By Alison Bechdel
The London Graphic Novel Network takes its second interlude from the Sandman, reviewing the acclaimed Alison Bechdel memoir, Fun Home, where things get all serious… Why is it ‘acclaimed’, really? What does it mean for something to be a ‘real’ graphic novel? Is literary culture still considered the bestower of value and worth? And what do first-time pizza, toppled apple-carts and thrown-out babies have to do with it?
When I mentioned to one of my colleagues at the Idea Store (hi Maja!) that we were going to do Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home she said to me: “Oh finally! A real graphic novel!”
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Well. Ok – yeah. I know what it means. But it’s kinda interesting to unpack it. Especially because I reckon that there’s an argument to be made that actually the opposite is true…
But yeah: first I guess we should set the scene so we all know what we’re talking about: Fun Home is a graphic novel / comic book (please delete one according to your own personal preferences) from Alison Bechdel who – for better or worse is probably most well known for being the originator of the Bechdel Test (which I guess (?) can be summed as: “it is super weird and bad that movies are just men talking to each other all the time with women only used as background decoration” except she puts it in a way that’s like way better: read it here).
(Or – hmmm – is that a rubbish way of summing it up? Anyone else wanna try any better?).
But yeah – all the way back in 1987 she started a comic series called “Dykes to Watch Out For” (which I’ve gotta say is a hard title to bring up in polite company if no one else there has heard of it. I mean – everyone time I wanna mention it I’ve always gotta preface it with a “Ok – I know this sounds kinda bad but this is what her comic was called….”Like – literally every time).
And well yeah – if you haven’t read it – you really should (although I guess I should admit that I’ve only ever read one collected edition The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For – but it was really good and at some point I’m definitely going to get around to reading some more…. Yes yes).
So yeah Dykes to Watch Out For ran for like a really long time (in fact all the way to 2008 which – wow – is kind an insane amount of time to be doing just one thing but whatever) but even tho it was first class comic-booking I guess Bechdel got itchy feet and got tired of the lack of the respect (I mean – hardcore comic nerds are always talking about how amazing Love and Rockets is because it’s telling the same story over such a large amount of time using the same characters – but they never bring up the fact that DTWOF does the exact the same thing – also: well – same with Judge Dredd: but yeah – maybe I shouldn’t get started on this because I might never stop… and mainly because yeah “Oh finally! A real graphic novel!” which I should hopefully be coming to in a bit…..).
In fact now – because yeah: Fun Home. A proper, grown-up, serious graphic novel that doesn’t mess around with all the big stuff like THEMES and and ALLUSIONS and SERIOUS WORKS OF LITERATURE and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH. Because yeah as far as I can see it – it was a desperate bid for respectability that totally paid off.
I mean – oh my god – there’s a whole section on the Fun Home wikipedia page called “Reviews and awards” that – damn it all – I’m just gonna copy and paste here as one big lump of text so that you get a sense with what we’re dealing with (you don’t have to even properly read it – just skim your eyes across and you’ll get the idea):
Fun Home was positively reviewed in many publications. The Times of London described Fun Home as “a profound and important book;” Salon.com called it “a beautiful, assured piece of work;” and The New York Times ran two separate reviews and a feature on the memoir. In one New York Times review, Sean Wilsey called Fun Home “a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions” and “a comic book for lovers of words”. Jill Soloway, writing in the Los Angeles Times, praised the work overall but commented that Bechdel’s reference-heavy prose is at times “a little opaque”. Similarly, a reviewer in The Tyee felt that “the narrator’s insistence on linking her story to those of various Greek myths, American novels and classic plays” was “forced” and “heavy-handed”. By contrast, the Seattle Times’ reviewer wrote positively of the book’s use of literary reference, calling it “staggeringly literate”. The Village Voice said that Fun Home “shows how powerfully—and economically—the medium can portray autobiographical narrative. With two-part visual and verbal narration that isn’t simply synchronous, comics presents a distinctive narrative idiom in which a wealth of information may be expressed in a highly condensed fashion.” Alison Bechdel at a London signing for Fun Home Several publications listed Fun Home as one of the best books of 2006, including The New York Times, Amazon.com, The Times of London, New York magazine and Publishers Weekly, which