Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Beech Creek, Clinton County
Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist and the creator of the acclaimed, lesbian-themed Dykes To Watch Out For (1986).
Awards: MacArthur Fellowship, Publishers Weekly Best Comic Book, Mellon Residential Fellow for Arts and Practice
Alison Bechdel was born September 10, 1960, in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, and attended high school where both of her parents taught English literature. After college, she began cartooning the lesbian-centered comic strips Dykes to Watch Out For. They were later compiled into a series of books with a quarter of a million copies in print. She also wrote and drew Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), a graphic memoir that encompasses her coming out story along with chronicling the perplexing relationship she had her father in response to his mysterious life. In 2012, Bechdel published another graphic memoir exploring the relationship she had with her other parent titled, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012). She has drawn comics for Slate, McSweeney’s, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, and Granta. Her work is widely translated and anthologized.
On September 10, 1960, Alison Bechdel was born to Bruce and Helen Bechdel in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Less than ten miles away, Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, was her home for most of her childhood. Bechdel rejected stereotypical “girl” behavior by keeping her hair short and playing among boys. She also spent much of her time with her brothers, one older and one younger, helping her father, an antiques collector, by gathering antiques to restore their 4,000-square-foot, Gothic Revival mansion to its original 1880s form. Her father was a funeral home director, and he used another nearby house in town as the funeral home, which Bechdel and her brothers aptly, yet ironically, named “Fun Home.” Her mother was an actress and taught English literature at their local high school, just as her father did.
Bechdel began drawing at the age of three, and she still has the drawings to prove it. The evolution of her drawings can be found in The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For (1998). In this semi-autobiographical work, she states, “I spent the better part of my childhood holed up in makeshift offices that I would construct around the house, drawing under a high-intensity lamp, refining my technique on reams and reams of typing paper.”
Bechdel would draw figure after figure with no regard to the necessity of a background. Soon she came to a realization: all of the figures she had drawn were males. Growing up as a child in the 60s, she became aware that “boys, even when they were bad, were good. And when girls were bad...they were really bad.” In order to cope with this, Bechdel abandoned the female identity forced upon her; namely, she began carrying a pocket knife, cut her hair short, and began to spit occasionally. “I continued using the girls’ bathroom and checking the female box on questionnaires. But in my head I occupied my own private Switzerland, where I spent the remainder of my childhood in splendid neutrality.”
In an attempt to imitate boys, Bechdel began reading comics. “I grew up with MAD Magazine. That was a very big influence graphically, and that whole satiric sensibility.” Bechdel, during her most formative years, would also be heavily influenced by Charles Addams, famous for The Addams Family comic strips, and Edward Gorey, an illustrator also known for his dark subject matter.
Bechdel eventually attended the local high school where her parents taught. She states, “The pressure to conform was savage in my small, farm-country high school.” To go to school, she would do her hair, make-up, and wear earrings. She confesses that “after a long day of being a model teenage girl, I would come home and release my manic, pent-up energy through my fountain pen.” She later attended Simon’s Rock Early College for two years, where she was free from the strain of being conventional, able to once again be her “gender-neutral self.”
The lack of women in her drawings puzzled Bechdel because they were the subjects she was truly interested in. Her first attempts at drawing women were stiff and just looked like men. The more she became comfortable with her identity, through reading and attending the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) group meetings on campus, the more she wanted to tell her family. Trepidation and distance caused Bechdel to be unable to tell them in person, so she wrote a letter addressed to her mother. Several days later she received a phone call from her father. He was happy and accepted her; unfortunately, her mother did not and refused to speak to her. After a week, Bechdel received a phone call from her mother, where she revealed her husband’s affairs with young men. Bechdel had never felt so close to her father, as she later chronicled in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), a graphic memoir about her relationship with her father. Just a few days later, her father was hit by a Stroehmann’s Sunbeam Bread truck. He died instantly. After his funeral, Bechdel returned to school and graduated from Oberlin College in 1981 with a Bachelor’s degree.
After college, she moved to New York City. When her applications to graduate art programs were rejected, she sought jobs in the publishing industry and became a word processor for several years. She moved to Hadley, Massachusetts, for a year and then moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and became a production manager for the weekly Equal Time for four years. Somewhere in between, she discovered Howard Cruise’s Gay Comix. She explained in The Indelible Alison Bechdel, “That was a pivotal moment because I discovered all these gay and lesbian cartoonists who were writing about their own experiences. It made me realize I could do that too, and that’s when I started my strip.”
Her friend received a letter from Bechdel that had featured a doodle in the margin. At the behest of her friend, she submitted a drawing to Womanews where her friend interned. The comic strip garnered acclaim at Womanews, the monthly feminist newspaper, when it was published in 1983. From a drawing in the margin of a letter to a friend, to filling sketchbooks with drawings and captions, Dykes to Watch Out For was created. After a year doing the biweekly comic strips for Womanews, Dykes to Watch Out For was syndicated in 1985, and then Firebrand Books released a collection of her strips in 1986. Finally, she returned to New York City in 1990.
