By John Hogan
This past Wednesday, the Lowell Humanities Series had the pleasure of hosting the cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Bechdel grew up in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and began her career with the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1983. She is best known for her graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Both graphic memoirs are two parts of the same family drama, the first focusing on Bechdel’s relationship with her father and their sexual orientations, and the second on Bechdel’s relationship with her mother. Even though Fun Home is the work that won her critical acclaim, both graphic memoirs are exceedingly earnest and spellbinding works.
Her talk opened the same way it ended: with fervent applause. Bechdel took the stage with calm and composition, exuding confidence in both her work and herself. Seated at the back, initially I was worried about missing out. But even when she dipped below the vast sea of heads, I never felt lost. Bechdel possesses an extraordinary ability to capture the audience: Gasson 100 was toasty and dark; sleep would have beckoned even the most cognizant student if there had been a less captivating speaker, but Bechdel maintained a seemingly effortless grip. Even though she did all the talking, the event felt like a conversation through-and-through. I was as relaxed and engaged as if a loved one was telling me a story.
Perhaps that sense of trust came from Bechdel’s expression of her own vulnerabilities. Not once did she shy away from disclosing the darker moments of her life. I imagine that pouring your heart and soul into a graphic memoir is much more intimidating than talking to a bunch of unsure college students. Regardless, lifting the curtain as she did—with hundreds of eyes watching—requires considerable self-conquest. Few of us could muster the deep, soulful courage and indifference to judgment that she did. Bechdel talked extensively about her own sexuality as well as her father’s. She talked about how hard it was to come out as a lesbian to her parents and how she pondered the possibility of her revelation being a trigger for her father’s suicide. She also showed no reservation in alluding to her father’s affairs with other men and even his high school students. The most widely relatable defeat she discussed was her rejection from numerous post-grad art programs. Bechdel showed us multiple rejection letters, some of which claimed neither her writing nor her art was that good. And she didn’t wholly disagree. It wasn’t until she combined her writing and her art into comics that her skills in both blossomed.
It was often in the midst of laughter that the heaviest moments of silence came. This give-and-take of solemnity and humor parallels Bechdel’s own work. Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are certainly “serious” works—some of the first comics to be taken “seriously” in fact–but they are also stories about life; and life is never lacking in paradoxical moments of hilarity and gravity. Bechdel’s presentation wasn’t a mere advertisement. It was an exhibition of profound humanity. Love, sexual confusion, ostracization, failure and success, familial dysfunction—we all face at least some of the problems expressed in Bechdel’s work. Bechdel’s presentation was a well-needed reminder that life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. But that doesn’t mean we’re alone and that doesn’t mean we can’t derive something beautiful out of it.
The Lowell Humanities Series hosts artists, writers, scholars, and poets on Wednesdays at 7 PM in Gasson 100.