What Alison Bechdel Taught Me

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What Alison Bechdel Taught Me

I first met Alison Bechdel at a coffee shop on Christopher St. (a street where her mother lived in the 1950s) in New York City in the summer of 2006, when I interviewed her for a feature I wrote in the Village Voice on the publication of Fun Home.  I had then and have since rarely been so fascinated by a book as by Fun Home.  At her request (really!) I sent her, that summer, my dissertation about nonfiction comics.  But our intellectual partnership was already established.  When my article on Fun Home came out in the Voice, she sent me a note thanking me—and, specifically, thanking me for understanding key aspects of the book—that is one of the most gratifying letters I have received.  And writing that essay was one of the best experiences I have had writing about anything.  Something about Alison’s work—the tone, the control, the density that wears itself lightly, its incredible complexity in telling and showing a story of the relationship between a gay girl and gay man (her father)—inspired me to think deeply about how modes of display work to account for complicated lives.

Our back and forth kept growing. I published an interview with her in the journal Modern Fiction Studies; she quoted me in a feature in The Comics Journal.  I came back to introduce her when she spoke at my graduate alma mater (incidentally, we went to the same college, Oberlin); we did a public event together at the Wellesley College Humanities Center.  Alison agreed to be interviewed for my book, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, which has a chapter on Fun Home, and my first visits to her studio were for that purpose.  When Graphic Women came out in 2010, she and her girlfriend Holly drove from Vermont to be at my book party in Massachusetts.  Finally, our collaboration is made official this year, as Alison is an inaugural Mellon Fellow at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago, where I teach, and where we will be co-teaching a course called “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.” 

Alison taught me, not didactically, but through her example, to think philosophically and psychoanalytically about drawing—the act of touching the paper, marking it, touching the subjects one materializes by hand out of the white space of the page.  What does it mean to create someone on the page from your past, to visualize and animate that person?  Is it intimate, distancing, or both? Are You My Mother?, which at some point had the title Love Life, is about, in a sense, shifting sets of women. It is about Alison’s mother, Helen (who honored me by coming to a talk I gave last year at Penn State!), and her relationship with Alison over time, and it is also about Alison’s own adult romantic relationships over time, and the connection between these.  How does Alison reflect or not reflect her mother’s personality, femininity, emotional reserve, sense of ambition?  How do her girlfriends reflect or not reflect her—aesthetically, emotionally, even physically?  How is a self constituted in relation to others—as a negative or positive proposition?  As a book that bravely addresses and theorizes Alison’s series of relationships, Are You My Mother? will give readers a look, in a way neither Dykes to Watch Out For nor Fun Home could, of the complexities of real-life, full-fledged queer romance.  


Hillary Chute Interviews Alison Bechdel from Critical Inquiry on Vimeo.


Hillary Chute is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of English at U Chicago. She is currently in collaboration with Alison Bechdel on a project called "Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography."