, I’ve tried to come back out into the world.”

Do you own a Peloton?
[Laughs] I do not. I draw the line there. I understand the appeal of them, but that’s a lot of money. I’d rather go out on my actual bike.

Why did you want to write a book about working out?
I couldn’t think of anything else to write about that I felt some degree of passion about in a similar way. It’s this blissful, conflict-free part of my life where I am doing something fun. It occurred to me, Why not take that blissful, conflict-free thing, turn it into a cerebral project, and ruin it for yourself? So that’s what I did.

It’s too hard to think about your shit when you’re lifting something heavy.
Yeah, it is. You’re substituting one kind of pure difficulty for another.

In Superhuman Strength, you talk about the desire to feel as if you’re “in the flow” in terms of the creative process, similar to the state you achieve while working out. Have you been able to access that?
To get in that state creatively is very elusive. With athletic things, those are hacks for me to get to that place. And if I can get there in one way, maybe it will help me stick there creatively. The book is really about this thing that exercise enables me to get to.

Coming up as a young feminist and studying martial arts was about learning self-reliance and being prepared to defend yourself on the street. But that, too, got really wearing. It’s hard to always be in a defensive mode. And over the years, my feelings about physical strength have changed. It went from this childhood adulation of brute power to understanding that that’s the opposite of real inner strength. It’s more about connection and openness, not about keeping everyone at bay.

You also mention admiring the bodybuilder Charles Atlas as a kid and wanting to emulate his muscularity. Did you ever have an aesthetic desire with regard to exercise?
Yeah. To be a little girl admiring these muscular men in the comic books was a bit unusual. I’ve spoken to other girls who also wanted to be big and strong like that, but girls weren’t supposed to want big muscles. I did. I never did bodybuilding, but I enjoyed building my modest muscles. At the same time, I was part of this feminist community that looked a bit askance at exercise. I had to keep my exercise habit under my hat because it was assumed that people exercise to lose weight or to change their physical appearance to be something more socially acceptable. I was hiding that there was some aesthetic consideration to what I did. It was also a queer thing. I wanted a more masculine physique. I didn’t want to be soft looking.

Obviously, exercise and aesthetics have a particular valence among gay men. Was there a part of identity formation that was important to you with regard to the body?
It remains this kind of dissonance. That is just a part of myself that feels — what am I trying to say? Having a woman’s body but having this aesthetic preference for male bodies. It’s weird. It’s very disconnected from my sexuality. I’m not erotically attracted to men’s bodies, but visually I am.

Is that something you see as a gender identification?
I guess so, yeah. I’ve never done super-deep thinking about it. It just feels like a slight dissonance that’s part of who I am.

Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are both narratives about your parents in which you’re very much a character. Are you creating a persona or do you see them as direct renderings of yourself?
It’s my best attempt at a direct rendering. This new book is a lighter, cartoonier persona than the others I’ve put out there, but it wasn’t like I thought about that. With Are You My Mother? I attempted a more literal, photographic drawing that wasn’t very funny.

Are You My Mother? has a diaristic intimacy to it — you’re recording events as they happen, like transcribing conversations with your mother in real time. I wonder if that makes it difficult to be present, and how that feels in interviews like this one, which are a kind of fishbowl.
I go into autopilot. I rarely hear new questions, and I can’t make up new answers. Sometimes I’m tempted to, but interviews perpetuate themselves. Once you get a certain line out there, people keep asking you about the same thing and you’re in this loop. In general, I try to give interviewers what they want. Sometimes it’s really unpleasant. People will push until you tell them something juicy. And I can’t stop myself. I’m not saying I’m not guarded, because I am, but I find it hard to control an interview. I get anxious when someone else has a say in the narrative.

Part of the meta quality of Are You My Mother? is how your mother gives you feedback on the book itself.
Yeah, it was this very layered, complicated experience, but I was anxious about hurting my mother when she was already in physical pain and dealing with cancer. I felt like a monster.

Do you wish you had waited to write it until after she died?
I don’t, because the whole experience of writing that book — engaging with my mother to do it, showing it to her, talking about it with her — brought me so much closer to her than I would have been otherwise. We had to have this aesthetic space in which we could connect because we couldn’t do it in real life.

The ending is quite lovely, because it’s about your mother granting you permission to be an artist.
That is absolutely true. It’s a very similar ending to Fun Home. It’s the same story. Both of my parents inhibited me in some vital way but also gave me this gift and the tools to save myself from that inhibition. My father taught me to be an artist. My mother taught me to be a writer.

