Graphic novelist and cartoonist
Born September 10, 1960, in Lock Haven, PA; daughter of Bruce Allen (a high school English teacher, antiques dealer, and funeral director) and Helen (a high school English teacher and actress; maiden name, Fontana) Bechdel. Education: Simon's Rock Early College (now Simon's Rock of Bard College), A.A., 1979; Oberlin College, B.A., 1981.
Addresses: Home—Vermont. Office—P.O. Box 215, Jonesville, VT 05466.
Worked as a word processor in New York City, 1981–85; food bank warehouse employee, Hadley, MA, 1985–86; Equal Time, Minneapolis, MN, production manager, 1986–90, writer, 1990–; cartoon strip Dykes to Watch out For, first published in a New York City alternative paper, 1983, and syndicated, 1985; memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Alison Bechdel was a well-known name in the gay community for her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch out For. The successful feature has been a comics-page staple of several dozen alternative newspapers since the mid-1980s, and is regularly collected into book form. In 2006, Bechdel was the focus of more mainstream media attention for her acclaimed memoir, a graphic novel she titled Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. In it, she recounts her a youth in a small Pennsylvania town, where her father served as the local mortician—and a closeted gay man, which she learned not long after revealing her own sexual preference to her parents when she was in college.
Born in 1960, Bechdel grew up in central Pennsylvania in Beech Creek, population 800, where both of her parents taught at the local high school. Her father also had a side job as the director of the town's funeral home, and Bechdel and her two brothers rather morbidly dubbed the family-run business the "Fun Home." Her father Bruce's true calling, however, came in his restoration of their actual home, a 4,000-square-foot, Gothic Revival mansion he restored to its original 1880s condition, complete with period furnishings and custom reproduction wallpaper. "One thing I remember vividly from my childhood is sitting in a car outside an antique store, for what would seem like forever," Bechdel recalled in an interview with Ginia Bellafante for the New York Times "I'd die of boredom." Her father, she noted years later in her memoir, had a strongwilled personality, and she and the rest of her family occasionally locked horns with him over innocuous household-related issues. Despite the fact she preferred her desk in a certain spot in her bedroom, for example, her father would come in and move it back to where he thought it should be. "I think I was drawn to cartooning because of the absence of color," she theorized in the same New York Times interview. "It was such a rejection of the environment I grew up in, and my father had no aesthetic criteria for judging it."
Bechdel's artistic gifts became apparent at an early age, and were actively encouraged by her parents. As she grew into her teens, however, she began to suspect her family was indeed different from those of her peers, aside from the fact that the Bechdels lived in what amounted to a carefully arranged decorative-arts museum. As she wrote years later in her memoir, "My father began to seem morally suspect to me long before I knew that he actually had a dark secret." The male students he befriended, who babysat for Bechdel and her brothers and even went on vacation with the family, were one sign that something might have been amiss. On another occasion, her father was arrested for buying beer for a teen.
Like her parents, Bechdel was an avid reader, and in her high-school years seemed to find common ground with her father in their discussions of literature. She left home to attended Simon's Rock of Bard College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and after her sophomore year transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio. It was during her first year at Oberlin that Bechdel wrote a letter to her parents informing them that she was gay. She had worried they would be upset, but was unprepared for what followed. "My father called after receiving it," she recounted in her memoir. "He seemed oddly pleased to think I was having some kind of orgy. Mom wouldn't come to the phone." Bechdel soon learned the truth: that her father had had homosexual encounters himself. Bechdel's mother soon began divorce proceedings, but four months after her letter was sent, her father was struck and killed by a truck while crossing the road near another old home he was in the process of restoring. Bechdel and the family considered it an accident, but Bechdel wondered privately if her father had made a deliberate decision to step into the road that day.
After graduating from Oberlin in 1981, Bechdel moved to New York City and did secretarial work for a few years, before moving on to Hadley, Massachusetts, and then Minneapolis, Minnesota. The first cartoons she ever drew appeared in the margins of letters she wrote to friends, and one of her correspondents suggested that she try her hand at drawing a comic strip. Fascinated by contemporary lesbian subculture, she came up with the idea for "Dykes to Watch out For," which first appeared in 1983 on the pages of a feminist publication called Womanews. The strip was picked up for syndication two years later, and began appearing in alternative newspapers around the United States.
In the late 1980s, Bechdel worked as a production manager at a Minneapolis gay and lesbian newspaper, Equal Time, but the success of Dykes to Watch out For allowed her to quit her day job in 1990 to work on the strip full-time. It became a cult-read in lesbian communities across the United States for its wry, witty take on gay women and their relationships. Its anchor was Mo—Bechdel's bespectacled, cropped-coif-wearing alter ego—who worked in a women's bookstore, and whose friends and partners comprised the full range of lesbian stereotypes in their hometown of Erewhon, a fictional city that shared many similarities with Minneapolis. The series was regularly assembled into book form at roughly two-year intervals bearing titles such as Spawn of Dykes to Watch out For and Split-Level Dykes to Watch out For. Writing about one of the volumes for the British newspaper the Independent on Sunday, Louise Gray called the strip "one of the most subtle comedies of modern manners to come along in the last two decades. That they happen to be gay mores is neither here nor there."
