The top spot on Time Magazine’s “books of the year” list:
ALISON BECHDEL, FUN HOME
The unlikeliest literary success of 2006 is a stunning memoir about a girl growing up in a small town with her cryptic, perfectionist dad and slowly realizing that a) she is gay and b) he is too. Oh, and it’s a comic book: Bechdel’s breathtakingly smart commentary duets with eloquent line drawings. Forget genre and sexual orientation: this is a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.
I’m thrilled that Fun Home has been a huge success; not only is it a great book, but Alison Bechdel has been an obscure great cartoonist for too many years. I highly, highly recommend buying this book.
Above: a couple of panels from Fun Home. Picking out a sample of art from Fun Home isn’t easy, because Bechdel isn’t a show-offy cartoonist; she’s all about communicating the story and the moment, and usually she does it in the least obtrusive way possible. I love the two-panel sequence above for how well it communicates the emotional undercurrents; the body language and expressions of two people trying not to have any reaction to what they’re saying are perfect.
In 1999, when The Comics Journal put out a list of the “Top 100 English-Language Comics of the 20th Century,” based on voting by a group of critics, I argued on their message boards that two cartoonists whose works belonged on the list were missing. One was Dave Sim, whose omission was objected to by many, and who was left off the list because voters were split among several different works.
The other was Alison Bechdel, and as far as I know I was the only person to object to her omission. With Fun House, it has hopefully become more obvious to people that Bechdel is a major comics creator.
One reason Bechdel wasn’t on the top 100 list, in my opinion, is sexism. Not sexism as in “the Comics Journal critics hate women.” Rather, I think the critical culture in comics tends to dismiss female-dominated genres as fluff, while male-dominated genres — even extremely fluffy ones, like adventure comic strip and superhero comics — are taken more seriously (and were well-represented on the top 100 list). Before Fun Home, Bechdel’s major work was a soap opera comic strip; the fact that it was soap opera meant that few critics read it seriously (or at all).1
I’ve spent today rereading the short stories that Bechdel publishes at the end of each “Dykes To Watch Out For” collection. Pre-Fun Home, these short stories were where Bechdel experimented with long-form comics, and she did a lot of great work with characterization, pacing, and tying together multiple narratives. I hope Bechdel is considering publishing a collection of her “Dykes” short stories; they stand on their own quite well, and publishing them as a group could help make more visible some of Bechdel’s best and least-read works.
[Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comments aren’t being approved here, try there.]
- There are a few comic strips with soap elements on the top 100 list – Little Orphan Annie, Thimble Theatre (aka Popeye) and Lil’ Abner. All three are certified classics with male creators and a lot of “adventure” elements. [↩]