Are You My Mother? also concludes with the act of finishing the book itself.
That ending feels somewhat forced to me. Like The Secret to Superhuman Strength, it comes up to the present moment finishing the book. I don’t know why I have to do that. It’s cheating or something. It’s a way of avoiding a real ending. I talk in this new book about how ending the book is like ending your life. It’s like I want to prolong the torture of struggling with the book, because I’d rather do that than be done with it and have that finality. But that’s what you have to embrace. And it wasn’t until I was able to really look at that and feel like, Yes, I’m really going to die, that I could end the book.

There also was an organic feeling of finality in that I’ve made a lot of changes during this past year. I quit therapy. I greatly reduced my drinking. I got into a very positive state of — I’m afraid of saying the word “happiness,” but I actually felt quite happy during the period [last year] that I’m documenting at the end of the book. It felt like the easy flow of creativity I had as a kid and that I’ve been in quest of ever since. I know it will come and go. I’m not permanently in this blissed-out state. But I was for a while.

The tension between a need for control and letting go is central to Superhuman Strength.
It was interesting going through my mother’s death and seeing her struggle with that act of letting go — how she resisted it, how she embraced it. I feel like I will have a very similar process when I die. Not wanting to leave but, I guess, wanting to see what happens in that moment of dying.

There’s only one way to know.
Isn’t it crazy we’re all going to die?

Photo: Jeanette Spicer

What do you remember about being uninhibited artistically as a kid?
I spent so much of my childhood in a closet or in a corner, drawing. It was always spontaneous. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t worry about it, I didn’t do sketches, I was just drawing with a pen, and it was completely absorbing. As you get a little older and your brain changes, you start criticizing yourself and getting anxious — I mean that’s inevitable. But I’ve always felt like if you work hard enough, you can push past that and get back to that easy flow.

Fun Home and Are You My Mother? both had very specific color palettes. They are done in black-and-white with a wash in one color — blue for the first and red for the second. Superhuman Strength, meanwhile, embraces the entire color spectrum. How did you decide on that?
I knew I wanted this book to be in color because it’s got all these landscapes and it’s about nature and this exuberant energy. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I developed the technique, which I thought would be easy to hand over to someone else: I would sketch out in pencils what colors I wanted to go where, and Holly would make that happen, but it turned out not to be that simple. I had to rely on her own aesthetic instinct much more than I thought I would. I was living out this theme of the book: I wasn’t a self-sufficient artist. I literally needed her help. She wasn’t sitting there with pretty watercolors making blue skies. She was doing all of that color with gray ink and doing color separations — a cyan layer and then magenta layer and a yellow layer for each page, plus a couple other layers. It was nuts. It was this very complicated, not-fun process that came about because I wanted some measure of control, but then I had to give it up anyway.

Fun Home is shaded with a distinctive algae blue. Why did you choose that color?
I didn’t want there to be color in Fun Home. Part of my whole ambivalence about color is my father’s fault. He was this interior-design fanatic who loved color. He would get into fights with people over whether something was fuchsia or magenta. He would take my comic books as a child and show me how to color in them, so I abdicated color. Like, Fine, Dad, you do the color. I’m going to become a cartoonist and work in black and white. I found the one black-and-white art form, which I happily pursued for 20 years until I started writing Fun Home, the story about my dad. I picked a gray-green color that I thought looked sad and elegiac.

What do you think your father would have thought of the color?
There’s one image in Fun Home of a sunset that’s just pure black-and-white cross-hatching. I did that to prove to my father that you could get this great nuanced effect without any color at all.

Rereading Fun Home, I was more aware of how your father, who was the English teacher in your high school, was often pursuing guys much younger than himself — like your babysitter Roy and high school students. I wondered if you ever spoke to Roy, your old babysitter?
No. Part of me is always expecting I might hear from him. But I haven’t. I’ve tried to Google him. He has a very common name, there’s no way to trace him. I think he’s just this straight guy living a normal life somewhere. I don’t think he was really gay. That’s my sense of him.

You don’t really pass judgment on his desires, but did you feel the need to soften or sanitize what might have been going on?
So much has changed in the years since I wrote Fun Home. At the time, yes, I knew this was not a great thing. I’m revealing this very problematic behavior on my father’s part. But at the same time, we were close enough to this reality of gay men’s lives in the old days that I felt I needed to honor that. I don’t think my father was a predator. I know you can’t call these relationships consensual, but I don’t think he was — apart from being older and in a position of power — coercing these guys.

