Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Review of the graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

I said last week that the book Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is (to my mind) the second-best graphic novel of the year. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the best.

I’ve been a fan of Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over a decade now, impressed not just with her linework but with her facility for character and especially her ability to consider liberal politics from some unlikely angles. In recent years I’ve felt like the strip was perhaps getting past its sell-by date, as it felt not as fresh as it had in the past. Of course, perhaps every reader of a long-running serial feels that it was better when they started reading it, but still.

Fun Home, though, shows that Bechdel is not only on top of her game, but that she’s got the chops to be a heavy hitter in the graphic novel line too, if she chooses.

Fun Home is autobiographical, and is mainly about her father. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and three brothers. Her father was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to remodeling the old house they lived in, and by day he ran a local funeral home (from whence the title of the book). But he was also emotionally distant and treated his family more as resources to be used than as people. He was learned and read constantly, but he also harbored a dark secret.

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The story is told in chapters that are more thematic than chronological: Her father’s obsession with the house, her father’s death, her own obsessive quirks as a teenager, and so forth. The book is a peeling back of different layers to reveal things about her father, her family, and herself. Bechdel – as you may have guessed if you didn’t already know – is a lesbian, and her own realization of this is wound up in the events of the book.

The running theme of the book is one of emotional distance: Her whole family was very distant, and the book is told in a similarly distant manner, deeply analytical in tone. Granted, the events of the book are over 20 years in the past, but the similarity is eerie, and oddly powerful because the sense of pain and loss still shines through: Pain at her father’s death, at her father’s treatment of her, the loss of a piece of childhood that many kids have, the loss of some important events in her life as they were overshadowed by her father’s secrets and death. Credit the clarity of Bechdel’s narrative for bringing this feeling home; I can only imagine how long she must have worked to get just the right words down on the page.

On the art side, Bechdel is one of the great contemporary comics artists when it comes to drawing everyday people and events and making them visually interesting. She works an interesting territory between cartoon stylization and photorealism (and there are examples of the latter in it true form at a few points of the book). Her work is a textbook example of making people’s faces expressive and distinct with just a few simple lines. And in Fun Home she also works in a two-tone medium, with a soft greenish tone used for shading between the solid black lines, which makes Fun Home just that little bit different from her usual work, and giving it the feel of old sepia photographs.

Despite her overall skills, I did realize one thing while reading Fun Home: Bechdel’s characters rarely smile, and when they do they often seem like enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smiles. Although entirely appropriate for the tone of the book, this is also true of Dykes to Watch Out For. Is this a deliberate decision on Bechdel’s part, I wonder?

I was hooked by Fun Home from the very first chapter, which shows off all of Bechdel’s art and storytelling skills as well as anything she’s ever done. I’ve browsed the book several times since then, and it’s still fascination to page through, with little details revealing themselves on repeated viewing. The book is a masterpiece of the art form. What a great book!

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