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Cartoonist to Watch Out For

With her new graphic memoir, Dykes to Watch Out For creator Alison Bechdel puts herself in a league with Chris Ware and Harvey Pekar.

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Alison Bechdel
(Houghton Mifflin)

Alison Bechdel's syndicated comic Dykes to Watch Out For is that rare breed: a cartoon that grows richer and more emotionally satisfying over time. Published in approximately 50 queer weeklies nationwide, it's an illustrated L Word without the glossy theatrics. If there were any justice, Jennifer Love Hewitt would be starring in a big-screen adaptation of Dykes and not Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.

Maybe Hollywood will finally get the memo. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Bechdel's first graphic memoir, lobs her onto the same vaunted plane as Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. The tale of Bechdel's tortured relationship with her father, Fun Home (the title is short for "funeral home") is told in a nonlinear fashion, with Bechdel providing an initial cursory look at her childhood, then revisiting critical events in subsequent chapters. She can be grandiose at times--she equates her coming-out process to the Odyssey--and she may not have the tragic backstory needed to create a Maus or a Persepolis, but apart from a few ill-conceived detours into minutiae, Fun Home is well worth the seven years it took to complete.

When Fun Home begins Bechdel's father is a high school English teacher, part-time mortician, and closeted homosexual. A perfectionist who treats "his furniture like children and his children like furniture," he's like a cross between Joan Crawford (the Mommie Dearest version) and Jane Wyman's miserable homemaker in All That Heaven Allows, two queer icons he would probably fail to recognize. And for a while the work threatens to become a graphic version of Augusten Burroughs's Running With Scissors, with Bechdel and her brothers at the mercy of an unstable adult and his whims. But Bechdel's scrupulous fairness sets her a cut above many current memoirists (and her obsessive reliance on fact guarantees she won't be grilled on Oprah anytime soon). When her father isn't flying into a rage over the condition of the family's curtains, he's witty, supportive, and occasionally revealing about his true nature. Of course, to the modern queer eye, his cutoff shorts and velvet suits reveal a lot more than the Bechdel children have the capacity to understand.

It spoils nothing to disclose that Bechdel's father died--a possible suicide--at 44, the same age as his beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald. But while Fitzgerald succumbed to heart attacks and alcoholism, Bechdel believes her father jumped in front of a truck (an incident that was officially labeled an accident). She attributes his despair chiefly to her mother's having asked him for a divorce, though Bechdel wonders if her own announcement that she was gay factored into his decision.

Bechdel dismisses this hypothesis for its misguided self-importance--but she occasionally veers into solipsism anyway. "If my father was a Fitzgerald character, my mother stepped right out of Henry James," she writes, and one doubts that such romantic figures could be found in the same town, let alone the same household. But Bechdel anticipates this criticism: "I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison." Ultimately, what borders on the ridiculous lends greater poignancy to her story.

That deft hand is missing, however, in her portrayal of her brothers John and Christian, who are treated for the most part as afterthoughts. After her father's death Bechdel comes home from college and reports that "my little brother John and I greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins." But nothing before that point suggests the two were close, so the scene reads as a dramatic tease rather than a heartfelt homecoming.

Another important character who earns little time in the narrative is Roy--the family's "yardwork assistant/babysitter" who moonlights as boy toy to Bechdel's father. In this instance, though, the lack of specificity works; the beautiful Roy functions as a stand-in for all unrequited love. While sorting through a box of family photos, Bechdel encounters a hazy shot of him taken on a family vacation. So much about the snapshot feels exploitative--the seedy hotel setting, Roy's tight briefs, the beefcake pose. And yet the predominant mood is one of wistful melancholy. Evoking sympathy for a pederast is no easy feat, but it's one Bechdel accomplishes in a few expertly drawn panels. Of course, Roy holds a special significance for his lover's daughter, too. Herself an admirer of "masculine charms," Bechdel recalls his manly beauty when she begins to experiment with her own gender identity.

The sordid nature of the narrative--suicide, pedophilia, the "bearded and fleshy" corpse on a mortician's prep table--is tempered by Bechdel's cheerful, spunky drawings. Her friends and family look startlingly similar to earlier creations--college girlfriend Joan could be a prototype for Dykes's Lois, and Bechdel's depiction of herself as a child suggests Clarice and Toni's son, Raffi, from the same strip. But this signals a confidence of style, not conformity. She renders a self-contained world that feels as detailed as a photograph.

Sometimes, in fact, it's a little too detailed. Fun Home stumbles near its conclusion, when Bechdel widens her scope to include her first lesbian relationship, her mother's failed ambitions, and a college course on Ulysses. While it's funny to see her new lover read James and the Giant Peach as an ode to cunnilingus, scenes like this seriously slow the momentum. And though she tries to incorporate then-current events like Watergate, she fails to do so in any meaningful way--which is disappointing considering how effortlessly she weaves politics into Dykes.

But Bechdel's frustrated, fractured relationship with her father gives this story resonance. The parent-child dynamic is recognizable to any reader, queer or straight. Fun Home's subtitle--"A Family Tragicomic"--couldn't be more apt. In her bleakest moments, Bechdel channels the resilience that made her father's double life bearable, even beautiful. Standing over his coffin, still processing his death, she recalls that "the sole emotion [she] could muster was irritation." Sounds heartless, but her work courses with a rich humanity.

Alison Bechdel

When: Sun 7/9, 4:30 PM

Where: Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark

Info: 773-769-9299

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