Alison Bechdel: Coloring outside the lines, from PA to Broadway

Alison Bechdel: Coloring outside the lines, from PA to Broadway

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In 2015, we reached another milestone in the LGBT community: “Fun Home,” the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist, took home the Tony Award for Best Musical.

“Fun Home” is a story based on the life of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who writes the “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip that has been seen right here in PGN. The musical explores Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life and death. Bechdel is also the name associated with the Bechdel Test, which has become a frequently used metric in cultural discussion of film: The test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Thankfully, our nonfictional interview passed the test.

PGN: You and I have something in common: I was born next to a funeral parlor and lived in an apartment that was previously a funeral parlor and your father worked part-time as a funeral director.

AB: Oh, wow. Yes, he did.

PGN: As kids, we used to play hide and seek among the coffins in the storage garage. For me, it made me less fearful of death. Did it have an effect on you?

AB: I often ponder the effect it had on me. I think, to a certain extent, it made me more aware and accepting of the fact that we’re all going to die. But then again, there was something surreal about my own father dying and having his funeral in our funeral home. It made it even harder to accept it than it might have been otherwise because of my familiarity with the whole business.

PGN: I can see that. So you’re originally from Pennsylvania. What was it like where you grew up?

AB: I grew up in Beech Creek, Pa., which is in Central Pennsylvania — a little north of Penn State. It was a very conservative place. I grew up in a small farm town, my dad grew up in a small farm town, my mother had grown up in the county seat 10 miles away. You couldn’t … there wasn’t a lot of freedom. Everyone knew everyone or lived next to a relative so you couldn’t get away with much.

PGN: It’s interesting that you lived in such a conservative area, not something usually connected with the arts, with which both of your parents seem so involved.

AB: Yes, they were definitely outliers in that regard. I often wondered, Why did they stay there? But my father, in particular, had very strong ties to his family and, like many people who grew up in small towns, he wanted to stay near them.

PGN: What was a fun family memory?

AB: [Laughs] Well, we too would play around in the funeral home. We’d line all the chairs up and play airplane, roll the carts around and knock over the flower stands, stuff like that. We also played hide and seek among the caskets.

PGN: What were the pros and cons of having an artistic mother and father?

AB: The pros are pretty obvious: I was always encouraged to draw and I was always provided with plenty of drawing paper and pens. I was given piano lessons and there were hundreds and hundreds of books in our house. The downside was having parents who I knew were … who had very refined tastes. It was almost scary to creatively express yourself with highly judgmental people around. So, in a way, I felt like I became a cartoonist as a way of eluding their radar because it was the one medium that they didn’t really know anything about.

PGN: I read that you choose to do your cartoons in black and white because your father was such a stickler about color choices.

AB: Well — this is looking back and psychoanalyzing myself — I didn’t think of it consciously at the time, but yeah, my father was such a connoisseur of color that by cartooning in black and white I didn’t have to deal with it.

PGN: How did his passion for color manifest? Was that in his personal style, his fashion sense, his artwork?

AB: He did a lot of interior decorating but yes, also in his personal fashion. [Chuckles] He was a bit of a dandy and he was always restoring and/or redecorating our house.

PGN: How did your cartoon strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” come about?

AB: I started doing it soon after I graduated from college. I wanted to see images of people like me and my friends and I did not see that anywhere in the cultural zeitgeist. So I started making them myself and publishing them in my local feminist paper in New York City and slowly I started to self-syndicate in other papers around the country. [Laughs] I think PGN was the first paper that ever paid me!

PGN: Nice!

AB: Yeah, I think that was back in about 1985.

PGN: The strip often has political tones in it. Did it start out that way or did writing it over the years make you more politically aware as you got feedback from readers?

AB: No, it wasn’t explicitly political in the early days; it was more silly and funny. But it definitely became more political over the years. I’m trying to think why. I mean I always hung out with a very activist crowd. I was never really an activist myself but I really admired the people who were willing to put themselves out there so those values started creeping into the stuff I was writing about.

PGN: You featured such a variety of characters, different races and backgrounds. How did you find their voices?

AB: Well, the whole culture back then was a lot more activist-oriented. I mean there was no question that I would have women of color or a character with disabilities in the strip. I worked very hard to make the strip inclusive and I took great pride when someone once called DTWOF “multicultural to a fault.”

PGN: [Laughs] That’s great. I was looking back at some of your cartoons and thought, I miss those times when people were bonded together for a common cause. I have a nephew who came out at 16 and there doesn’t seem to be the same sense of community for him that I had, even though this generation certainly has freedoms we didn’t. We’ve mainstreamed ourselves out of the tribe.

AB: Yeah, that’s definitely something we’ve lost in the trade-off.

PGN: Which of your characters makes you laugh the most?

AB: I stopped drawing the strip in 2008 and at that point I think the character I enjoyed drawing the most was Sydney, the evil gender and women’s studies professor. [Laughs] I guess she was sort of an alter ego for me.

PGN: So do you get residuals every time someone mentions the Bechdel Test?

AB: Ha! No, it’s weird … the idea originated in one of the early “Dykes to Watch Out For” strips but it didn’t become “The Bechdel Test” until sometime in the 2000s and it was not my doing at all. A younger generation of feminists found the strip and felt that it expressed their emerging ideas about feminism in an easy, nutshell way. But now it’s become this thing that’s associated with my name, which is kind of cool.

