When I was a kid, I had a stack of comic books. Not the Spiderman/Superman/Green Lantern kind, but the kind that portrayed the amusing and romantic antics of teenage Archie and his crew, the lovable Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and oh-so-smooth Reggie. There were others of that type, and I swapped them back and forth with my girlfriends, sitting upstairs in their dusty bedrooms all summer long.
Flashforward 50 years. My exposure to storytelling via drawings shrank to the newspaper cartoons. Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, Sylvia and other favorites – even Doonesbury – all had a pretty short story arc. Graphic novels heated up, particularly noir, and I slogged my way through Sin City (loved the movie, though). Never got into manga and didn’t see how anybody could. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I put Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel on hold at the library. She’s the cartoonist who pens the strip Dykes To Watch Out For. But the reviews had been great and I’m all about saying yes.
OMG. It’s great. The NYT reviewer found it dismal and complained that the tone was flat. It is true that Alison comes across as awfully self-involved. She also comes across and insightful, interesting, and smart as a whip. Add in the mother-focused psychodrama (Mom always liked Alison’s brothers best), Alison’s fixations on her various motherly female therapists (whom Alison adores and one of whom finds Alison adorable), and her difficulty in making a romantic commitment and you realize that she’s like a lesbian Woody Allen.
Poor Mom. She’s not that great a mother, and she never quite measures up. Luckily, Alison matures, Mom mellows, and the next thing you know, they’re accepting each other for who they actually are, taking the good and letting go of the angst. Yay, Alison! Yay, Mom!
As a psychology undergrad (just enough knowledge to be dangerous), I loved that Bechdel wove the writings of psychologist Alice Miller and pediatrician Donald Winnicott into her graphic memoir. Not only was it interesting, it moved the story from the particular (what happened to Alison) to the universal. The way she handled it added a little irony, in that Winnicott himself seems like quite the nut job.
Now, about the “graphic” part of “graphic memoir.” I liked the visuals. Her drawing style is clean and easy to follow, there is a lot of visual interest in how the pages are laid out, and there are interesting details (reference fanny packs in chapter 7). I got into the flow of reading and lost my awareness that I was simultaneously reading and looking at pictures. Kind of like the way your brain accommodates when you are watching a movie with subtitles and you realize that you brain is making it all mesh together.
So overall, thumbs up on my first comic book since Betty and Veronica! Bechdel’s previous book is also a graphic memoir – Fun Home – and I suspect it is at least as good, if not better. In describing Fun Home, the publisher says:
Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescense, the denouement is swift, graphic — and redemptive.