Dykes to Watch out was successful enough to generate a line of T-shirts, mugs, and other products, but Bechdel ended her licensing agreements in the late 1990s to give herself time to work on a different project. Since her father's death she had considered the possibility of writing her family's story in a graphic novel format, and finally decided that the time had come. She began Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic in 1998, and it took her several years to write. A large part of the work involved staging each of the cartoon frames herself with the help of a digital camera; she positioned herself in each one as the different family members, including herself looking at her father in his casket, to produce the photograph from which she drew the story.
Fun Home was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006 as the first graphic novel the company ever issued. Critics greeted the work with unstinting praise, with most writing appreciatively of Bechdel's candor in dealing with such sensitive topics as suicide and families with closeted parents. Entertainment Weekly's Jennifer Reese commended the "openness that distinguishes Bechdel's generous and intelligent work. Unlike so many memoirs, this one never tries to set the record straight, and while Fun Home takes only a couple of hours to read, it has a depth and sweetness few can match at five times the length." Writing in the Lambda Book Report, Nisa Donnelly found that Bechdel's chronicle of her family "takes readers into a dark and daring place, much like a confessional. It is an intimate look at the underpinnings of a family, and especially of a lesbian daughter's relationship to her complicated father."
Donnelly also characterized Bechdel's memoir as "extraordinarily literary," a sentiment echoed by Sean Wilsey in his New York Times Book Reviewcritique. Wilsey described Fun Home as "a comic book for lovers of words" in which "Bechdel's rich language and precise images combine to create a lush piece of work—a memoir where concision and detail are melded for maximum, obsessive density. She has obviously spent years getting this memoir right, and it shows." The book also earned recommendations from People, Booklist, and Time magazine, which deemed it one of the ten best books of 2006.
Some of the reticence that Bechdel harbored for years about revealing her family's story was fueled by external issues. By the time she was midway through, she told Rachel Deahl in a Publishers Weekly article, "the culture had really changed. It didn't feel like it was such a terrible thing to reveal my father was gay, as it had 20 years earlier." Despite that progress, Fun Home was the target of censorship crusades in a few conservative communities, who objected to its presence on library shelves. There were a few others uncomfortable with the book for more personal reasons: Though Bechdel's mother and brothers knew of her project during its genesis, and she thanked them in the book's acknowledgements page for "not trying to stop me," she admitted in an interview with the London Guardian that they were uneasy with the final result. "I've discovered that there's something inherently hostile about having someone else write about your life," she admitted to journalist Oliver Burkeman, "no matter how well-intentioned that other person might be."
Some of the family's unease was tied to the nature of Bruce Bechdel's death—was it an accident, or suicide? Even a quarter-century later, the question remained an unanswered one. "I think it's part of my father's brilliance, the fact that his death was so ambiguous," she told Burkeman in the Guardian interview. "The idea that he could pull that off. That it was his last great wheeze. I want to believe that he went out triumphantly." There was another factor that also weighed heavily on her in the decade following his death: In her job at the Minneapolis weekly Equal Time in the late 1980s, she arranged pages of obituary notices and tributes for men who had died of acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the killer disease that spread with deadly force in the gay community beginning in the early 1980s. "When I try to project what Dad's life might have been like if he hadn't died in 1980, I don't get very far," Bechdel muses in her memoir, and writes of the prejudices of the era as "a narrative of injustice, of sexual shame and fear of life considered expendable. It's tempting to say that, in fact, this is my father's story. There's a certain emotional expedience to claiming him as a tragic victim of homophobia. But that's a problematic line of thought. For one thing, it makes it harder for me to blame him."
Bechdel lives in Vermont, and continues to draw her cult-favorite comic strip. The storylines threading through Dykes to Watch out For over the years have reflected many changes in the gay, lesbian, and transgender community, but she does not foresee running out of ideas for ongoing plots at a future date. "The strip is about all kinds of things," she told Gray in the Independent on Sunday interview, "not just gay and lesbian issues, although the world is seen through that lens. These events—births, deaths and everything in-between—happen to everyone." In the same article, she admitted that her great-aunt lived to be 110 years old, and joked that "I have a hazy fantasy about lying on my deathbed when I'm 117 and completing the last panel."
Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books (Ithaca, NY), 1986.
More Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books, 1988.
New, Improved! Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books, 1990.
Dykes to Watch out For: The Sequel, Firebrand Books, 1992.
Spawn of Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books, 1993.
Unnatural Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books, 1995.
Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For, Firebrand Books, 1997.
The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For, Firebrand Books, 1998.
Split-Level Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books, 1998.
Post-Dykes to Watch out For, Firebrand Books, 2000.
Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms to Watch Out For, Alyson Books (New York City), 2003.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (memoir), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.
Advocate, July 18, 2000, p. 46; June 20, 2006, p. 120.
Entertainment Weekly, June 2, 2006, p. 86.
Guardian (London, England), October 16, 2006, p. 14.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 19, 2003, p. 8.
Lambda Book Report, Spring 2006, p. 14.
New York Times, August 3, 2006.
New York Times Book Review, June 18, 2006, p. 9.
People, June 12, 2006, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, June 5, 2006, p. 25.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 21, 2006, p. 12F.