Alison Bechdel’s career as a cartoonist began in a series of short strips published in gay and lesbian newspapers in the early eighties under the title “Dykes to Watch Out For.” As her work grew both in refinement and scope, so too did her audience, and in 2006 she published her first graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” a critically acclaimed best-seller. Following up on that book’s exploration of her relationship with her late father, Bechdel’s new book, “Are You My Mother?” examines her ongoing relationship with her mother, her early lesbian relationships and her experiences with and interest in psychoanalysis.
First off, congratulations on your Guggenheim Fellowship. Could you talk a bit about how that came about?
Well, you apply for it, and I didn’t honestly know about Guggenheims—I think it’s more of an academic thing—but they also give them to writers and artists. A couple of years ago my editor at HMH suggested that I apply for one. Basically it’s a grant to allow you time to work on a project. So I applied for one, and amazingly got it. I don’t really have to do anything (laughs) except my work, and I have a little economic safety net for a while.
It’s almost post-capitalist, in a sense.
It’s very socialist. Well, it would be more socialist if everyone got one, but that’s not the case.
I don’t know if you heard or not, but it was reported that Kickstarter has provided more money for artists than the National Endowment for the Arts in the past year.
No, I didn’t know that! Wow. You know, I keep getting emails about various projects and I can’t help but wonder: Is there going to be a point of Kickstarter exhaustion, where people just keep shelling out? But maybe I’m wrong, that would be great.
It’s really kind of disproving notions about what is and isn’t saleable.
Yeah it’s very exciting.
On that note, you’re someone who works in a number of different marginalized genres at once: you’re part of the modern LGBT literary canon and part of the comics medium, even though you’ve said before that you’re somewhat separate from the greater comics culture. In recent years, both of these groups have become more accepted—which one has impacted you more?
That is a really good question, and I want to add something even more complicated to the mix, which is the memoir/autobiographical category; because that too has had a weird, coming-to-the-forefront expansion, as a literary genre. People over the past couple of decades have started going crazy for memoirs. But the big things of course are the gay and lesbian part and the comics part, and honestly I feel like it’s about equal in terms of the way I’ve personally benefited from these leaps forward. You know, the acceptance of comics as a literary form, the acceptance of gay and lesbian narratives as a legitimate story that a general audience can handle. I think it’s fifty-fifty; I couldn’t put one ahead of the other.
I find it interesting how your work will be shelved so differently in stores—sometimes in graphic novels, sometimes in LGBT studies…
And sometimes it will even be over in biography and memoir, which is even cooler.
It’s a very diverse time for comics. If you’re a woman or a girl who wants to do comics, there are so many avenues open to you now, as opposed to when you first started where there was pretty much only superheroes, newspaper strips and underground publications which didn’t really pay.
Yeah, there’s been just such an explosion of possibilities. The more people doing it the more possibilities there are. As more women do this more girls are seeing the possibility there for their own future. There’s still a disproportion, though: When I was editing “Best American Comics 2011,” there was still roughly three-quarters men to one-quarter women contributing.
In both books you’ve done “covers” of work by Charles Addams and Dr. Seuss. What was it like retracing their brushstrokes?
You know, I love doing those copies; it’s actually surprisingly easy. What I do is I trace their art, and then I put my tracing on a lightbox, and then I redraw it using my tracing of their original. It’s really fun to just immerse yourself in another person’s linework. I loved drawing that Dr. Seuss page; it was kind of almost mystical. And the Charles Addams piece too. I would like to just take a month and just do that, just copy things that I love, that would be so much fun. It’s a standard thing that cartoonists do; you copy other people’s work and see how they solved problems. And legally I had to do it that way, I can’t just steal someone’s art, so I figure my version of it would be admissible, and so far no one has sued me. (Laughs)
One of the challenges in preparing for this interview is that this book about your mother is also about you making a book about your mother—thereby negating about ninety-five percent of the obvious questions! But it’s also about your creative process, and I’m curious as to how that developed for you.
You know, I sort of feel like I want to say that I just figured this out myself, that this is my own thing that I figured out just from years and years of doing comics, but that’s not exactly true, because I certainly got advice and help from lots of people. In the nineties when Howard Cruse was writing his graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby” I was in touch with him and hearing about his process and that was a great gift, just to see someone else going through that kind of work and research and the long patient struggle with something. But in terms of my actual writing process, I think that’s just something I made up and continue to make up. I don’t feel like I have any clear methodology, I just kind of muddle around. It’s very confusing, I hope I get better at it.
One of the most visually striking elements about both books is the use of a single color throughout each, green in “Fun Home” and red in “Are You My Mother?” What was your thinking behind that?
As I learned, you don’t really have a lot of choice. In both books I’m using a two-color process, there’s black ink and there’s one other color. There’s not a lot of options really if you’re using one color to shade the whole book. It’s either going to be on the blue-green end of the spectrum or the red-orange end of the spectrum because what else can you do? Purple? Yellow? You can use them but you can’t use them in a naturalistic way. In both of my books I use the color often in a representational way, like the green is often foliage or clothing, the red is often bricks or leather chairs. If you wanted to do something more abstract, sure you could use anything, but for the kind of work I’m doing there weren’t that many choices. I picked green for the Dad book because it just… seemed right. I associate green with flowers and flora and that’s… my father. It was a grayish sort of sad tone of green that somehow captured the sad tone of the book. So when I was thinking about how to color “Are You My Mother?” I knew I wanted it to be different, I didn’t want to do green again, I went with something in the red area, this brownish-red. There’s something about the color of blood that I liked to indicate this physical connection to my mother, to all of our mothers.
Bechdel is currently a Mellon Fellow at the University of Chicago. She will present a slide show and sign copies of her new book, Are You My Mother?, on May 16, 7:30pm, at The Swedish American Museum Center, 5211 North Clark. Tickets are required, but are free with the purchase of her new book from Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark. Companion tickets are $7.00.
“Are You My Mother?”
By Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages, $22