Thursday, 10 February 2011

Books: Fun Home


Fun Home
By Alison Bechdel


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Ok - so. Back in the early days of the Comic Forum I was looking around for a "book of the month" - something that had multiple copies in the Islington stock and also seemed kinda clever looking and wasn't just - you know - Alan Moore. So I did some looking around and checked the shelves and stuff and found myself staring at Fun Home.

If it wasn't for that I don't think I would have ever bothered to pick it up. I mean - it just didn't seem like my cup of tea at all. Flicking through the pages the artwork seemed kinda drab (basically just whites and greens) and the subject matter (a memoir about going up in a Funeral home?) and - perversely - all those fawning plaudits on the back cover about what a work of genius it was made me shy away. It all just looked so worthy and - damn it - boring. Like an Oscar-winning film: I mean - yeah - ok - well-made and emotional and all the rest: but nothing exciting and crazy and wild. More like something your granny would appreciate.

And so of course - against my better judgement - I picked it up and of course it was great. And so I made it book of the month and wrote this following rather dry description: "Highly critically acclaimed upon it's release this is one of the best mature [1] comic books of recent years. Written and Illustrated by Alison Bechdel (who made her name with the long running syndicated strip 'Dykes To Watch Out For') Fun Home is an unflinching recollection of growing up and her troubled and turbulent relationship with her father. This is a comic that is by turns: sad, funny and pretty emotionally devastating. With a novelist's eye for a telling detail this and no holds barred account of the inner workings of her family. Your tears will be jerked. Your heart will be broken." I mean - I guess you can get a small sense of what it was like from reading that - but it isn't exactly the best thing I've written on here.

After that I stumbled upon a big fat collection of the afore mentioned Dykes To Watch Out For ("The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For" see below) and that's when I saw a whole different side to Alison Bechdel - one that was a lot more wild, free and crazy and - well - young (she did start it back in the year I was born) which in turn - seeing how I enjoyed that so much - made me want to re-read Fun Home and see if it was coloured by knowing her better - and hoping that I could find something to say to re-write this.

This is what I got: First off - it's strange how even tho Dykes To Watch Out For (let's just call it DTWOF from here on in ok?) is purely fictional and Fun Home is a retelling of her childhood - it feels like you get to know what feels like the real Alison Bechdel from the first while Fun Home feels a lot more like she's putting on heirs and graces. I mean - I guess that makes sense: DTWOF was composed bit by bit with (especially in the early days) in sense that it was going to be anything special (Lesbian soap opera comic books not really being such a profitable market back in the 1980s) so everything feels raw and spontaneous. Fun Home in comparison feels very studied and artfully composed - I mean - it goes deeper and gets a lot more poetic - I guess it's like the difference between 2 minute clips that someone's just uploaded on to youtube and - here's that example again - an Oscar film. What's "better" depends on what your tastes are. Second - coming at it again with fresh eyes it now makes total sense that comic got so much love from people who would normally consider graphic novels to be below them - not because it's a really good comic (which it is) - but because of all the literary allusions scattered throughout: there's F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Camus, Henry James, James Joyce and William Shakespeare as well as Daedalus and Icarus and Telemachus and Odysseus (phew!). But you get the point: this is a comic that isn't afraid to show off of it's fancy book-learning which I reckon is what makes it so appealing to those who wouldn't normally want to be seen reading something with so many pictures - add that to the fact that it's not "vulgar fiction" but a high-minded memoir means that it's something that you wouldn't have to be embarrassed about if you brought it up in conversation at a dinner party [2].

It's also pretty funny seeing how certain obsessions carried over from DTWOF into this (it makes complete sense that she would use newspaper headlines in order to help orientate the reader about where they are - seeing how often she uses them in DTWOF) and there's one line in particular that maybe reveals a little more of her psyche then she intended [3].

[1] Ha. Love the fact that I said "mature" - which you know: isn't exactly the most effusive praise when I use it. Maybe there was a part of me that was still holding back?

[2] Not that I'm saying that Bechdel has done these things on purpose: the book never reads like it's being deliberately pretentious or shoe-horns things in or anything like that: it all reads like everything happens organically.

[3] That line is one about her father: "It was like being raised not by Jimmy but by Martha Stewart" which - considering that her DTWOF authorial stand-in Mo has a certain sexual predilection for doing Martha Stewart role-play. Well... I'll say no more.

Links: Jog The Blog Review, New York Times Review, Comics Journal Interview with Alison Bechdel, The Hurting Article: The Thin LineThe Hooded Utilitarian Review / The Hooded Utilitarian Article: Fun Home: Technically Speaking on the first 86 pages / The Hooded Utilitarian Article: Seeing the Big Picture: The Use of Composition in Comics.

Further reading: Are You My Mother?The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on EarthBlanketsPersepolis, Violent Cases, Asterios Polyp, Summer Blonde, Years Of The ElephantStrangers in Paradise.

Profiles: Alison Bechdel.

All comments welcome.

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