Bechdel Exam

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel discusses local businesses, coming up with ideas, and drawing memoirs.

CP: In the PR I received for your upcoming talk, a friend of yours states that it's always funny when somebody at a party says something then it shows up in one of your strips. How much of Dykes to Watch Out For comes from your daily life?

AB: You know, it's hard to say. In some ways, it totally doesn't come from my daily life. It's not at all autobiographical; I don't know these people, I make it all up. But the details of their lives, the texture of their lives, are just like my life. Their furniture, their computers, the co-op where they shop, the things they're reading; that is stuff is all in a way autobiographical. I feel like I'm sort of writing fiction and nonfiction at the same time. It's very much about the real world as I know it and the progressive leftist culture that I live in. Yet it's also completely made up out of my head.

CP: The bookstore in your strip, Madwimmin Books, is based on the Amazon Book Co-op in Minneapolis, which is now for sale. In your strip, a popular national chain buys out Madwimmin. Do you see a similar fate for Amazon?

AB: Well, I mean, I did close down the bookstore in my comic strip because that was what was happening to dozens of these stores all over the country. Although it was a sad thing to do, I felt like I needed to reflect the reality of what was going on. Amazon is one of the last holdouts. It's tough. I hope they'll make it.

CP: What do you think locally owned feminist bookstores offer that other bookstores don't?

AB: Oh god, soul, service, heart, and literacy! I mean, the whole culture is going to hell in a hand basket and the bookstores are just like an index of it. It's happening everywhere. There are fewer and fewer independent stores of any kind.

CP: Your graphic memoir, Fun Home, is very candid about your childhood, including your father's apparent suicide by stepping in front of a truck. Writing a memoir always involves confronting memories, but did you find it more difficult since you had to not only write about sad memories, but also draw them out?

AB: There were difficult moments certainly. I was doing crazy things; I went to the very spot where my dad was hit on the highway. I thought I was just going there to take reference shots to see what it looked like, but it was a very emotionally intense experience. Also, I posed as all the characters to do reference shots because I'm just not that good of a drawer. At one point I was impersonating my dead father in the casket, and I put on a jacket and tie and crossed my hands over my chest just to get it exactly right. That's insane, you know? Like, oh, my god, I'm my dead father. There were two levels going on. One was this very workaday, practical level. There was a lot of physical labor just of drawing and sketching and doing all the production of the book, which was kind of distracting from the emotional intensity of it. The emotional intensity of it was there, but it was like two parallel tracks.

CP: Your books are very well received, especially Fun Home, which Time named best book of the year in 2006. Do you plan on writing novels or other books without drawings?

AB:No, I don't. I just don't think I could do that. My whole writing process is very bound up with images. I can hardly think without visuals, that's kind of how I get from one point to another. Occasionally, I do have to write prose, but it's so arduous and difficult for me. I would just rather draw.

CP: So, when you're constructing the strip, do you start with the drawing or with the words?

AB: I start with the dialogue, but when I write, I'm using Adobe Illustrator. So even though I'm typing words, I'm thinking visually. I have my panels mapped out like a storyboard, and in my head I'm visualizing who the people are, where they are, and all that stuff. But I have to get it written before I start sketching.

CP: The town Marshall, Missouri came very close to banning Fun Home in 2006. At the time you said that you considered it an honor to be considered for banning. Tell me a little bit about that.

AB: Well, only because so many great books have been banned. I think it's an indicator that a text has an impact if people are going to the trouble to keep other people away from it. That's kind of flattering in a way. But of course it was disturbing and terrible, and people shouldn't censor the book. They didn't which was great.

CP: Have you encountered other places trying to ban your books?

AB: No, because I think mostly my Dykes to Watch Out For books aren't in small town public libraries. It hasn't really been an issue. I mean, I know they certainly are in some. They're in libraries here in Vermont, for example. But Fun Home just got more recognition and people saw it in a way that they didn't see Dykes.

CP: DTWOF seems to alternate politics, humor, and drama in every panel. Do you see it as one more than other? Is it more of a political cartoon or more of a soap opera, or an amusing comic?

AB:I feel like it is kind of like Doonsbury, only the opposite. Doonsbury is a political cartoon that uses a soap opera format. In my strip the emphasis is more on the soap opera side; the characters' intimate domestic lives. But it's still important to me to have current events and politics woven in, but it's a different balance than in Doonsbury.

CP: You've been writing the same characters now for many years. But your strip is not like *BR Garfield or some other comic that can just recycle the same punch lines over and over again. How do you keep coming up with storylines and jokes for them?

AB: Oh, my god, it's an endlessly escalating challenge! Every week the bar is higher because I can't repeat anything I've already done. It's an interesting form in that way, a long running serial work, it has to keep changing but it can't change too much because then it loses its audience. So, I'm always walking this tightrope between trying to keep it fresh and trying to do what I always do.

CP: How much longer do you think you'll be able to keep going then?

AB: I don't know. You know people like Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson (Far Side) burnt out. But that was because--in Watterson's case--his strip didn't unfold in real time. Calvin was always 6 years old, and of course you couldn't keep that up forever unless it got really crappy. With Gary Larson, the format that he worked in was incredibly constraining. How long can you possibly keep coming up with brilliant one-line gag strips? Dan Piraro, author of Bizarro does it, I don't know how, but he does it. I feel like I have so many sources to draw on that I'm able to fuel it better. Current events are always changing, the characters live in real time so they're always aging and going through these life passages, and there is always something new to grapple with.

See Alison Bechdel speak tonight at the Humphrey Institute. Call 612.625.9436 for more information. Free. 7 p.m. 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.625.9436.