It was Tolstoy who famously opened Anna Karenina with a line about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. To depict this in your own family must be a confronting task. Doing it well in a graphic novel means to bare the twisted, intimate details of your life, in a self-conscious visual medium – without shying from the grotesque and uncomfortable facets of the people (arguably) closest to you.
Bechdel is the genius behind the Bechdel test, which I still apply to every film I watch, in which the visibility and personality of female characters are measured using absolute minimum means (merely that two women speak to each other about ANYTHING except a male). I first heard of Bechdel and the test at an International Women’s Day talk in 2013.
Fun Home is the thematic, semi-linear chronicle of Bechdel’s childhood and early adulthood, focusing heavily on her father’s suicide. Recently, someone asked me why I read bleak, brooding material. I don’t have an answer for that, but in my defence, Fun Home is actually darkly comedic – in that off-hand way family tribulations and tragedy seem devastating in childhood but in later years become symbolic or even humorous anecdotes.
Literary and intelligent, in Fun House, Bechdel examines the seeming “inverted oedipal” complex between Alison and her father, her dad being a closeted homosexual, while she comes out as queer when at uni. There are some incredibly powerful, poignant moments in the graphic novel that lend themselves so well to a visual format, including a scene in which child-Alison sees a “truck-driving bulldyke” in a diner and her father asks her if that is how she’d like to look. The expression in her eyes exposes so much more than her accepted response: “No”. In another scene, her father insists Alison wear a barrette, while she suggests a crewcut would be more effective at keeping the hair from her eyes. Alison’s momentous realisation at 19 that she is a lesbian, triggered at seeing a word in the dictionary that describes something she has been suspecting and feeling for years. Her painful obsessive compulsive tendencies – patterns I can relate to at such a personal level, the little controls kids apply to a chaotic adult world in order to control and make sense of it.
The Bechdel’s daily existence seems to reflect an isolated, dysfunctional family life – which is it, but it was revelatory to see other families living in a way that would be seen from the outside as ‘abnormal’ – I’m still coming to terms with my own family story (thanks again, Tolstoy).
A touching, tender read, full of pathos and personality.