ranked it as the best comic book of 2006. Salon.com named Fun Home the best nonfiction debut of 2006, admitting that they were fudging the definition of “debut” and saying, “Fun Home shimmers with regret, compassion, annoyance, frustration, pity and love—usually all at the same time and never without a pervasive, deeply literary irony about the near-impossible task of staying true to yourself, and to the people who made you who you are.” Entertainment Weekly called it the best nonfiction book of the year, and Time named Fun Home the best book of 2006, describing it as “the unlikeliest literary success of 2006” and “a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.” Fun Home was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, in the memoir/autobiography category. In 2007, Fun Home won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book, the Stonewall Book Award for non-fiction, the Publishing Triangle-Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award, and the Lambda Literary Award in the “Lesbian Memoir and Biography” category. Fun Home was nominated for the 2007 Eisner Awards in two categories, Best Reality-Based Work and Best Graphic Album, and Bechdel was nominated as Best Writer/Artist. Fun Home won the Eisner for Best Reality-Based Work. In 2008, Entertainment Weekly placed Fun Home at #68 in its list of “New Classics” (defined as “the 100 best books from 1983 to 2008”). The Guardian included Fun Home in its series “1000 novels everyone must read”, noting its “beautifully rendered” details. In 2009, Fun Home was listed as one of the best books of the previous decade by The Times of London, Entertainment Weekly and Salon.com, and as one of the best comic books of the decade by The Onion’s A.V. Club. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times literary blog “Jacket Copy” named Fun Home as one of “20 classic works of gay literature”.
Because yeah – what this all adds up to is: “Oh finally! A real graphic novel!”
Hang on to your hats for the next bit because I’m gonna try and express something that’s just a little bit more complicated than just a “I hate it – it’s rubbish” or a “I love it – it’s brilliant!” kinda thing – ok? Because yeah – I totally get it. Fun Home is a good book / comic / graphic novel / whatever. I mean – I remember when I first read it: I picked it up with no idea of what to expect – I hadn’t heard of Alison Bechdel at this point and didn’t know that this was a critically acclaimed book (apart from the New York Review of Books (? I think that’s right) blurb on the cover) and yeah – it was good. It’s well made. Emotionally affecting blah blah etc.
But – damnit – it’s a comic that’s been designed to appeal to those people that don’t really like comics and think that the medium is a little beneath them – and it does it by dressing itself up in loads and loads and loads of allusions and whatever to all the “great” works of literature and serious books with no pictures (omg – there’s even a whole section on the wikipedia page called allusions that goes through all the books that it references. No. Don’t worry. I’m not going to cut and paste that as well. But yes. It’s a lot).
What is my problem with this? Well – imagine you went to go and see a film that kept cutting and pasting bits from novels up on the screen. Imagine you were listening to a song where the singer kept stopping to read bits from Shakespeare of whatever. Imagine seeing a play that was mostly just someone reading out from Ulysses. I mean – yeah sure – maybe there is a way that each of these things could be good. But (for me anyway) – I’d rather have something that was more itself. A film that was happy to just be a film. A song a song. A play – well – I hate plays: but you get my point right?
So yeah – Fun Home is “a graphic novel” but that’s only because it’s really really down on the “novel” part. Like – a good alternative title would have been “I read books!” But – because of that: it’s not really that much use as – well – a graphic novel and for those more interested in the form and all the cool fun things it can do (and you should know that it pains me to come out with such an urg! type of line): you’d be better off trying her earlier work. It’s way more fun. And cool. And sexy. And alive. Fun Home itself – well (here comes the irony): it’s not really all that much fun.
I think you’re overthinking the Bechdel Test, simply put it is the idea that a film should have at the minimum two female characters and they should, at the minimum, at least once in the film have a conversation with each other that has nothing to do with men. Being a fan of sci-fi movies as I am most of the superhero movies fail this, not least by making sure the two female characters, if there are that many, never talk to one another. In a climate where the big two comic companies have it all plotted out for the next decade what movies they are going to make and none of those have a female lead, it is perhaps relevant. (For telly fans, there was a recent article online about how the rebooted Doctor Who fares with the Bechdel test which is worth a read.)
