From the TCJ Archives

The Alison Bechdel Interview

EMMERT: With the amazing success of Fun Home, do you have any other plans to follow up with another graphic novel, or are you just taking a break?

BECHDEL: No, I’m definitely going to do more of this. And the term “graphic novel” is problematic, of course, because my book is nonfiction. It’s a true story — that’s the whole point of it.

EMMERT: Sure: “graphic memoir.”

BECHDEL: Graphic memoir, yeah, whatever. I don’t mind. I refer to it as a graphic novel half the time, just because that’s the convention. But I do want to do more graphic memoirs, and I’m already starting work on another one.

EMMERT: Oh! Fantastic. Is it going to take another seven years?

BECHDEL: I sure the fuck hope not. [Emmert laughs.] It won’t. I’m much quicker now, because a lot of that seven years was spent just learning my own technique and my own language. And also figuring out a lot of the just technical stuff I had to do.

EMMERT: I noticed on YouTube you had a little video there about the exhibit that you did with the musician Phranc, “The Paper Show.” Do you have any other of those types of projects in the works?

BECHDEL: No. That was pretty much a one-shot.

EMMERT: Did you enjoy working on that project?

BECHDEL: [Laughs.] It was sooo fun. Drawing is often not fun for me any more, so it re-energized me in a nice way. I work so hard at my tiny little hyper-detailed cartoon images: so for this show I made giant drawings, 4x8 foot drawings on Kraft paper that I couldn’t premeditate in any way. So it was a very nice break for me.

EMMERT: Yeah. The ones that I saw that you had posted look really organic and very free-flowing. It was kind of a different side of you, I think.

BECHDEL: Yeah. That’s a side I wish I could have more access to, that I could draw my comic strip or the memoir work I’m doing in that same free, spontaneous way — at least, more free and spontaneous. That’s something that I aspire to.

One of Bechdel’s illustrations from Grey’s and Penelope’s Found Goddesses. ©1988 Alison Bechdel

EMMERT: One of the staff members of The Comics Journal discovered a review copy of the book Found Goddesses by Morgan Grey and Julia Penelope that you did the illustrations for in 1988. Have you done any other illustration-only projects?

BECHDEL: Yeah, I’ve done some other illustration-only projects. A cat book and a dog book with the writer Louise Rafkin years ago, that’s the main thing that comes to mind.

EMMERT: What does it feel like when you’re working with someone else’s words?

BECHDEL: I enjoyed the cat and dog books because I didn’t have to strain my brain — I just drew pictures. But in general, I prefer to strain my brain. So I’d rather do my own work than illustrate other people’s.

EMMERT: One of the things that The Comics Journal readers always like hearing about is who your influences are. What artists do you think have had an influence in terms of your drawing style, and also in terms of your content?

BECHDEL: Totally Mad magazine.

EMMERT: [Laughs.] That was my first real introduction to comics, too, was through reading my brothers’ Mad magazines.

BECHDEL: Yeah, I had a subscription when I was little. It was the golden years: it was the late ’60s, early ’70s when Mad was just incredible. So I was mainlining Mad. Edward Gorey was also a big influence, graphically and in terms of his sensibility. Growing up, I had these children’s books that Gorey illustrated. I always loved his drawings. I didn’t discover his adult stuff until I was an adult myself but he had seeped into my consciousness much earlier. I worship Edward Gorey. And Charles Addams was a huge influence.

EMMERT: Yeah, I love that section when you talked about his work in Fun Home.

©2006 Alison Bechdel

BECHDEL: There’s a whole little tribute to [laughs] Charles Addams in Fun Home. I feel like I learned about cartooning from Charles Addams — about that mystical space between the words and the image. R. Crumb is also a big drawing influence. And Hergé, who I also didn’t discover until I was like 20 or something, has been a huge influence.

EMMERT: Yeah, I can definitely see that in your work.

BECHDEL: It’s funny. It’s not really apparent. I certainly don’t draw with that clear-line style. And my content couldn’t be more different. I don’t know, I guess I learned a lot about graphic and cinematic language from Hergé.

EMMERT: Right. And he’s also one of those people that you can tell spent a lot of time in getting things just right —

BECHDEL: Yes! Yes!

EMMERT: — whether it’s the car, or —

BECHDEL: That’s the thing.

EMMERT: — or the scene that had really —

BECHDEL: That’s exactly it. That’s what inspired me and excited me so much about him, is that you can completely lose yourself in those stories because every last detail is accurate to within an inch of its life. I guess what I was trying to say before that, if my details were accurate enough, and true enough, and I had worked hard enough, then my readers could enter my world without reservation, could trust that I was telling them as much truth as possible.

EMMERT: I was looking for something the other day, and got onto the Net for Hergé, and then found this website where somebody had gone and taken every one of his cars and found a photograph of that car in real life, and it was like this guy’s life work. [Laughs.] Trying to find an existing car of that, and have a photograph of it, or at least a manufacturer’s photo or something of each of those cars. There were hundreds, too. I’m a Tintin fan, but I never really thought about that.

