The first thing to arrest your eye as you enter the Zimmerli exhibit, “Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel,” on view through December 30, is the ginormous board game for “A Story About Life.” As you wend your way around the tiles, you glean such bits as “careers in writing and accounting are not so dissimilar” (there’s an illustration of a well-loved wooden pencil) and that truth, compared to fiction, can be dull (a woman with a boyish haircut blurts “sex!”).
In the next move, the board offers a player the choice of two paths: “You go to a party, have fun, write a novella about someone at the party, it gets rejected, you drink too much, and then write a bestseller and collect $9,500,000”; or, “you marry a person at the party, divorce, and your children enter rehab.”
It’s classic Alison Bechdel. The MacArthur Fellowship Award-winning graphic memoirist combines writing, visual art, cutting humor, literary knowledge, and wisdom to get to the core issues, deftly using line to express her characters’ complex emotions. Since the 1980s she has built an ardent following, mining her intimate experiences to communicate something vitally human: the quest for love, acceptance, community, and social justice.
When Bechdel’s “Dykes To Watch Out For” (DTWOF) strip began running in alternative newspapers, it was anything but mainstream. Now the 58-year-old is a critically acclaimed pop-culture and literary phenomenon, with a New York Times bestseller and Tony Award-winning musical to her credit.
In the museum’s presentation of an episode from Bechdel’s pioneering comic strip “Essential Dykes to Watch Out For,” we see the self-archivist at her desk with piles of volumes such as “Brides of Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF),” “DTWOF Strike Back,” “Dawn of the DTWOF,” “DTWOF: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and — the penultimate sequel — “Perimenopausal DTWOF.”
With more than 150 objects, “Self-Confessed!” also features sections from the graphic memoirs “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” and “Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.” A model of the set for the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home” is on view, along with clips from the New York performances. The museum will hold a free public reception on Thursday, September 20, and Bechdel will speak at Rutgers on Wednesday, October 10, at Kirkpatrick Chapel.
“DTWOF,” about the lives of a group of lesbian friends, ran from 1983 to 2008 and was syndicated in more than 50 alternative papers around the country. In 2006 Bechdel published the graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” which explores her relationship with her father, her coming out, and his possible suicide. Fun home was the family nickname for their funeral business. A New York Times bestseller, “Fun Home” became the basis of the musical of the same name.
Bechdel followed up in 2012 with “Are You My Mother?: Comic Drama,” which explores her relationship with her mother, girlfriends, therapists, and her interest in psychoanalytic theory.
“The Amazon’s Bedside Companion: A Sapphisticated Alphabet” (1986) is, in Bechdel’s words, “a catalog of lesbians” that takes the format of a children’s alphabet book. “A is for Alice who liked to cook soup (‘The Joy of Lesbian Cooking’ is pictured on the table behind her), B is for Blanca who sat on the stoop, C is for Cleo who wouldn’t eat meat (she tends a huge block of tofu on the grill alongside the T-bone of her butchier companion), D is for Deirdre who worked on Wall Street (crossed legs propped on a desk, phone off the hook).”
“The bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) holds a long and proud place in world literature from Goethe to Philip Roth,” says Thomas Sokolowski, the Zimmerli’s director. “Alison Bechdel joins this coterie with her wry and poignant graphic novels. Conjoining her talents as a writer and an illustrator, she adroitly provides a guidebook for young people striving to find out just who they are. For this alone, she deserves our eternal gratitude.” Sokolowski, who celebrates his one-year anniversary at the Zimmerli next month — he was previously at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh — is psyched about the exhibit, his first big project. “I’ve been interested in her work for a while, and the English department here at Rutgers includes three faculty members whose scholarship area is the graphic novel. So many graphic novels are diaristic and about coming to terms with the self in dysfunctional families. When these authors speak about these feelings their readers are willing to open up when they read about someone like themselves.”
In addition to Bechdel’s work, the exhibition includes drawings, prints, and books by three additional graphic memoirists whose voices reflect experiences shared by many Americans today. Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do” (2017) documents the ongoing effects that immigration has on a family, even as its members assimilate to their new homes.
In “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir” (2012), cartoonist Ellen Forney recounts how she managed a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and her years-long struggle to find mental stability, while retaining her passion and creativity.
Iraq veteran Maximilian Uriarte’s “White Donkey: Terminal Lance” (2016), a graphic novel that evolved from the comic strip and website he started in 2010, satirizes daily life in the United States Marine Corps.
With the exception of these additional three artists, unique to the Zimmerli’s presentation, the exhibition originated at the Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Bechdel played an active role, producing original, large-scale illustrations on the walls — these have been transferred, in vinyl, to the walls of the Zimmerli.
“Bechdel’s books and comics have a broad following on campus and this exhibition provides an important opportunity for a campus-wide conversation about the arts in a variety of forms, the memoir as a device for storytelling, and LGBTQ lives,” says Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s curator of American art and director for academic programs who organized the Zimmerli’s presentation. “She is a brilliant cartoonist and storyteller, and this show explores her literary output from the perspective of the visual.”
Whether to call the works graphic novel or memoir is a fine line, Gustafson admits. “The truth is many sided,” she says. “It’s true in the larger sense, if not the details.” Bechdel herself refers to it as “compression of truth.”
