Today we’re going to do something a bit different for this feature. I attended Wiscon last weekend and sat in on the panels about comic books. Wiscon is a science fiction convention for feminists, so its panels were perfectly applicable to this column.
I have two panel writeups for you (and I’d like to thank Rachel Edidin for help with both). One on sexism and superhero comics, which is in Part 1 of this week’s feature, and one on Fun Home, which is just beyond the jump.
Rachel Edidin (Moderator), Jenni Moody, JJ Pionke, Janet Lafler, Vicki Rosenzweig
(This was the panel I almost didn’t attend because I hadn’t read the book. I was very fortunate to get loaned a copy so I could join in the discussion, because this really was the best panel of the convention. I was worried it would just be a literary discussion, but it went more into the intricacies of the comics medium than the other two did. In the end, I had a 7 page writeup that tried to quote the entire panel. I’ve just tried to give you the cliff notes here.)
Best quote of the panel:
“I think that’s not a prerequisite for the universality, because I read this and my first thought was ‘Oh my god! My parents are hiding dark secrets!’”
— Rachel on whether or not you needed a dysfunctional homelife to identify with this book.
Rundown: Rachel began the panel by asking why the panelists how they discovered the book. Vicki, Janet, Rachel, and JJ were all Bechdel fans anyway. Jenni had picked up the book solely because of the media buzz in the comics community, and Rachel had been interested in the book as a work of literature and in its impact on both the literary and comics industries.
JJ said it was so compelling because it was a very personal work, and it gave a glimpse into where Bechdel was coming from when she writes Dykes to Watch Out For. Janet expressed surprise at the tremendous media response, but the other panelists agreed it was word of mouth.
Rachel found Fun Home to be an extremely literary book with references to works such as Collette and Ulysses, and an audience member added that Bechdel writes on so many levels that it was still accessible. Janet thought that she gave you what you need to know to understand what she’s talking about, and Vicki points out that it wasn’t what James Joyce said that mattered to the narrative, it was how Ulysses affected her relationship with her father.
“Memoirs sort of, almost by definition, have a reality to them that people who are not comics fans can take them seriously.” Janet said of the autobiographical aspect. “We can mourn that other kinds of comics aren’t taken seriously, but at the same time you can’t easily dismiss it.”
“It’s actually someone’s experience,” Rachel added.
“A real man really died,” an audience member said, leading Vicki to add that “in the real world, people do not get powers from radioactive spiders.” (Last time we checked, of course.)
Several people noted that Fun Home, Persepolis, and Maus are all noncolor (even with green overtones, Fun Home is a black and white style work) and have all received critical acclaim. Rachel mentioned that Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of Two Towers, which was a color work and included many references to other comics, didn’t receive nearly the acclaim that Maus did.
The panelists agreed that Fun Home would be impossible in pure prose form. The narrative structure of the work, which is pretty fragmented and as far from linear as you can go and still make sense, would cause the novel to be of War and Peace proportions if it wasn’t condensed by pictures. Several times Bechdel offers a little bit of detail, then fleshes it out later on, then returns to the original detail and shows it in a different light. The simple pictures and the elaborate wording show a contrast that reinforces the theme of secrecy and false facades. The room collectively expresses great love for Fun Home‘s similarities to Dykes to Watch Out For, and Bechdel’s use of visual cues such as crosshatching versus colorwashing to distinguish photographs from memories.
Many of the panelists (and the audience members) kept returning to how strongly they identified with the Bechdel family, and Rachel steered the discussion toward how the book had resonated with readers.
“The places where she shows that odd interaction between her and her father, where they are standing out and both looking at something,” a woman commented. “It felt very real to me–you’re together but you’re not and what’s not said.”
“[The whole thing was a] process of déjà vu,” according to one man, “because my father is transgendered. That’s EXACTLY how my family was, we all interact but its very autistic.”
“Yeah, but that’s universal, isn’t it?” another audience member argued, “I’m straight and my father’s straight (as far as I know), and the book still very much resembled my family and how we interacted.”
“Universally, don’t we all fracture ourselves?” panelist JJ answered the audience, “The fracturing of her father and the fracturing of identity…who you are at Wiscon is not who you are at work. I think that the sort of people who had a goofy childhood might relate to this better…people who had a superdysfunctional family.”