After having done over fifteen years of Dykes to Watch Out For, she still felt the weight of her father’s alternating praise and discouragement in her endeavors even though he had been dead for many years. She had tried to tell her story through prose in her early twenties, but to no avail. With the skills of an expert cartoonist, she decided to take up this task again. Little did she know that she would spend the next seven years sifting through haunting memories and clues surrounding her father’s sudden death. The result was Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), a narrative in comic strip form about Bechdel’s relationship with her father. In the graphic memoir, her rediscovered memories about him (namely, the perfectionism he would demonstrate when criticizing her) are interweaved with her own coming out story. Fun Home also explores Bechdel’s theories on her closeted bisexual father’s death, or possible suicide.
Several publications, including The New York Times, Amazon.com, The Times of London, New York magazine, hailed Fun Home as one of the best books of 2006 and Publishers Weekly ranked it as the best comic book of 2006. Chip Kidd, author of The Cheese Monkeys, had this to say about Fun Home: “Stupendous. Alison Bechdel’s mesmerizing feat of familial resurrection is a rare, prime example of why graphic novels have taken over the conversation about American literature. The details — visual and verbal, emotional and elusive — are devastatingly captured by an artist in total control of her craft.” In a video interview with Eva Sollberger, titled Stuck in Vermont, from December 2008, Alison Bechdel revealed that Fun Home will be made into a musical.
Bechdel has authored the comic strip “Vermont: Green Mountains” about the area where she lives, and the strip was also her contribution to Weiland & Wilsey’s State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (2009), a collection showcasing writers from all 50 states. Her Dykes to Watch Out For strip has been syndicated in fifty alternative newspapers, translated into multiple languages, and collected into a book series with a quarter of a million copies in print. Utne magazine has listed the strip as “one of the greatest hits of the twentieth century.” Bechdel said in an interview with the British Independent on Sunday:“The strip is about all kinds of things, not just gay and lesbian issues, although the world is seen through that lens. These events—births, deaths and everything in-between—happen to everyone.”
In 2012, Bechdel published her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. ...Magnificent...,” reads an Entertainment Weekly review of the book. “Whatever issues Bechdel has with her mother, one always has the sense that she likes her as much as she loves her. That affection — and the real sense one gets of her mother reading these pages, running her finger over the tenderly drawn panels of their history — gives this book an urgency and an intimacy... … Bechdel's triumph is not just that she's emerged from her tunnel, with weary but clear eyes, but that she's brought her mother with her.”
After a year touring the country to promote her book, however, Bechdel had to cancel appearances when her mother became ill. On Tuesday, May 14, 2013, Helen Fontana Bechdel succumbed to her illness and died peacefully in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. On Bechdel’s blog, she states that she is thankful for the months she got to spend with her mother prior to her passing. “[The time] was a tremendous gift.”
Alison Bechdel served as the guest editor of Best American Comics in 2011, and has drawn comics for Slate, McSweeney's, Entertainment Weekly, Granta, and The New York Times Book Review. She was the Mellon Residential Fellow for Arts and Practice at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center at the University of Chicago in 2012 and, while there, co-taught the course “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography” with Neubauer Family Assistant Professor Hillary Chute.
She has been a careful archivist of her own life and kept journals since she was ten. She tells Tom Spurgeon of Comics Reporter, “The one thing I do feel committed to is that over the years I feel like I've become a little more formally adventurous. I do have some desire to push the boundaries of what comics can do. So far for me it's been -- what has it been? -- telling complicated stories, but having them still be situated in the world of comics.”
“Every moment that we're living and having experiences,” she continues later. “We're bringing to bear all of the other experiences that we've had. This is what is exciting to me about graphic narrative, that you're able to do a layered complexity that I couldn't imagine doing with just writing.”
At the time of this writing, Bechdel lives in Bolton, Vermont with her partner, Holly Rae Taylor. After delving into the complex and heavy content of her latest graphic memoirs – pouring over journal entries, her parents’ letters, and other memorabilia – Bechdel says she is ready to work on something lighter and get back to humorous stuff for her next project. Her graphic memoir, Fun Home, was adapted into an off-Broadway musical by Tony Award nominees Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron and was performed at The Public Theater in 2013.
Only the second graphic novelist to receive the honor, Bechdel was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship, which provides her with a stipend of $625,000 over five years, according to ThinkProgress writer, Jessica Goldstein. Bechdel tells Goldstein that the cash will give her a lot of security that [she doesn't] have and that she'll use it to Pay off some debts, save for retirement - really boring stuff. She adds that the prize will foster her art by freeing her to take some risks, do something new - to really plunge into [her] work. It's an incredible gift, she says.
Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1986.
New, Improved! Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1990.
Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1993.
Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1997.
The Indelible Alison Bechdel: Confessions, Comix, and Miscellaneous Dykes to Watch Out For. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1998.
Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life-Forms to Watch Out For. New York City: Alyson Books 2003.
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
“Serial Monogamy,” in The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories. Ed. Margaret Reynolds. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. 357–367.
“Oppressed Minority Cartoonist,” in Juicy Mother. Ed. Jennifer Camper. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005. 26–27.
“Vermont: Green Mountains,” in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Eds. Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey. New York: Ecco, 2008. 461–468.
“100 Notable Books of the Year.” The New York TimesSunday Book Review, 3 Dec. 2006: 14.