BECHDEL: Yeah, I know. There’s this really great book by Michael Farr called Tintin, The Complete Companion, that shows a lot of Hergé’s visual references. The photographs and illustrations he worked from. But yeah, man, you have to get the cars right. I wish I could draw cars as good as Hergé, so you could tell the make and model and year. Imagine if Hergé had had Google image search. [Laughs.]

EMMERT: And, as you say, because you’re telling a story that’s taking place in a certain time period, you want the car to fit that.

I really enjoyed your book The Indelible Alison Bechdel. You talk in there too about discovering gay cartoonists, and that impact it had on your life.

BECHDEL: Yeah. I mean, I got out of college in 1981, and went into a gay-and-lesbian bookstore one day, and found an issue of Gay Comix — I think it was the first one, that Howard Cruse had edited — and that was pretty mind-blowing. It hadn’t occurred to me at that point to put together my penchant for silly drawings with my personal life and my political interest in gay-and-lesbian issues, but here were these people who were doing it: Howard Cruse and Roberta Gregory and all those early Gay Comix artists: Mary Wings, Jerry Mills. So I’m very grateful to them all for that groundbreaking work.

EMMERT: Do you think that had the biggest impact in terms of the content that you’re doing now, as far as Dykes to Watch Out For?

BECHDEL: Yeah. Very much: yeah.

From "Coming Out Story" in Gay Comix #19 ©1993 Alison Bechdel

EMMERT: I’m a big fan of the daily strip For Better or For Worse, by Lynn Johnston.

BECHDEL: Yeah, me too.

EMMERT: She introduced a gay character into her fairly mainstream strip and got a pretty strong negative reaction from some of her readers, and even from some of the papers that carried the strip. Do you think we could ever get to a point where a daily strip could be inclusive without people reacting negatively?

BECHDEL: Oh, yeah, I think that’s inevitably going to happen: and probably soon.

EMMERT: So do you think at that point [laughs], we could be seeing your strip in some of our major newspapers?

BECHDEL: I don’t think so.

EMMERT: I can only dream, right? One of the things that interest me is that you live in a smaller town. I guess just knowing your political interests and all that, I was sort of curious about that: Why you don’t live in a big city like New York?

BECHDEL: Well, I did live in New York for five years after I got out of college, and I loved it, but I also really missed the country. I grew up in the country, and I liked being able to have a yard, I liked being in the woods: That’s pretty important to me. The city was exciting but it siphoned off so much energy just to exist there. So, I kind of knew I wanted to live in the country, and thank God for the Internet, because I really don’t feel like I’m missing that much in my rural seclusion.

EMMERT: Well, you certainly probably have been traveling a lot this year, particularly, promoting your book, I imagine.


EMMERT: What has that been like?

BECHDEL: [Pauses.] [Laughter.] I don’t know. It’s very grueling. But I’m getting used to it. I’m traveling so much, it’s almost become habitual. The hard thing about travel for me has always been its disruption of routine, but now it’s become my routine, so I don’t feel that way about it any more. It’s kind of fun.

EMMERT: So you’ve been able to do that, as well as continue to work on your strip?

BECHDEL: Well, that’s the big problem, how much time it takes away from my work. I have been doing the strip, though I’ve missed a few deadlines this year. It’s been really hard keeping up. It’s not like I can ink on the road. I really need for things to settle down soon so I can get back to work on this new memoir. But the travel is input, too, so that’s worth something. I’d have nothing to write about if I never left my house.

EMMERT: I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked reading some of your fan comments. That must be really interesting, the amount of input people are putting into your website. Is that sort of immediate input then a good thing, or distracting?

BECHDEL: I really like it. I love having that intimate exchange with my readers, but I think it’s a kind of remarkable readership. They’re very thoughtful people, very kind people. The people on my blog, I mean. It’s just a really nice little community.

EMMERT: So you have people that regularly post and stay in touch?

BECHDEL: Yeah. But in a way it’s more about the topics they’re interested in — it’s a very quirky, wide-ranging discussion.

EMMERT: Have you gotten a chance to meet some of these folks as you’ve been traveling?


EMMERT: I would assume that’s been positive. [Laughs.]

BECHDEL: Yeah, yeah. But it’s always jarring to switch from the virtual to the real world. [Laughter.]

EMMERT: With the success of Fun Home and your new project in the works, have you considered ending Dykes to Watch Out For to give you more time for other projects? How do you see your future as a cartoonist/author in the next 20 years?

BECHDEL: Well, I kind of clench up when people ask me if I’m thinking about ending Dykes. Like, are they trying to tell me something? Has the strip gotten stale, or outlived its usefulness? I have moments when I feel tired of the strip, but only moments. I really love doing it, and hope to keep doing it as long as it’s viable. In a weird way, I’m feeling a certain financial pressure to cut back on the time I put into the strip because I could make more money cranking out another memoir as fast as I can. But the strip grounds me and paces me — I can’t spend all my time up my own ass writing about my childhood. And it’s not like I don’t make any money from it. I think of Dykes as a sort of municipal bond — it’s slow but steady. My syndication income has finally plateaued and started to drop off, after years of increasing slowly. So if that continues and I can’t replace the income with my website, I suppose I’ll have to pack it in. But I’m far from that point right now. I see Dykes to Watch Out For as a worthy project that I want to continue, but more in the background than as my main focus. What I’m really passionate about right now is this next memoir, and perfecting what I’m starting to think of as my graphic essay technique. I want to use visual storytelling to explore complicated ideas about the world and about life in an accessible way. But basically, I just hope I get to keep writing and drawing for the next 20 years.  tcj

Bechdel graciously responded to these rude follow-up questions a few weeks after her principal interview.

