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Alison Bechdel: Artist, genius and instigator of change

by Jonathan Jones
2014-10-22

This article shared 5683 times since Wed Oct 22, 2014
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In September, Alison Bechdel became the second cartoonist to receive a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship. Her cult comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For ran for 25 years, from 1983 to 2008, and received acclaim for its witty depiction of lesbian life and the challenges confronted by the LGBTQ community for acceptance.

Bechdel's graphic memoirs, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?, tell the story of her father's suspected suicide, her relationship with her caring yet distant mother, and her own coming out process. These memoirs' beautiful depictions of the trials and love that bind families catapulted Bechdel to new heights, with Fun Home slated to be performed as a musical on Broadway. Windy City Times caught up with Bechdel to talk about her success.

Windy City Times: How will the MacArthur affect your life?

Alison Bechdel: Well, I guess that remains to be seen! I hope that it allows me to continue growing and taking risks in my work. I can see that it might have the opposite effect. I could see how it would make someone more self-conscious, more eager to please or live up to this crazy reputation. It's such a generous gift to give someone this financial stability, and I hope that I can really make the best use of it as possible.

WCT: What does the acclaim your work has received mean to you, particularly given that the LGBTQ community has gained more acceptance?

Alison Bechdel: My head is still spinning about the progress this community has made in the span of my lifetime. I never imagined that we would be able to get married. It's something that never even entered into my consciousness. So, that's been very mind-blowing. It's so hard to imagine now what it was like when I started Dykes to Watch Out For. It's like I was a pornographer.

It was that far outside the acceptable realm, so I was really determined to show queer life as something acceptable and recognizable. And one of the things my comic strip was about is the tradeoff that happens as queer culture becomes assimilated into the larger culture—the things that are lost and the things that are gained. I had characters who were very much outsiders. They didn't want to be part of the system. They didn't want to get married. They really embraced their "outsiderness."

But I also had characters who were devoted to working inside the system to try to change things. It was about the friction between these two camps. When you ask me what's going on in LGBTQ culture today, I feel like I don't really know anymore. I feel like there isn't an LGBTQ culture in the way there once was or if there is, it's dispersed into the larger culture.

WCT: Will Dykes to Watch Out For come back?

Alison Bechdel: I don't know. I wouldn't bring it back as a comic strip. That just isn't going to work or be sustainable. But I have had some interest in it as an animated television show. This is just at the earliest preliminary stages. I haven't had time to really pursue it. And even if I did, the chances that something would come of it are minute or microscopic. But the fact that anyone is even interested in it is an indication of how much the culture has changed.

I have had interest a couple of different times in animating the comic strip over the years, but there's never any funding for it. There's just no way to raise money for lesbian cartoons. But maybe now that's different. You know, I don't really have a great handle on what's happening in the culture because I was really surprised when this guy, this straight Hollywood guy, said he could see it as an animated comic strip. I thought, 'Are you crazy?' But maybe he knows better than I do.

WCT: You've now written two graphic memoirs. Like cartooning, memoir is sometimes regarded as a lesser art form compared to, let's say, traditional journalism or fiction. Why are memoirs so important to you?

Alison Bechdel: I love pursuing art forms that other people have looked down on. Cartooning used to be considered a lesser art form. Now, it's getting a little morale boost. Memoir is often seen as not quite real writing because it's personal. It's a domain of art that has traditionally been seen as feminine or for women or as something smaller or more domestic. But I think memoir is becoming something different than it used to be. It's not just a story about someone's life. It's becoming more literary. It can still tell the truth and have the quality that good fiction has.

WCT: When you were young, what kept you going as an artist even though it didn't always pay the bills?

Alison Bechdel: You know, I feel like I was lucky to come of age at a really particular juncture in our economic history. When I graduated from college in 1981, I didn't really know that there was a recession going on. I had been raised in this period of affluence. My family wasn't wealthy, but my dad had a job and we had health insurance. And we just thought things were going to get better. We had no idea things were going to get worse, so it was OK to just think about being a slacker, about being an artist. I never thought about my future. It was really OK for me to work a crappy day job and do my art on the side.

WCT: Given the current economic situation, what's your advice for young artists or anyone trying to go against the grain today to create change?

Alison Bechdel: I was going to say get a day job. No, that's very cynical! But I don't know. The trick is really to keep yourself from getting too much of a stake in the system.

WCT: What's the driving force behind what you do?

Alison Bechdel: My driving force is to just get outside of myself. I am someone who has kind of felt trapped inside my own mind. And writing about my experience is a way of reaching out of that abyss and trying to make a bridge to the outside world and to other people. That's what continues to drive me.


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