Anyway, I didn’t realise that ‘Fun Home’ was chock-full of allusions as I’ve read it a number of times and enjoyed it thoroughly without knowing any of that. I was a big fan of ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ and sad that she dropped it all in mid-storyline to work on something that would actually make her money. Both ‘Fun Home’ and it’s sequel, ‘Are You My Mother?’ are supposedly about Bechdel’s parents, her father in ‘FH’ and you can guess what ‘AYmM?’ is about, but really they are more autobiographies, both parents are distant and strange and as her father’s life especially seems to be an unsolved mystery (was he secretely gay and committed suicide, was he straight and had a terrible accident. Was it both or neither?) she ends up talking a lot about herself, her obsessive-compulsive childhood, her adolescence and coming out in a time when it was still considered not okay. I found ‘FH’ at times bleak but shot through with a certain bleak humour. She questions the nature of autobiography/biography by asking how much of what she thinks is true *is*, how much is her projecting her own opinions on to someone who can’t answer back (which she has to deal with again in ‘AYmM?’). In the burgeoning field of graphic memoires (I seem to have read a lot of those recently, I can recommend ‘Dotter of Her father’s Eyes’ by Mary and Bryan Talbot, ‘Lighter Than my Shadow’ by Katie Green and ‘Stitches’ by David Small) it’s a question that perhaps needs to be addressed, ‘This is my truth, draw me yours’?
‘Well – imagine you went to go and see a film that kept cutting and pasting bits from novels up on the screen. Imagine you were listening to a song where the singer kept stopping to read bits from Shakespeare of whatever. Imagine seeing a play that was mostly just someone reading out from Ulysses. I mean – yeah sure – maybe there is a way that each of these things could be good. But (for me anyway) – I’d rather have something that was more itself. A film that was happy to just be a film. A song a song. A play – well – I hate plays: but you get my point right?’
I’m not sure I do. I think it depends on context. Did you hate the bit at the end of ‘Withnail and I’ where he launches into the Hamlet soliloquy at the park? And a play that is mostly just someone reading out from Ulysses might be crap, but it might also be someone doing a monologue pretending to be Joyce, or Bloom, or Stephen Dedalus or a character that is using the events in that book to deal with some crisis in their own. DJ Shadow made a great album entirely out of ‘quoting’ other records. Like I said above, I’m not well read enough to notice all these references in ‘Fun Home’ and don’t feel I’ve missed out any.
I’m going to have to disagree with you Loz, on one count, which is that the ‘mystery’ of Fun Home is: “was he secretely gay and committed suicide, was he straight and had a terrible accident. Was it both or neither?”. I think the mystery is in the suicide part, but the sexuality stuff you don’t need much gaydar for: he confesses his liaisons to his daughter in the car scene then tries to get her into a gay bar, and unless he was playing some elaborate and cruel hoax, which we’ve no in-story evidence for, then: yeah, the point of the book to me is: “he was at least closeted bi, and so what does that then tell us about his suicide, or even whether it was suicide?”.
I agree with you though on the literary references. Joel, I don’t think Fun Home is either a patchwork, er, work, made up of references or out of parts of one medium fused on to / into another medium. What was cool was that there was still graphical elements, the texts appeared as images with doodles and notes, handwriting you had to decipher, visual references (for example the Ulysses giant U title and S opening letter). Neither do I think the book is dressed up, as you put it, in allusions. I mean yes of course there are many allusions and blink and you miss it books (can you blink and miss it in comics? that’s mroe moving images right. well, unless you burn each panel after reading, huh, what about that?).
Anyway, but the main device through which the story is told is through Alison Bechdel’s reading of books. There’s a book (or myth, or essay) almost to each chapter. So it’s a storytelling device. You were to me more on the point when you renamed Fun Home, ‘I read books’, to which, actual LOL, as I’d been planning on writing that Fun Home could have been named ‘Life’s kinda like books when you think about it!’
She also gives a reason for why she sees her life like that, all the stuff about on the one hand needing something to distance her from grief, or at the very least, an expression of a distance she couldn’t help feel, and at the same time a way of connecting to a distant father, through a shared love of reading.
HOWEVER, that’s not to say I don’t think that it entirely works, this life-through-books storytelling device, or the psychologisation stuff either. Of which yeah there are problems. Which I’ll come to in a bit.