That’s a pretty big caveat.
It is. But I wanted to honor my father’s experience. He told this double story depending on what kind of reaction he wanted to get. He told my mother he had been molested by a farmhand when he was 14. He told me he’d had a very pleasurable experience with that guy. I think that was probably true. Or the way he made sense of it is probably the way a lot of gay men historically might have made sense of those relationships with older men, recasting them in their mind as if they were the ones in control. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. I don’t know. I tried to stay out of it and just show what happened.

Do you think about it differently now?
I think our awareness of it has really changed in the 15 years since the book came out. It’s hard to apply our modern standards to what people were doing then. So many of my friends were having these crazy affairs with middle-aged men. Nobody blinked an eye. It was a different culture. I’m not saying it was okay. The whole ethos was different. It’s great that that has fallen out of fashion, that we understand that it’s not okay to do that. But you can’t go back and apply our current morals to what was happening then. I’m not excusing it. I just don’t want to revise the history of it.

Photo: Jeanette Spicer

Did you experience a moment of catharsis in the process of finishing Fun Home?
Yeah. I really relate to the thing Virginia Woolf said when she was writing To the Lighthouse, about getting her mother out of her head. I very much felt that happened with my father — when I finished Fun Home, it was like I’d taken this big file off my hard drive. I was hoping that same thing would happen by writing about my mother. It was not quite the same experience, but something got worked out.

What was the difference?
You’re actually connected to your mother; it’s easier to see the father as something separate. Not to get all Freudian, but with mothers, there’s that whole pre-Oedipal, pre-linguistic connection that’s very murky and confusing and much more difficult to be done with. I don’t think you’re ever done with it.

Did the literary success of Fun Home throw you off in terms of creating the next book?
Oh, totally. First of all, it was very unusual to get that kind of recognition after wanting it and working toward it. I wasn’t very ambitious in my youth. I was happy being this marginal subcultural figure. But over the years of doing “Dykes to Watch Out For,” I would see other cartoonists getting a lot of attention, and I began to want that for myself. I started to nurse a grudge that I was just going to miss the boat. That period corresponded with me starting to have more financial trouble. The whole gay scene was disintegrating by the early 2000s. It started to get harder for me to earn a living from my comic strip. The internet was replacing newspapers; gay and women’s bookstores were closing. My publisher had gone bankrupt. I was on this iceberg that was starting to melt. I had an agent who was trying to sell my next Dykes collection to a mainstream press, and no one was interested. They were saying, “People don’t need this work the way they once did.” That was what my agent was hearing even from lesbian editors at publishing houses. I really had to think about what I was doing. I made this vow to myself: These characters are relevant, these stories are relevant. And somehow my agent sold the book — not to a mainstream house but to a smallish press that was able to give me enough money to actually live for a little bit of time. I was writing Fun Home without any idea that it was going to go anywhere. Then it did, and it saved me. But then I was in this whole different relation to the world.

Did you feel like you lost your compass in terms of knowing what you should or could do next?
I don’t think that being scrutinized changed what I was going to write about. It just changed how hard it was to do it. I had a lot of just self doubt.

A sense of impostor syndrome?
Very much. That’s my go-to fear. You must be getting close to something real because my mind is going blank. That’s what happens in therapy when you’re trying to avoid something. I keep thinking of this moment when I was at some big comic con and someone from the audience asked me, “How are you going to follow up Fun Home? That book was so successful. What on earth are you going to do next?” I was just like, “Fuck me. I don’t know.”

My understanding is that you didn’t want Fun Home to become a film, but did you harbor any hesitations around it being a musical? That, incidentally, will also now be a movie.
I know, I know. I didn’t really know enough about it to be making an informed decision. I didn’t really say I didn’t want there to be a movie, I just asked the movie people for more money. I decided what my soul would be worth. I named a higher number, which they didn’t want to pay.

How much was it?
They were going to auction the option to the book for $10,000, and that didn’t seem like it would make much of a difference in my life. So I decided how much money would make a difference in my life, and at that point, it was $50,000. They didn’t want to pay that.

That’s very practical.
Yeah, I was relieved I didn’t have to think about that. The musical didn’t feel threatening in the same way. It never occurred to me it could turn out to be a really bad musical. I didn’t realize a musical could be bad and go on forever and ever. That would have been awful. So glad that didn’t happen. It feels like a somewhat different entity. The movie is going to be a movie of the musical. It’s going to have the songs. I would feel differently if it were an adaptation of the book.