The exhibition would probably have not have found a home at the Zimmerli in earlier decades, says Gustafson, but the time for it is right because the art world has come to embrace the graphic novel. “Rutgers has one of the most diverse student populations of any university in America, being representative of New Jersey,” Gustafson says. Also, the form ties in with the Zimmerli’s collection of 19th-century French political cartoons by Honore Daumier.
Presenting a graphic novel in a museum setting comes with its challenges. “It’s a funny inversion,” says Gustafson. “In the graphic novel the printed page is final, so we have reproductions of the printed page on the wall with the actual drawings in cases. Alison thinks of the drawings as preliminary, but to a curator, it’s the hand-drawn object that is more precious.”
Reading the pages on the wall holds appeal for those who have already read her works because they are organized by topics such as literary references or maps; and it holds the excitement of discovery for those who are new to Bechdel, spurring them to read more of the works. For hardcore Bechdel fans, there are early drawings, pages from her daily diary drawings, as well as large works in ink on Kraft paper about her life: at a computer wearing Crocs, in the grips of a vice, on waterskis, and always with a black cat somewhere in the scene. In the margin of one is a note: “Fix cat. Make it Siamese?”
“She has a very expressive line, representing emotion through body language and facial expression, and is able to layer thinking on top of verbal text and the passage of time,” says Gustafson. In “Are You My Mother,” she weaves together text from psychoanalysts, their personal lives, the writings of Virginia Woolf, and illustrations of what she perceives as her own tormented childhood.
In “One Enchanted Evening,” two women chat over tea about one’s failed romantic attempts. “What about the woman in your karate class you were so hot for?” (Bechdel has a black belt.) “She wasn’t intellectual enough. Besides she doesn’t sleep with other karate students.” “What about Naomi from the food coop?” “Are you crazy? I’m way too crushed out! I can’t even ask her where the bulgur is without hyperventilating.” In the cartoon’s coda: “Is Mo a hopelessly romantic idealist, trapped in the hard-nosed fast-paced whirlwind of modern lesbian life? Or is she just a drag? Stay tuned!”
Bechdel is the James Marsh Professor-At-Large at the University of Vermont. She lived in Minneapolis after graduation from Oberlin College in Ohio and tells how she got to Vermont in a cartoon from “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America” (2008): “In many ways I’m your typical Vermonter — chai-sipping, artisanal-cheese-eating, NPR-listening, Subaru-driving, left-wing-freak-show-who-came-from-somewhere-else homosexual.”
While in Minneapolis she received a letter from a complete stranger. “I loved your book. If you ever find yourself in Vermont, come visit my old farmhouse on an island in the middle of Lake Champlain.” Within three months Bechdel was living with the letter writer. (She subsequently left that relationship and, in 2005, married Holly Rae Taylor, an artist and compost maven.)
“I was confused, I’d fallen in love not with this person but with this place.” She describes what she calls her first erotic experience, at age 4, when her grandfather — a goat herder from the Austrian Alps — took her to see “The Sound of Music,” in which the Von Trapp family moves to Vermont and opens a tourist lodge in the rolling valley outside of Stowe.
Many may know of Alison Bechdel from the Bechdel test, used to evaluate representation of women in media using the following criteria: the movie has to have at least two women in it who converse with each other about something besides a man. The concept originated in 1985 in “Dykes to Watch Out For” but Bechdel prefers to call it the Bechdel-Wallace test because it was articulated by her friend, Liz Wallace. Bechdel also points out that it was Virginia Woolf who first looked at literature that way.
Bechdel grew up in rural Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, situated between the Allegheny Plateau and the Appalachians. The family lived in an ornate Victorian home that her father obsessively decorated, as recounted in “Fun Home.” Her father was an English teacher and undertaker, and her mother an actress, costume designer, poet, and teacher. Her father shared his love of literature with her, and her mother helped Alison with her journaling.
As a child, Bechdel conflated the careers of cartoonist and psychoanalyst, thanks to people-on-the-couch cartoons she saw in the New Yorker. She left high school a year early to attend Simons Rock College, then transferred to Oberlin, where she studied studio art and art history. It was at Oberlin that she came out as a lesbian, and in the “Fun Home” play her character sings “I’m changing my major to Joan.”
Bechdel’s cartooning process begins in Adobe Illustrator. She plans, writes, and lays out her story on the computer before moving on to the actual physical drawing. While drawing, she relies on reference photos and props to sketch from, often photographing herself posing as her family members. She refines each image with a succession of pencil drawings, sometimes scanning and editing them digitally. Bechdel paints a separate ink wash layer for shading, adding depth, realism, and complexity to the images, and breaks from the standard grid of her pages when the story or image calls for it.
Bechdel is at work on a new memoir, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength,” about her interests in physical fitness. In an interview in the Guardian, Bechdel admits that, had “Fun Home” not taken off, her financial situation was such that she would have had to find other work — the newspapers in which she was syndicated were consolidating and folding.
Instead, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography and winner of an Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, among other accolades, “Fun Home” has been published in 25 languages.
Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, Zimmerli Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through December 30. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. First Tuesday of each month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Public reception Thursday, September 20, 4:30 to 7 p.m. Free.
Presentation by Bechdel, Kirkpatrick Chapel, 81 Somerset Street, New Brunswick. Wednesday, October 10, 7 p.m. Registration required. Free. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerli.rutgers.edu.