Vicki said it brought back a lot of painful memories about her coming out and her parents.
From there it goes into a discussion on Bechdel’s family relationships, complete with references to online interviews and storylines in Dykes to Watch Our For (just in case you were doubting where the real comic book fans were at Wiscon), and there’s some disagreement about whether or not the book actually would have been published if it wasn’t by Alison Bechdel. Rachel points to the production quality and expense of the book (i.e. the embossed dust jacket, etc.) as a vote of confidence from the publisher in the book’s commercial viability. There’s some surprise at the explicit sex scenes and that a book containing them has been distributed so widely, and the panel finds themselves discussing Dykes to Watch Out For. To get back on topic, Rachel opens the floor to the audience again.
One audience member commented on the aspects of Bechdel’s story that she had identified with: “The family life, the true depiction of what its was like. I grew up in a true dysfunctional family, an alcoholic abusive father and we lived like that. Navigating life in that manner rang so true from that. I hand this to people who don’t read graphic novels and I say ‘don’t worry, this is literature.’ The images of her and her girlfriend got the novel challenged in a library in Missouri. The women who challenged it said ‘we can’t have it not because I disagree with it, but because these images and it’s a cartoon book and we can’t have kids picking up the cartoon book and seeing these images.’ The town went beyond the images, and said this story has worth to a lot of people.
“More was going on as a child than you realized,” another audience member added. “That realization…your past suddenly takes on another dimension.”
“The experience of looking at your childhood like a literary critic, going back and reading it that way.” Rachel and relates a parallel between Bechdel’s story and her own relationship with her father. “A lot of the way we communicate is sending each other books.”
“Part of the allure of the book, ” JJ said, is that “[Bechdel is] articulating her childhood as we all articulate our childhood but she’s been able to find background information so she can go back and reimagine it.”
A woman focused on her own parental troubles: “One of the things that really resonated for me was the sort of redemptive truths, the painful process of coming to terms with them. One of the states I’m trying to grow into, with my parents its religious stuff. Its really redemptive.”
A man observed, “That’s a weird break between childhood and adulthood, this point where you’re forced to reexamine your childhood.” Much of the room nodded in agreement.
“As a tangent to that,” Vicki adds, “I’m 43 yrs old and my parents have been divorced for almost 20 years, and I’m still getting new information phrased as ‘You knew this, of course’”
When time ran out, the moderator asked each of the panelists what she hopes the long-term effects of Fun Home‘s success will be.
JJ: “Speaking as an educator, Fun Home fundamentally is very very smart, very literary minded, very psychological…to use key words from academia. I would like to see more, either from Alison herself or other creators. We love Spiderman and Batman but I would like to see more of this intelligence. The comic form, the graphic novel is so much more accessible to students today. Students today are living in a world of thirty second attention spans right now.”
Vicki: “I notice more people are stepping out to read a cross-genre and a cross-category, so anything that causes that is a good thing.”
Janet: “I have trouble reading text and images in parallel, and Bechdel (and this book in part) really helped teach me how to read comics. I think that may be a fairly common problem.”
Jenni: “I’d like to see more positive portrayals of female sexuality, and for people to embrace all facets of their otherness.”
Rachel: “I feel very adamant about calling this a comic, because this is what I want comics to be….I’d like to see more fusion of text and pictures… and just more books that appeal outside and inside [of mainstream comics fandom].”
According to an audience member, Alison Bechdel is working on a new book.
Personal Reflection: A few times during the panel the political aspect of the book was touched on, but not elaborated. Parts of Fun Home occur during the Watergate scandal, but there seems to me to be very little commentary on the situation. She uses it as background, and the scandal (which was over secrecy) reinforces to the overall theme of the book. Just like the images comment on the narrative as they illustrate it. Everything in this book is in complex layers, the entire work is set up to support the feeling of peeling away years of mold, grime, wallpaper and paint to find the original surface of a house. Its exquisitely done, and I would recommend it to anyone.
Fun Home struck me very personally, and I wondered if it was something about my own family or just growing up in Pennsylvania like Bechdel did that created that effect, but the panel convinced me that this book appeals universally because of the theme, not the superficial aspects. Everybody has their secrets and masks, and everybody has to relate to people with secrets, and this father-daughter story speaks very deeply to that.
Father’s Day is just around the corner, by the way.