cover image The Secret to Superhuman Strength

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (240p) ISBN 978-0-544-38765-2

Bechdel (Are You My Mother?) makes a welcome return with this dense, finely wrought deep dive into her lifelong fixation with exercise as a balm for a variety of needs: “My reasons... run the gamut from the physical to the mental to the emotional to the psychological to the more numinous.” Progressing chronologically, from the 1960s through to the 2020 pandemic, Bechdel’s early, whimsical efforts to adopt various regimens such as running and karate (at a “feminist martial arts school”) bloom in adulthood into often-obsessive attempts to achieve enlightenment. Eventually she begins to suspect that her fanatical focus on a variety of exhausting workouts offers her a way to avoid difficult issues, particularly in her relationships: “I’d managed dad’s death so well because I hadn’t managed it at all. Who knew you were supposed to have feelings!” Throughout, Bechdel conjures the histories of literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Jack Kerouac, and Adrienne Rich, all of whom wrote about their own attempts at inner transformation with philosophical movements such as romanticism and transcendentalism. Bechdel’s ever-elegant drawings, with nuanced coloring provided by her partner Holly Rae Taylor, perfectly match the tonal shifts of her kaleidoscopic narrative, alternating between soul-searching angst and dry self-satire. At the close of each chapter, the colors disappear and are replaced by a warm gray wash, symbolizing seemingly a hope for harmony and oneness. Grappling with the desire for spiritual transcendence in the most intensely personal terms, Bechdel achieves a tricky—even enlightening—balance. Agent: Sydelle Kramer, Susan Rabiner Literary Agency (May)