How can a graphic novel be poignant? I mean, aren’t we reading “the funnies”? (as my grandfather would say about newspaper comic strips). In the United States, “comics” are often considered “low brow” or popular mass entertainment, whereas in trade publishing, the term “graphic novel” refers to material that would not be considered a novel if produced in another medium. It is also sometimes used to create a distinction between works created as stand-alone stories, in contrast to collections or compilations of a comic book series published in book form.
In Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, she tears out a strip from her rich and multi-layered literary life and invites us to peer in to the Victorian house where startling secrets were kept. Bechdel’s young-adult protagonist wrestles with potent truths about herself alongside dizzying family revelations and spins these painful findings in artful (sometimes hilarious) ways.
Much like John Barth’s Welcome to the Funhouse, Bechdel takes on excruciating themes for such a short work of writing. With “page-turning” plotting commonly associated with more traditional genres and subgenres of classic and contemporary storytelling, Bechdel’s Fun Home inscribes itself deeply into its readers.
I now understand why my family guest, Mikael Rudolph, could not put down Bechdel’s book until he was finished reading it. Before his visit, I thought graphic novels were “graphic” as in “graphic violence” or “graphic porn.” Not that these themes are wholly unrelated to Fun Home but Bechdel’s courageous storytelling, not the book’s images, is what give readers the biggest jolt.
This breakout book by Alison Bechdel takes its place alongside the unnerving, memorable, darkly funny family memoirs of Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr. It’s a father-daughter tale pitch-perfectly illustrated with Bechdel’s sweetly gothic drawings and—like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—a story exhilaratingly suited to the graphic memoir form.Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift…graphic…and redemptive.