Graphic artist talks representation in comics at Zimmerli

During the fall exhibit of “Self-Confessed! The Inappropriate Comics of Alison Bechdel," the Zimmerli Art Museum coordinated an evening with acclaimed graphic novelist, advocate and featured artist Alison Bechdel. Thomas Sokolowski, director of Zimmerli, welcomed Bechdel on Wednesday Oct. 10 as well as interviewer and Rutgers alumnus Hillary Chute, who also introduced Bechdel at her Writers House reading in 2008. Sokolowski expressed his recognized importance of the evening and how Bechdel’s work and the bildungsroman of her graphic novels displayed how young people find their way. 

Bechdel and Chute clearly revealed a sense of friendship as the interview went on. Their comfort level spiked, creating an intimacy with everyone in the room, laughing and bonding over their joint stories and experiences in relation to Bechdel’s work. When asked about the title of her show, how inappropriate and intimate topics lived in her comics, Bechdel addressed the famous start to her career: “Dykes to Watch Out For.” It was taboo to be gay at the time, and so she found herself drawing domestic yet unfamiliar scenes, such as women on toilets, and upon the publishing of her graphic novels it was inappropriate to write about family or to reveal family secrets. Bechdel said, “It felt like part of my mission to take away the stigma of being queer. But it was inappropriate, and I reveled in that.” 

Starting with Bechdel’s childhood, the chapel was exposed to her compulsion to keep tabs and enlightened by charming stories of a young Bechdel hand-copying her work and selling it to family members, as well as her fascination with the words, the images and drawings on her family’s textbooks. 

“Dykes to Watch Out For," a comic strip that got its start in 1983, was hand-lettered. Chute projected images of pages from “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” and “Are You My Mother?” that show hands drawing or handwriting, calling to attention the repetition of this theme in Bechdel’s work. “The thing about comics is everything comes through the hand of the cartoonist,” Bechdel said. “In theory I was recreating things I already created or drawn, those little drawings in my diary. So it’s this weird double inscribing of myself that, I don’t know, is part of this compulsion to keep track of myself.”

As the evening continued, Bechdel became more reflective and personal about her work and her relationship to her father, while also charmingly managing to make her audience laugh. “I guess I like that constant reminder that someone is making this story. It’s coming out of my head through my body and hand onto the page. It’s very intimate, you know, almost like a bodily fluid you’re transmitting these things with," Bechdel said. Chute was equally charming, revealing the Bechdel fan within herself, and was able to discuss and gush about Bechdel’s work from the perspective of a friend and a reader.

“Gay Comix” made a cameo in the discussion of the underground new-wave gay comics of Bechdel’s era, to which she inspired and was also inspired by, as seen in an issue dedicated to her. When later discussing “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” and her father, Bechdel told listeners that drawing her father felt like touching him, as though she was “conjuring (her) father up in a physical way." These personal moments were contrasted with light and playful praise of the Grammy-nominated musical production of “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," which ran on Broadway from April 2015 to September 2016. 

Bechdel contemplated the role and place of the graphic novel in a museum. Admitting that her work was meant to be small at the bottom of a newspaper, she found it hard to imagine an interesting exhibit curated simply of tiny pages on the wall. She was pleased with how the University of Vermont and how Zimmerli worked to create large-scale and interactive, engaging pieces throughout the show.

When asked about her comment that “Dykes to Watch Out For” felt documentary-esque or autobiographical, Bechdel expressed what felt to be the heart of her work. Bechdel said she sort of felt like she had a mission. 

“I didn’t see images of women who looked like me and my friends in the world. So, it felt like somehow politically urgent that I create these images myself,” Bechdel said. For her, it was something empowering to see those images as a validation of her existence.

“I wanted to connect with people ... that’s how I get out of my head," she said.

As the interview was followed by audience questions, there rang a sense of connection through the crowd, one that Bechdel’s work had strived to create. 

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