Alison Bechdel is something of a packrat. You wouldn't immediately recognize it walking into her small and tidy A-frame home in Vermont, but if you venture downstairs to her studio, you'll find piles of memorabilia. Bechdel, who's distinguished herself as a witty and occasionally subversive cartoonist with her long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (which launched in 1983 and appears largely in gay newspapers), has been surrounded by this stuff for the past seven years. During that time she's been working obsessively (her word) on the story of her family, a tale that has evolved into something she initially never thought it could: a well-supported graphic novel from a major house and a 15-city author tour. Fun Home, due out from Houghton Mifflin June 8 (it's the house's first graphic literature project), is a memoir about Bechdel's anything-but-average childhood in small-town Pennsylvania. Tied to a family secret—her father was a closeted homosexual who led a double life and may have committed suicide—the book is ultimately a story about lineage. It's about how this difficult and detached man shaped his daughter's life and character, for better and for worse. The title—which ironically plays on the name that Bechdel and her brothers had for their massive Victorian house that doubled as the local funeral parlor (her father, a high school English teacher, did side work as the town's resident mortician)—hints at Bechdel's dark sense of humor. Revealing its author's mix of pop and high literary sensibilities—the references run from Ulysses to Delta of Venus to Mad magazine—Fun Home, Bechdel's first significant book of original material, displays a wonderful juxtaposition of subject and tone.
As I stand with Bechdel in her workspace—the basement of the one-bedroom home she shares with her longtime girlfriend, Amy—she demonstrates how she brought Fun Home to the page. Moving behind her digital camera, which sits on a tripod in the middle of the room, Bechdel aligns the shot, sets the timer and walks over to put herself in the frame. She cocks her elbow and pretends to be talking to a person standing next to her. This, she tells me, is how she set up all the drawings in her book; she photographed herself in her characters' poses and used the shots as models. In a sense, her painstakingly precise cartooning method speaks to her story, highlighting the link between the oppressive and didactic ways of her father—a man who showed more passion for the books and antiques he filled his 19th-century home with than for his three children—and the obsessive coping behavior it instilled in her.
On the plane ride to Burlington I had wondered if there was a tactful way to bring up the details of the book. How would I comfortably transition to discussing that time her father was arrested for buying beer for a teenage boy, or when he seemingly let himself be hit by an oncoming 16-wheeler? But after Bechdel picks me up, it's immediately apparent that the calm, humorous, "so this was my life" tone of the book is reflected in its author. As we pull away from the tiny one terminal airport and ride into the expanse of Vermont, passing dull strip malls that give way to the scenic countryside that typifies romantic visions of the state, we chat about city vs. country, Manhattan (where she briefly lived after college) vs. Vermont. And, when conversation turns more specifically to the book, Bechdel seems as comfortable discussing its difficult details as she does talking about the beauty of the Green Mountains. "I wanted to write this story since shortly after my dad died... but it was about this intense family secret that I couldn't tell. No one knew that he was gay or that he possibly killed himself," she says. "I finally started to work on it when I was 38; I'm 45 now. By that point, of course, I'd gotten a lot of perspective on things. But, also, 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."
This sense of being at peace with both who her father was, and with the things he did, comes across in the book. Her handling of the story—in which her father, among other paternal trespasses, secretly romances his teenage male students while remaining a closed-off bibliophile at home—mirrors her attitude about creating it. "I'm surprised it's not angrier, because I am quite angry at him in a lot of ways. But I also feel like, what are you gonna do? This is what happened and this is what I got out of it. I got a good book," she says, laughing. "I had a lot of anger and a lot of longing, missing him and wishing things could have been different, but I didn't have an agenda for how I was going to present him. I wanted to be as accurate as I could about it."
The other shift that Bechdel is happily experiencing is one within publishing itself. Existing on the outskirts of the comics world for much of her career—she says she was always more a part of a queer lit community—Bechdel is now benefiting from an expanding interest in graphic literature. Though she's published serialized collections of her strip with the independents Firebrand and Alyson Books, those forays into publishing never brought her closer to a more general audience than her weekly strips. "These books became more a literary than a comics phenomenon. They went on the gay and lesbian studies shelf, not the humor or graphic novel shelf. They didn't even have a graphic novel shelf back then."
Certainly Bechdel's attitude is not universal among graphic novelists. Many appreciate the expanding attention—with imprints like Random House's Pantheon and FSG's Hill & Wang deepening their graphic literature lists and houses like Houghton now looking to acquire more titles in the format—but at the same time bemoan the fact that mainstream audiences are suddenly discovering what they've always known: the funnies can be serious. "I've been talking to a bunch of graphic novelists and a lot of them are bitter. They're all griping about the fact that there are so many graphic novelists coming out," Bechdel says. "I can understand where they're coming from, but I feel like [if all this were not happening], I might not be getting a mainstream house to publish this."
Another testament to how mainstream the format has become—graphic novelists will kindly, and sometimes not-so-kindly, remind non-fans that they are working in a format, not a genre—is that Bechdel's editor at Houghton, Deanne Urmy, acquired and edited the book having never worked on graphic fiction before. While Urmy admits the process was slightly different than what she's accustomed to—she edited text frame by frame before the illustrations were complete—what she saw in the book is something every editor is looking for: a great story. "Memoir is a first love of mine," she says. "And Fun Home felt irresistible, and universal, on first read."
After Bechdel has finished her drawing demonstration, I stand in her workspace and look at the rows of books lining her shelves. They remind me of the panels from her book, the pictures of her reading and her father reading, of them sitting in that massive house surrounded by print and pages, skirting discussions of their own lives by talking instead about Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Odysseus and Penelope. Then I notice it. It's a black-and-white picture of a young man. He's handsome, clean shaven and smiling. He looks familiar, and I think I recognize him from the drawings. I begin to ask, "Is that..." "That's my father," she says. It's the only framed picture in her work area and one of the few in the house. But that seems as it should. After all, who could have watched Bechdel through this process other than her dad?