PGN: Indeed. That story sounds like another Pennsylvanian whose name got attached to something by college kids. I heard Kevin Bacon say he didn’t even know about “Six degrees of separation from … ” until someone explained it to him.

AB: Yes!

PGN: In your bio it says that you’ve been invited to sit on the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. What the heck is that?

AB: The American Heritage Dictionary, which is my favorite dictionary, has this great feature, usage notes, that are all throughout the dictionary: a short explanation about how words or phrases that are problematic, or interesting or evolving, are actually used. I am now one of the people who gets to vote on what we think are acceptable usages of words.

PGN: That’s dope! There’s one that probably needs explanation to the uninitiated.

AB: Yes, and we’re working on things like trans terminology: Can you use “they” as a singular pronoun? I keep voting yes! yes! as they ask it again year after year but we’ll get there.

PGN: You have made such interesting contributions to society in surprising ways. On top of DTWOF, which was of such importance to so many lesbians growing up, now you’re in the general population with “Fun Home” — first the graphic novel and now the musical. Was there a particular moment that made you decide to write your story?

AB: I wanted to tell the story of my father and me for almost all of my adult life. Almost as soon as my dad died, it struck me that it would make a really amazing story. He died when I was in college, when I was 19, but I didn’t start working on it until I was 40. I think I didn’t write it back then because it involved revealing a lot of family secrets: that my dad was gay, or bisexual — he’s identified as gay in the musical but it’s a little more complex than that — and that he committed suicide. I just didn’t feel that I could tell that story back in the 1980s, but in the 2000s I felt there was enough distance from it and that the culture had changed enough and that I’d developed enough maturity as an artist to start grappling with it, so I did.

PGN: What was the reaction from the family? Have they seen the show?

AB: Well, it was a book long before it was a musical. My mother and all her friends read the book but she died in 2013 just before the play opened on Broadway.

PGN: What were the strangest and most heartwarming reactions to the show?

AB: The strangest moments are always when some person from my childhood comes to see it, someone who knew my father, knew my parents. It’s always a little bizarre for me. I had one person who’d been a good friend of my father’s when he was a teenager who didn’t want to accept the fact that my dad could have been having same-sex relationships, even though I know that he did. So that was strange. But it’s always heartwarming when young queer people tell me how happy they are to see this representation of themselves on stage, to listen to this butch lesbian anthem and lesbian love songs in a mainstream context. It’s very empowering for them.

PGN: What did it feel like in the pit of your stomach the first time you got to see an audience react to your life story?

AB: Well, the first time I saw it with an audience, it wasn’t with the general public; it was with people associated with the Public Theater where it was being staged. I found it very nerve-wracking because I knew people were kind of watching me throughout to see my reaction, to see how I was feeling about the whole thing. So it was a little stressful, but it was very different when I went to the first real public performance and I could be somewhat of an anonymous audience member. It was just amazing. And weird to have this super-intimate look at my life in a public forum and to have it be so moving for so many people. I can’t even tell you … I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet, even all these years later.

PGN: I understand that the book was banned in Missouri.

AB: [Laughs] It’s gotten into trouble in a few places, most recently in South Carolina, where it was one of the reading selections for freshmen at the College of Charleston. The Republican South Carolina House of Representatives cut the college’s funding by $52,000 for “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.” They compare me and the book to slavery, Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler. It was absurd.

PGN: [Laughs] Which I find especially ironic because I read that it was a library book that helped you come out!

AB: Well, we know that books have great power! People who censor them know that.

PGN: I was going to say it’s hard to imagine people banning books in this day and age, but with this new administration, it’s not so hard after all. What was an early sign you were gay?

AB: I was always doing crazy tomboyish things.

PGN: And yet your dad was always trying to get you into a dress.

AB: Yeah, there was always a power struggle there. My mother didn’t care one way or the other but my dad always wanted me to look pretty.

PGN: You seem to pull up all sorts of cool stuff on your blog, old articles, etc. Are you a virtual packrat? And do you keep actual memorabilia as well?

AB: I save stuff, that’s for sure. But I like to think of myself as an archivist rather than a packrat.

PGN: What are you working on next?

AB: I’m working on another graphic memoir. This one is called “The Secret to Super-Human Strength.”

PGN: I’m excited about seeing the show here in Philadelphia. I saw Sydney Lucas, the actress that plays you as a child, singing “Ring of Keys” on the Tonys and it was great. She was so precocious; do you find yourself wanting to adopt all the kids from the show?

AB: Ha! No, no. Though I like them all very much, I don’t want to adopt them. I’m happy to just go see them on stage.

PGN: I’m sure you’ve seen it countless times. What part of the show do you look forward to the most?

AB: I love seeing the opening number when all of the characters flood onto the stage. There are three different characters who play me — as a child, in college and as an adult — and they’re all on stage at once. My brothers are on stage, my parents, there’s all sorts of business and flow. I feel like my whole life is happening in front of me at once and I love it.

PGN: Kate Shindle is in the show and she was once a Miss America, but I understand you have a new prestigious title as well: Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate. So what will your platform be?

AB: Oh dear, I don’t think I have one. [Laughs] Honestly, I was hoping to just rest on my laurels.

“Fun Home” runs June 13-18 at Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St. For more information or tickets, visit www.kimmelcenter.org.

For more information on Alison Bechdel, visit www.dykestowatchoutfor.com.

To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 


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