In late October, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, premiered at the Public Theater in New York. Bechdel, though, spent the evening in Granville, Ohio.
The critically acclaimed cartoonist and writer was on campus to read from her work and spend time with students.
Herrick auditorium was packed for Bechdel’s talk, which Sam Heyman ’14 theorizes might be due to growing awareness of the “Bechdel Test” —a rubric Bechdel admits she didn’t actually create but formed from a comic she did about something her friend once said. The Bechdel Test challenges viewers to think critically about the roles women are allowed to play in popular media by asking whether movies fulfill three criteria: 1) There are two female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.
“There’s an old saying that cartoonists are people who are mediocre artists and mediocre writers,” Bechdel admitted at the beginning of her talk. “In my case, those things are pretty much true.” After poking fun at her own abilities (and showing the audience rejection letters from her early attempts at art and writing), she described the unique storytelling capabilities of comics.
“Language has a slippery relation with reality,” she argued. “Nothing ever really matches up—this slippage is everywhere.” By using both pictures and text, she feels she can get closer to accurately representing reality.
Speaking to a full house in Herrick was only a small part of Bechdel’s time at Denison. She also shared meals with students and visited classes. At one lunch, topics of discussion ranged from the ubiquity of fitness culture, to how the Internet impacts creativity, to Bechdel as a “method cartoonist.” (To make her drawings more realistic, she often takes pictures of herself in certain poses—often while dressed as her characters. Especially when she’s working on graphic memoirs, she says, this can be a surprisingly emotional experience. “Taking that pose of being whoever it is that I’m drawing would give me a sort of empathy for them,” she said—especially when she was literally putting herself in the shoes of her own parents.)
In Ron Abram’s Contemporary Comics class, students have a unique sense of empathy for Bechdel: They’ve been working on graphic memoirs of their own. When Bechdel, who is also known for her self-syndicated and now retired comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” came to class to offer a critique, some students felt the pressure.
“I’d only been at this for a couple months; she for several decades, so you can imagine my nerves about it,” says Jill Koval ’16. It turned out to be a very positive experience, though: “She asked many eager questions and had a genuine interest in our pieces.”
“The work we were showing her was very personal,” Heyman adds. “She knew this, and handled the critique process expertly, giving positive feedback as well as identifying room for us to improve going forward.”
The amount of time Bechdel spent with students, and the quality of her engagement with them, made a huge impression. “It’s very interesting how humble she is,” Erin Katalinic ’16 says. “There are all of these people fawning over her, and she was just really low-key and humble about it all.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) her unassuming demeanor, though, Bechdel’s work and her visit to campus have certainly made an impact. “Her work inspired me to seriously consider becoming a comic artist in the future,” Koval says. “By reading her memoirs, I realized that the personal narratives I’d exhausted myself with putting on the page may be best conceived in pictures, telling a story when words sometimes can’t.”