— Michael Dean

Dean: I’d like for you to comment on what family means to you, given your experiences. What kind of household would you ideally like to have for yourself today or in the future?

Bechdel: If I can quote my Dykes to Watch Out For character Sydney, “Family is a hallucination! A desperate compact people make with each other to stave off their own gnawing EMPTINESS!” I don’t precisely agree with her, but I’m in the same ballpark. I’ve never had the remotest desire to reproduce. I guess I feel a certain imperative to stop the madness.

Dean: Is there baggage that you are on guard against bringing into current relationships?

Bechdel: The older and more set in my ways I get, the more I see my ideal household as just me. That way I don’t have to worry about my baggage. I can just leave it strewn about everywhere.

Dean: I noticed that Joanna Russ contributed a cover blurb to the Found  Goddesses book that you illustrated. Do you know Russ
at all?

Bechdel: No, I don’t know Joanna Russ, but I admire her work.

Dean: She has written about how writing is more difficult for women because, in a  patriarchal society, they don’t have spouses to take care of  distracting everyday needs the way heterosexual male writers often do. Do you agree with that, and is it applicable to your own struggle to complete Fun Home over seven years?

Bechdel: Do heterosexual male writers still have wives who take care of their everyday needs? I thought that had gone out of fashion. Sure, I have moments of wishing I had someone to cook and do my laundry, not to mention mow the lawn and haul wood and shovel snow. But I kind of like being my own husband and wife. I think it builds character. At any rate, I’d rather do everything myself than have someone there seething with self-abnegation and resentment all the time. Fun Home took so long not because I was doing household chores but because I had so much to learn. I had to learn how to write, I had to do a lot of experimentation with my own visual syntax, and there was a lot of computer stuff to figure out. Also, I had to keep stopping to do my comic strip. That slowed me down a lot.

Dean: You said you have been in psychoanalysis and have learned to interpret your life as if it were a dream. I was immediately curious to know if this was Freudian psychoanalysis, because some of what Freud says about dream interpretation is interesting in connection with comics and because I would think Freud might be problematic for thinking about lesbian or gay sexuality. If your psychoanalytic experience is Freudian in any way, what is your take on Freud?

Bechdel: Did I say I was in psychoanalysis? That’s not strictly accurate. I’ve certainly been in therapy for the better part of my adult life. But my current therapist has completed a psychoanalytic training program during the time I’ve been working with her. So at a certain point I stopped sitting on the couch and started lying on it. But it’s not orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis at all, like where you go every day. And anyhow, Freud gets a bad rap on gay stuff. In fact, he refused to treat homosexuality as a disorder. I don’t think he can be held responsible for the stuff later psychoanalysts did in his name. I think Freud’s a frickin’ genius. Yeah, he got a few things wrong. But I feel bad that he was out of favor when I was in college. I really didn’t learn much about him until much later.

Dean: In Freud’s model, a dream is a rebus, that is, a sequence of images that  stands in for words. Do you think there’s anything in that view of dreams that encourages the translation of your life experiences into comics form?

Bechdel: I think his ideas about condensation and displacement in dreams apply very directly to the way I think about images in my comics. Condensation, in the way things need to be simplified and consolidated. Displacement in the way an object can stand in for a complex idea. Sometimes I do that deliberately, like the way I use the Sunbeam Bread logo in Fun Home — my dad was killed by a Sunbeam Bread truck, so its cheesy, sunny logo stands in as a sort of ironic memento mori. Other times that kind of symbolism emerges spontaneously. Like in my last chapter, there’s a theme of ships and sailing and water that kept cropping up until I noticed it and worked it into the story in a more intentional way.

©2006 Alison Bechdel

I pretty much apply the same analytic tools to my life as I would to a dream, or a text.

Dean: In Fun Home, your discovery of masturbation seems to coincide literally with your exploration of cartooning, to the extent that it happens while you’re drawing. Do you feel this may have resulted in an intertwining of your sexuality and your art, your sexual identity and your comics?

Bechdel: I certainly hope you asked R. Crumb that question. If you’re asking, do I draw comics about lesbians because somehow sex and drawing are bound up for me, the answer is no. I think the fact that I’m a lesbian means I’ve had to think about my relationship to my sexuality more than most people, and as a result I probably tend to be more open about it in my work. But I don’t think my comics are any more bound up with my sexuality than, I don’t know — Spain’s comics, say, are with his. (In fact, if anything, mine are less intertwined.) But sex and drawing are bound up for everyone who draws. To return to Freud for a moment, drawing (like pretty much anything) is a kind of libidinal expression. I suspect that very few cartoonists have not illustrated their sexual fantasies at some point or other for their own pleasure if not that of the general public.