So much of what people are asking for today in TV was organically fulfilled with your comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For — a warm, funny serialized story featuring a big, diverse ensemble of characters dealing with everything from marriage, children, polyamory, death, politics and protest. Adapting it into a TV show seems like a no-brainer. Was that ever an option?
Honestly I’m working on that right now. I don’t want to talk about the specifics, because if it falls through, it’s just a bummer. But it’s a plan to create an animated series based on my drawings. The original concept for the show was to update it and set it in the present. I wrote the pilot before Trump was elected, and we just had a discussion about how maybe it makes more sense to set it in the time period in which it really happened, which I am so much happier about. Somehow the update made sense five years ago, but now I want to do it as a period piece. We’re aiming to do it in the early ‘90s, which was the midpoint of the run of the comic strip. For older people, it might be nostalgic; for younger people, they’re curious about what now was a long time ago. When I was a teenager, I would watch movies that were 30 years old, and they seemed prehistoric.

Do you feel like gay and lesbian people were at a certain inflection point politically or culturally then?
Yeah, it was this watershed moment — turning from a radical movement to a movement that was about becoming part of the system. It’ll be looking at how that played out. It was in the middle of AIDS. The degree of casual homophobia of those days is also really incomprehensible to young people now. I think that would be interesting to show.

What was your relationship to the protagonist, Mo? She obviously looks like you, and early on, she was fixated on the political state of the world and her own romantic failures.
I once got in a relationship with someone. She was a fan of mine. Like I answered a fan letter and got into a relationship with this woman. One of our first fights was because I was ranting over something in the news. And she said, “God, you’re just like your cartoon character.” I said, “I know.” She thought it was a joke, but no, I was pretty serious about it. She’s pretty accurate. I do poke fun at Mo, but I have a lot of those same anxieties and concerns.

Do you see her as a heightened version of a neurotic self?
Yes. And that was a bit cathartic — to go a little further than I would actually go.

How did you come up with the name?
It’s a shortening of my own confirmation name, which is Monica. It was just a nod to my identification with her.

So it wasn’t a joke. As in, like, spinning the term for “homosexual.”
Oh no, I never thought of that. Whew. That’s a good one. I’m going to tell everyone that was my plan all along.

In the introduction of the 2020 compilation of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, you pose a question to the reader about whether lesbians are essentially the same as everyone else or essentially different. Where do you land on that?
I really feel like it’s both. There’s a paradox to it, and I live with the tension of it. I’m married to my partner, which, as a young person, I never would have imagined in a million years. Even if I could have envisioned that it would be possible, I wouldn’t have thought I would do that, but here I am.

A fear often expressed in Dykes was that lesbians would absorb the worst of straight culture and become a part of the apparatus of state power. Is that something you felt when you were younger?
That was a theme of the comic strip: Watching that process of assimilation take place and systematically looking at what was getting lost along the way. That mechanism happens to all different kinds of people. I was just reading a piece by Ross Douthat. He was actually making an interesting point about a CIA publicity video that a young Latina operative had made where she was describing herself as a cisgender woman of color. Things that wouldn’t have been in the CIA’s vocabulary not so long ago. But he’s talking about how progressivism as an idea is getting assimilated. People are using these little keywords and phrases to look good. And that’s how assimilation works. You leave the powerful stuff aside and take the surface stuff. Stuff is always going two steps forward, one step back.

Sure. But that demonstrates the futility of thinking about political progress as representational. For instance, I’m thinking about how one of the conflicts between Mo and her friend Clarice occured when the latter decided to become a lawyer as a way to affect change.
Yes — one was working for change in the system, and the other one was firmly outside of it. My career has moved from one to the other. I was completely on the margins and happy to be so as a young cartoonist. I was engaged in this archival project — I wanted to give some authentic sense of the life my friends and people like me were leading in this period of history. I had this naïve assumption, Okay I’m going to write these funny non-threatening cartoons about lesbians, and they’re going to end up reaching a broad audience. That didn’t really happen, but it did happen with Fun Home, which was about a family that maybe people could relate to more. People in general want to see the ways that you’re like them, not the ways you’re different from them.

Do you think that that was part of the challenge with Dykes, in terms of achieving “mainstream” popularity at the time?
Yeah. It was very rooted in its own difference. It wasn’t trying to appeal to anyone else. I hoped that would happen, but I wasn’t going to do anything to accommodate. I wanted readers to enter into this world of difference the way that I would watching a Bruce Willis movie. But that, too, is about power: There’s no reason for the ruling class to have to think about other people.

