Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Alison Bechdel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Price: $13.95 US (softcover) / $19.95 US (hardcover)
It may seem like I’m late in the game when it comes to reviewing this award-winning and much-lauded graphic novel, but given the recent release of the softcover edition of the book, it merits some extra attention now anyway. Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical exploration of her dysfunction family dynamic, her father’s repressed sexuality and the parallels she sees in her own sexual awakening during her youth is a challenging read. It’s also enlightening with the information the author provides and impressive when it comes to the depths of her honesty. Earlier chapters are certainly stronger than those toward the end of the book, as the creator becomes mired in literary parallels, but ultimately, her matter-of-fact narration and sense of personal isolation make it surprisingly easy to relate to her and her odd upbringing. Her cartooning is remarkably effective at establishing the dreariness and quiet of small-town existence as well. Perhaps what’s most encouraging about this project is how it has reached out beyond the traditional niche comics market and demonstrated the power of the medium to an audience that’s not so obsessed with super-heroes and swordsmen.
Alison Bechdel grew up on the outskirts of a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and though her family appeared to be of a familiar construction — mother, father, two brothers and herself — it functioned in an unusual manner. Her father, Bruce, was forever trying to restore their old house’s Victorian charm, seemingly expressing more love and affection for the minute details of decor than he ever showed to his wife or children. He worked part-time in the family funeral home (dubbed the “fun home” by the kids) and taught English at a local school as well. Meanwhile, Alison herself struggled with a sense of being different, and in her college years, she finally realized she was a lesbian. She gains new insight into her father in the months before his premature death when she discovers they have more in common than an interest in literature. Alison reflects on her own sexual awakening, on her father’s sins and secret suffering, and on the commonalities and differences in their lives.
Bechdel’s artistic style is hard to pin down. In some ways, it seems wholly new and original, and in others, it feels familiar. If I had to describe it to the uninitiated, I’d say it was something of a cross between the styles of Jeff (Bone) Smith and Lynn (For Better or Worse) Johnston. Despite the simpler leanings in her art, though, she doesn’t resort to exaggeration in order to achieve expression. Her characters are quite expressive but subtly so for the most part. That toned-down look in the artwork mirrors the straightforward, unemotional quality of the narration. Her eye for detail is impressive; she really makes the various settings of the story — but most importantly, her childhood home — come to life. She also differentiates the characters at different times in their lives quite clearly.
The incorporation of bluish-grey shading into the black-and-white artwork is a smart move. It brings an added level of depth and texture to the art, but more importantly, the color matches the sullen, distant mood of the characters quite nicely. The only unattractive aspect of the book is the gaudy orange cover that’s to be found under the dust jacket of the hardcover edition. The Dayglo quality is completely out of character with Bechdel’s storytelling.
The last couple of chapters in this book focus on Alison and her father’s voracious appetites for reading and their love of literature. It makes sense, as those chapters focus on the creator as a young woman, able to connect more readily with her father on an intellectual level. The narration is replete with observations about parallels between the characters’ lives and those of the literary figures they followed so religiously. I found Bechdel’s narration focused too much on those elements as well as her criticisms and appreciations of various books. Though there’s always a subdued tone to the narration throughout the book, I found the intellectual elements in those later scenes seemed to get in the way of the more emotional story about a daughter pondering the mystery that was her father.
Initially, what impressed me the most about this story is the author’s complete openness about not only her life but her mother’s and late father’s lives. It can’t be easy to expose oneself to public scrutiny, but exposing someone else — especially when the revelations are in part scandalous in nature — takes real courage and conviction. But ultimately, it’s the sad story of Bruce Bechdel, living a life he felt he didn’t choose but ultimately had to follow, that’s the most compelling aspect of the book. At times, he’s something of a villain, and at others, he’s a victim of the repressed social order of his time. He’s both a puzzling oddity and impressive intellect, something of a Renaissance man lost in the mirage of the American Dream. 8/10