Fun Home, Not-much-fun Home: Bechdel, Satrapi, Barry and The Graphic Novel and Memoir
Nearing the end of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel and memoir Fun Home, I wondered what it would be like to read the entire text without the drawings. The dark humor, the straightforward yet complex prose was clearly a masterful brew. I found myself drawing exuberant little stars – my substitute for highlighting – in a great many places on each page. This author’s particular blend seems both to draw the reader inside her deepest perceptions and, simultaneously, keep a safe, buffering distance. I wondered if it is the wry prose, the wry voice that achieves this or if that simultaneous distance and inclusion is achieved precisely through the use of both art forms together. The title of the work, Fun Home on its own, without its subtitle A Family Tragicomic (the one and only thing I dislike about the whole project) and without the cover drawing, stands quite strong. Just those two words comprise several layers of pain, humor, irony. Alone they beckon and captivate. Alone they make me laugh.
It is the use of cartoon that permits the almost adolescent-feeling or raw, streetwise way of telling while it is the use of sophisticated vocabulary, literary knowledge and articulate phrasing that permits the psychological consideration of Bechdel and her parents. What would it be like to separate them? Would the prose, apart from the drawings, hold enough water? I decided to try.
In fact the experiment would have worked better if I had done this from the start, because, having read the text and viewed and read the drawings together the first time, it was fairly difficult to take the text on its own the second. I already knew. Could not ignore what was in there as if I didn’t. Ultimately I ascertained that the text would certainly need filling in or fleshing out (which is not at all the same as development) without the supporting drawings, yet the text was almost – not quite – a self-sufficient possibility. A different sort of project, but possible. Not so for the drawings. Supporting seems a very fitting word for the drawings; enriching and humor-infusing as well. I come away from the experiment completely skeptical that such a lengthy tale could be told with just the drawings. I know, this skepticism comes from someone who works with words and language or music as my own primary art form, and hybrid works my emphasis toward the future. Therefore it may be that it is harder for me to envision, while a visual or graphic artist could possibly interject here a clear idea or proposal of how to do that very thing. I remain skeptical.
Another consideration for me as a reader is that graphic novels are a personal challenge. My learning style and brain type require a strong measure of visual organization, a level of order on the page for full absorption, processing and contemplation. Off the page that is not such a challenge; that is; in music or other art forms or experiences. Viewing Bechdel’s work through that lens, as compared to Lynda Barry, for example, I was relieved that Bechdel is not difficult to follow. Even though she takes up a particular topic and moves forward somewhat chronologically, she goes back in time to take up each new topic, usually chapter-wise. This was so skillfully ordered and the language had such a logic to it that there was none of the sense of being “scattered” that I have seen in other works of this genre.
Speaking of other works of the genre, I feel in Fun Home a significant departure from Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis books, another notable, highly-effective, artful example of the graphic novel and memoir. They differ in many ways, not the least of which is the emotional approach. Satrapi seems largely to allow the events to speak for themselves. She comes across as adored, loving, and adorable. Her family suffered the most from circumstance, not psychological tumultuousness and affective insufficiency. Not so Bechdel’s life, Bechdel’s childhood and adolescence, Bechdel’s family. Satrapi’s tale orients us toward a global critique, a critique of governments, policies, politics and their impact on individuals and families. Bechdel’s work orients us toward a critique of parents (and families) who inflict their own unresolved pain on their children. In fact we could look at her story from the perspective of how homophobia in general destroys family, thus a critique of society (and certainly that is not absent from Fun Home), but in Bechdel’s work, we are seeing how the parents destroy family, or at least individual children. We don’t walk away saying, “Oh, if only Bruce had been accepted as a gay man in his community, poor guy.” Neither does Bechdel ask us to completely write him off as a human being. It is a huge offering that she makes towards him in the very last frame. If we didn’t know it before, she informs us that a harmful parent is not so one-dimensional as to be easily sorted onto an all-encompassing pile of badness. In that sense, Bechdel’s world is not as black-and-white as its actual medium.
Closer to Bechdel’s approach but not as directly critical of her parents is the work of Lynda Barry, especially through her character Marlys and Marlys’s family members. Barry is not as angry, does not eviscerate any relatives or parents. Perhaps this is partly because no one, as far as I recall reading, in her immediate family, no one with authority, publically did anything so brutal as committing suicide or directing abusive behavior towards Barry’s character. Perhaps it is because she presents most of her work (which is at least loosely autobiographical) as fiction while Bechdel is unashamedly autobiographical. Or perhaps it is that Barry uses the childlike perceptions and voice of, well, an actual child throughout the work. Marlys just reports. Even in works like 100 Demons, Barry doesn’t really tell us whose inner demons she is revealing – are they hers or those of Marlys or another of her frequent characters? In the end, considering these three graphic novelists (all of whom are, in fact, autobiographical in their projects), even though I think it is all of these things that soften the voices of Satrapi and Barry and sharpen the verbal knives, however humorous and lovely, of Bechdel, they feel alike in ways far beyond genre and far beyond gender as well.