By virtue of its longevity, the comic covered a large swath of time and national politics as it related to the lesbian community. Were there ever topics or areas you felt afraid to dive into?
I would often hear from readers about stuff they wanted me to do. Someone thought I should address the topic of domestic violence between lesbians, and I never wanted to do that. Just seemed like a bummer. I never did a whole lot about AIDS, which I feel bad about. It’s a pretty tangential topic in the strip.

Why not?
At the time, I was very much in this lesbian community, and some of my friends were even separatist. I never identified as a separatist, but I was kind of in that world. I didn’t have a lot of male friends. I worked with men at my job at the gay and lesbian newspaper that I had a day job at, but I was afraid of becoming friends with guys because What if they got sick? What if they died? It was so scary. I was avoiding it, honestly. I feel regret that I didn’t wade in there more.

How did you feel about the decision to stop Dykes?
It was difficult and painful. My plan was to take a break for a year, but then I didn’t go back. I couldn’t bear to end it, Alex. It just wasn’t reflecting my life in the same way. Over the period of time I wrote that comic strip, I went from having a tight-knit community to not having it anymore. I had these characters living in a group household way beyond the age anyone would do that. The culture changed.

What is your read on where we are now culturally?
I don’t really know. All my mechanisms for gauging what’s going on have been completely broken. I feel confused and I don’t understand how reality works anymore. I really don’t.

What are the mechanisms you usually use?
Questions like, “Who’s got the power?” “Who has the money?” You could figure out a dynamic — who was profiting, who was being oppressed. That doesn’t really work anymore, or at least I don’t have the skills to apply that analysis because it’s much more complicated and crazy. I feel like people have just really lost their minds.

Do you feel like the broken compass is connected with your own success?
Maybe. As I have relationships with a big publishing house or a big Hollywood agency, I realize I’m becoming part of these systems. And that I depend on them in some way, which I never did before. So it does make me complicit in ways I don’t even know. Part of feeling like my mechanisms are broken is that I’m very worried about the planet. I feel not at all convinced that we’re going to survive climate change. I have lost the ability to see very far into the future. Maybe if I had children, I would be forced to have a more positive attitude, but I feel scared about what’s happening.

Do you feel any sense of loss as you’ve gained more mainstream cultural recognition?
It feels foolish to talk about how mainstream I’ve gone when I’m still a niche phenomenon. I think you have to constantly fight against what you lose. The comfort of making more money makes you lose touch with so much that’s going on in the world. I have to fight being subsumed into the system, and I don’t always do that. Sometimes I just wanna check out and watch TV.

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While living in New York City after college in the early ‘80s, Bechdel joined a feminist karate club that met in an old firehouse in Chelsea. Superhuman Strength opens with Bechdel working out and, mid-stretch, saying, “Oh, hey! I didn’t see you there!” In arguably her most meta book, Are You My Mother?, Bechdel grapples with the mother figure — both as it relates to her relationship with her own mother as well as through therapy and psychoanalysis. The book is a bricolage of text and photographs — including family photos, diaries, newspaper clippings — all rendered through her pen. As she was working on Are You My Mother? Bechdel’s mother, Helen, was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. At the end of the book itself, Helen notes the work is “meta” and that it “coheres.” Fun Home ends with her father catching her as she jumps into a pool; Are You My Mother? ends with her mother helping her get up. Holly Rae Taylor is a self-taught painter Bechdel began dating when they ran into each other at a food co-op in 2008 and Bechdel told her she was writing a book about “relationships,” which would later become Are You My Mother? In Fun Home, Bechdel describes her father, Bruce, being arrested for offering beer to a minor, a 17-year-old named Mark Walsh. During the hearing, the magistrate stuck to the liquor charge, but Bechdel writes that “a whiff of the sexual aroma of the true offense could be detected in the sentence,” which included six months of counseling. From a diary entry dated November 28, 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote, “I used to think of him & mother daily; but writing The Lighthouse laid them in my mind.” “Him” refers to her father. In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Bechdel said, “I had turned down a movie on the grounds that if it wasn’t good — and the chances of that being the case were very high, because most movies aren’t good — it would be awful to have it out there in the world, this terrible version of my most intimate history.” After a successful, critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater, the musical adaptation of Fun Home by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori premiered on Broadway in the spring of 2015, where it would also have a successful, critically acclaimed run that would end in 12 Tony nominations, including a win for Best Musical. According to a reporter at The Daily Mail, Tesori and Jake Gyllenhaal are working on a film adaptation of the musical, in which the actor would play Bechdel’s father. In the video, the operative says, “I am a woman of color, I am a mom. I am a cisgender millennial who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise.”
Alison Bechdel Works Out Her Issues