Most authors worry about what critics will think, but cartoonist Alison Bechdel has the added burden of being judged by her family, especially her mother. Bechdel's first graphic memoir, Fun Home, published in 2006, laid out some fraught family history for all the world to see.
In 1980, Bechdel came out of the closet, writing a letter to her parents telling them she is a lesbian. Unexpectedly, this led her parents to drop their own personal bombshell. Mother Helen revealed that her husband, Bruce, was a closet homosexual with a history of having affairs with both men and teenage boys. Just as the marriage of the Bechdels was breaking up, Bruce was hit by a truck. The survivors are still not sure if this sudden death was a suicide or an accident.
Fun Home was a widely praised bestseller. Time magazine described it as a "masterpiece" and named it the best book of the year. But Bechdel's brothers disputed what they saw as an excessively harsh portrayal of their father, and her mother was pointedly silent about the contents of the book, although she did praise its artistic form.
"When Fun Home was published and it was unusually successful, that was weird for my family," Bechdel says in a telephone interview about her new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, which focuses on her sometimes-tense relationship with her mother. "And I feel like that negotiation that we all went through was somehow part of the book and part of putting that period of my life to rest."
Are You My Mother? isn't so much a sequel to Fun Home as a logical outgrowth of the earlier book. "Whenever I would go out and speak about Fun Home or do a reading from it, inevitably almost the first question would be what does your family think about this, what does your mother say," Bechdel says. "I didn't write Are You My Mother? because people asked that question, but I think I had the same question and had the same narrative urgency to answer that question."
A recent profile of Bechdel in The New Yorker described the cartoonist as an "intellectual populist." It's certainly the case that part of her gift is an ability to embody complex ideas in very accessible imagery and narratives.
In Fun Home, her father's closeted life and the murky circumstances of his death were intricately linked to a rich web of literary allusions. In Are You My Mother?, Bechdel tightens the autobiographical circle by subjecting her own quest for self-knowledge to the rigorous questioning of the psychoanalytical tradition that runs from Sigmund Freud to Donald Winnicott to Jacques Lacan.
A graphic novel so thoroughly steeped in a formidable and controversial body of ideas might seem daunting. Yet, true to her populist nature, Bechdel turns these recalcitrant ideas into sharp aphorisms. "To tell anything true, you have to look at why you are telling it," she notes. "It's a memoir about writing a memoir. Initially, my agent said, 'You just can't do that. No one is interested in that.' I tried to avoid that, but in the end I came back to that structure."
She acknowledges the danger of getting "too involuted and recursive," yet the book is open-faced and approachable despite its inwardness.
"Novels create such a sense of interiority and you can get so immersed in the inner life of a character," Bechdel says. "I want to try and write comics that also do that. Comics are moving more and more toward that, getting away from simple adventure stories."
Surprisingly, Bechdel has found a place for herself in comics in part because the art form already has a strong autobiographical tradition that runs from underground cartoonists like Justin Green and Robert Crumb to Harvey Pekar and Carol Tyler. She is currently co-teaching a course on autobiographical comics at the University of Chicago.
"I feel like instinctively there is something inherently autobiographical about comics," Bechdel says. "We're talking in class about the mark, the handwriting, the literal embodiment of the artist in the line. When I was in my 20s and starting to read comics seriously, this was all the stuff I was reading. All the underground work I was reading – Crumb, Pekar – was all autobiographical. I didn't think about it that way at the time. It was just what I was reading and excited about were all people writing about their everyday lives."
In conversation, Bechdel exudes intellectual excitement, confidence and openness. So it's natural to ask her the hardest question of all: What does her mom think about the new book?
"She's like [an academic]New Critic," Bechdel laughs. "She can separate the fact of the book from the content of the book. She's won't really talk about the content of either book. She's proud of me. She's pleased Fun Home did well. She gets excited when there is a positive review. She hasn't responded to me about the content of the book aside from the comment, 'Well, it coheres.' "