I had the opportunity to hear the great cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel speak at the Michigan Theatre yesterday. She’s the artist behind the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the author of the best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home. She’s also the creator of the Bechdel test, a metric for evaluating gender imbalance in film. The rules of the test are laid out in this 1985 comic:
In addition to being an adept commentator of gender and sexuality, Bechdel is, in my view, an enviable purveyor of great literary taste. Hearing her speak makes you want to study Virginia Woolf’s whole catalogue just so that, in the unlikely scenario that you two cross paths at a later date, you’ll be able to add something worthwhile to the conversation.
Listening to her discuss her craft was fascinating for so many reasons. Her work is intensely personal–Fun Home explores her dad’s life as a closeted high school English teacher secretly having sex with his students–and she’s the type of writer who doesn’t create characters but simply plucks them from real life.
Bechdel depicts these faithful characters as cartoons, she explains, as a way of negotiating the “slippage of authenticity” that occurs when we try and pin something down with language. I liked this idea a lot, that the merging of words and illustrations can yield a narrative in a way that these elements on their own cannot.
I’m an incompetent artist/doodler (faces and hands have always been particularly elusive), but I’d never considered the appeal of cartooning in the way that Bechdel described. Hey, maybe someone will be interested in my forthcoming comic strip exploring the adventures of sticky and his buddy cube?