In her book Power of the Crone, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes the freedom that accompanies aging. As children, we’re wide-eyed, curious, and receptive. With adolescence comes self-consciousness, often to an overwhelming degree. This sense of being constantly judged by others follows us throughout adulthood as we build careers and relationships, and then dissipates with old age, freeing us up to follow our fancy and giving us the opportunity to manifest our greatest power.
Alison Bechdel’s series of meta-memoirs, beginning with 2006's bestselling Fun Home, tracks her through these three archetypal life stages. Her latest, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, picks up where 2012's Are You My Mother left off, in the wake of the publication of Fun Home, when the author was 46.
When she began work on Fun Home, Bechdel was at a crossroads. The publisher of Dykes to Watch out For, the celebrated strip from which she’d been eking out a living since 1983, was folding. Following a pattern she’d established in previous relationships, Bechdel’s obsession with her work created a rift with her partner. Days before a reporter from People Magazine was scheduled to tour her home in Vermont, Amy, her wife and partner of over twelve years, packed her things and left.
In her professional life, Bechdel had “leveled up.” She was now a celebrated author with a Broadway musical in development, in high demand for public speaking engagements. It had taken years of focus and discipline to reach this milestone. But she was a mid-career artist. There was still more work to be done. How could she maintain momentum moving forward? Simultaneously, her mother Helen was diagnosed with colon cancer. Caring for her mother, and making sense of their fraught relationship, required another kind of strength.
Where does strength come from? How do we live well? And even more importantly, how do we free ourselves from the prison of the ego, temporarily or even permanently, in preparation for death?
Like her other works, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, named for a dubious martial arts pamphlet advertised in the back of an Archie comic, and henceforth referred to as SSS, is a ball of string that, when deconstructed, reveals a meticulous logic.
The book begins in 1960, the year of Bechdel’s birth, and continues to the present, with each chapter depicting a different decade of her life. One prominent thread touches on her obsession with physical fitness, and details both the history of the fitness industry in America, as well as the various crazes Bechdel adopted, from skiing to cycling to karate.
She follows the thread back even farther, to the Transcendentalists, specifically Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, and to the Romantic poets they influenced, William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The trio, with their ambitious mountain hikes, normalized the concept of exercising for pleasure. In fact, a great many of the ideas espoused by 1960s radicals originated with artists and intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century.
Edwardian poet and utopian socialist Edward Carpenter imagined, in his 1881 poem Towards Democracy, “a time when men and women shall ascend and enter into relation with their bodies-shall attain freedom and joy.” Carpenter was gay, and according to historian Sheila Rowbotham, “Romanticism inclined Carpenter towards a celebration of the body. His homosexuality meant that this was not simply a matter of contesting conventional morality, but of defying the law.” Carpenter’s search for unity took him to India, where he studied Hinduism, and developed his theory of Cosmic Consciousness.
This interest in Eastern religions was passed on from Edwardian radicals to hippies and adopted by the Beat Poets. In the midst of struggling to complete Are You My Mother?, Bechdel planned a trip with her current wife Holly Rae Taylor, to Matterhorn Peak, the Eastern-California mountain scaled by the writers Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in Kerouac’s book the Dharma Bums, written in a Benzedrine-fueled fugue over 12 sleepless days and published in 1958.
In spite of her affinity for his ideas, Bechdel’s approach to art-making couldn’t be further from Kerouac’s. While Kerouac wrote almost automatically and with little editing, Bechdel uses a self-described “laborious photo-based process,” to create her comics, the specifics of which are detailed in a 2012 New Yorker profile by Judith Thurman. Her first two books have the somewhat uncanny quality I associate with photo-based comics, the figures asserting an almost sculptural presence, sometimes not fully integrating with its environments.
But although it’s not explicitly stated in the book, Bechdel’s search for enlightenment must encompass some artistic experimentation as well. Although no radical departure, the artwork in SSS has a lightness and a sense of play that were absent in her first two works, which deal heavily with trauma. Whereas Are You My Mother often felt hermetic, SSS has a slightly giddy tone, appropriate for a hybrid memoir and social history that touches on American cultural icons like LL Bean and Jane Fonda.
The Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuk popularized the concept of “beginner’s mind” in the West. That concept involves maintaining the beginner’s sense of openness and curiosity, no matter what your level of practice. When I teach teenagers, we read Lynda Barry’s short story Dancing, which describes Barry’s fraught relationship with hula dancing. As a child, she danced unselfconsciously. It wasn’t until a beautiful and mysterious girl with a dead mother and an incredible dance repertoire moved into the neighborhood that Barry began second-guessing herself. The anxiety paralyzed her. “I am grateful to those who are the keepers of the groove, '' she writes in the final panel. “The babies and the grandmas who hang onto it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all.” Barry’s practice is built around creative play, something that’s difficult for many artists, including uptight masochists like me, to make time for.
Bechdel’s career began with a humor strip, and although she’s now better known as a graphic novelist, her visual style most closely resembles work by other lefty humorists like Jules Feiffer, Gary Trudeau, Nicole Hollander, and Shary Flenniken, work best enjoyed in black & white.
Although she’s always worked with brush and ink, there are moments of formal experimentation in TSSH nearing abstraction, inspired by Chinese landscape paintings, that were absent in Are You My Mother and Fun Home.
A spread depicting the author’s formative mushroom trip in a New York park, which temporarily calmed her persistent anxiety and gave her a sense of oneness with nature and her peers, is rendered in this style. A single, thick brushstroke evokes the sky. Bechdel claims that “even with a picture, I’m failing utterly to convey that quiet ecstasy.” That may be true-conveying interior states is near-impossible-but the soft haziness of the drawing gets us much closer to that mental state than a tighter, more controlled drawing ever could.
In Thurman’s New Yorker profile, Bechdel describes Are You My Mother as “a solipsistic piece of insanity.” That book is dense in both writing and rendering, heavy with ink-washes and a rusty spot color reminiscent of dried blood. In contrast, SSS is in full color, hand-painted by Holly Rae Taylor, whose shading, brush stippling, and the color layering give Bechdel’s drawings added dimensionality.
A splash page depicting a gathering at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a utopian Where’s Waldo of topless concert goers engaged in a worm composting demonstration, a drum circle, a tractor ride, and food distribution, among other activities, represents Bechdel at her most playful.
My partner, who is on the yoga mat in front of my writing chair doing his nightly stretches, has just informed me I’ve been working on this review for hours. I didn’t realize, because I was in flow, the state first described by Transylvanian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. In flow, one becomes so engaged with a task as to lose track of time. The state is so pleasurable that artists spend their lives chasing it. I would posit that cartoonists are flow addicts.
In the 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, centuries-old vampire-aesthetes who feed primarily on bagged blood. Adam is a musician who once composed a string Adagio for Franz Schubert. In the intervening 184 years, he’s busied himself collecting rare instruments and building electronic gadgets. At the beginning of the film, he’s in the midst of recording a new album of reverb-drenched ambient guitar drones. But in spite of his gifts, his relative fame, and the wealth he’s accumulated over centuries, he languishes in his apartment, horrified by the state of the world, and by the ordinary people in it, whom he and Eve call zombies. Like Bechdel, Adam worries about climate change. He becomes suicidal, but even centuries into their affair, Eve isn’t ready to let him go.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, like Only Lovers Left Alive, asks the question ‘how does an artist maintain the motivation to go on creating after achieving great renown in their field, and in the face of social upheaval?’ Like Jarmusch’s film, it suggests love might be the answer.
With her partner Holly, Bechdel has found not just a partner but a creative ally. Bechdel is concerned with romantic love, but also love for one’s friends, neighbors, and community. “This planet could be one big happy vegan anarchist commune if we’d all just chill and stop hoarding toilet paper,” she says, early in the book. It’s a plea, disguised as a joke.
As a middle-aged vegan socialist cartoonist who grew up watching her mother do Jane Fonda’s workout in the living room of a foreboding house in the country, and who has an abiding interest in 19th century radical thought, the Beat Poets and Buddhism, I feel very much like the target demographic for this book. But many who don’t share my niche interests or unconventional upbringing will find comfort and inspiration in it. That’s the beauty of Bechdel at her best.