For now, this is to say I did like it. It was as Joel said “a good book / comic / graphic novel / whatever… It’s well made. Emotionally affecting blah blah etc.” I was pretty moved at the emotional climax (though to be fair, the emotional punch comes from a bit in Ulysses, though to be even fairer, the cool thing was in fact the po-mo recontextualising, it’s not just a sample but the fact that she was reading that part when she was, and is reflecting on that memory now, that it brings to the fore the themes of reading your life through literature, themes of suicide, kindness or cruelty to suicidees, her Ulyssean quest to read dry Ulysses which suddenly has shed on it this unexpected little nugget or real light / life, of connection to her / people’s everyday experience, and hmmm well I’ve gone on long enough), but I dunno. I want to re-read it so I can get my thoughts straight on how it works, what it didn’t do for me.
Until then, I think some of the blurbese that you quoted Joel starts getting at my problems with the book: this kinda kitschy rarefication of literature maybe? Maybe that’s too far. Anyway, the killer blurb: “staggeringly literate”. What does that lie even think it means? As in, you staggered about at seeing how literate a book was, not a person, a book? “Gah.. Ulysses… Wilde… omg Anais Nin” (clutches heart, steadies on wall).
And “a comic book for lovers of words”. Ah but this one I think leads to something else I wanted to ask you: in what ways do you think it’s all novel, no graphic? As in, do you agree with this review quote? Coz I thought there was lots of cool ‘graphic’ stuff, from the actual drawing itself – really liked the way young Alison dangles kiddishly next to her dad when they watch the sunset – up to the formal level, like the car dialogue ‘coming out’ scene where it’s all similar black repeated panels to express the awkward silence. And then the two panel closing page was cool too, like a filmic cutting of two shots with voiceover, but better than such a thing would have been in a film, because here you get to compare the two simultaneously, not sequentially. (subtitle : how comics work!)
Or is me saying that just because I’m like someone who say doesn’t really eat that much Italian food and who’s saying to some connoisseurs, “This pizza thing was great. It was round! Round food, my stars. And it had tomatoes and garlic – imagine. And what’s this green bitty stuff called, oh-reg-oh-no? Oh yes I say!”
Sorry this was longer than I expected. That’s what he said. (Queer Theory reversal, mate)
I started writing this before Mazin sent out his thing and so (sorry Mazin) – I’m just gonna plough ahead and probably basically ignore all the things he said because I wanna start with Loz (brace yourself dude)………….
Hi Loz! How’s it going? Ok – so: your email kinda set lots of things spinning off in my mind. Want to try and get some of it down on paper (or whatever the email version of “on paper” is? On keys?) but it might just come out as a massive unformed splurge – so don’t say you weren’t warned.
So yeah – what I think a lot of what this turns on is kinda down to what “about” means (and I can practically see everyone roll their eyes at that – but no matter no matter).
Loz you said that the Bechdel Test “simply put it is the idea that a film should have at the minimum two female characters and they should, at the minimum, at least once in the film have a conversation with each other that has nothing to do with men.” And – yes yes – that is exactly what the Bechdel Test in it’s original form was/is/whatever. (Although to be totally and unnecessarily fernickety: in it’s original form I guess it was just a one off joke comic poking fun/going “oh my god” at the total male dominance of mainstream movie-making: but god – it’s never a good idea to try and dissect a joke (Like a wise person once said: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”). But yeah – point being: I think we can safely assume that Alison Bechdel had no idea that this little comic strip that she did all the way back in – wow – 1985 was going to end up getting it’s own wikipedia page/own special seat at the table of cultural discourse – by which I mean – that nowadays you can say “Yeah – but it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel Test and most people will probably know what you’re talking about…. As opposed to when I say “Yes – but it doesn’t really pass the Joel Test” and all I get is a load of blank looks: but that’s a whole different thing I guess).
But then what The Bechdel Test is now is more than just one comic strip (I mean – gosh – I wonder how many people who use the phrase have even read that Dykes To Watch Out For episode (episode?) and even know that’s where it came from? Not that it matters any I know) and – I’d argue – more than just Loz’s “simply put” bare bones description of it. Like to use a totally incitatory example (I’m sorry – it’s the one that popped into my mind and at this point I’ve given up trying to argue with it) it makes sense and isn’t wrong to say that a Swastika is “simply put an equilateral cross, with its four legs bent at 90 degrees.” But well – ha – it’s also a little more complicated than that because due to that funny guy with the little moustache etc nowadays a Swastika is also about – well – being a massive racist (brief nod here to the fact that yes it used to be a Hindu symbol and it comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” (meaning “good” or “auspicious”) combined with “asti” (meaning “being”) along with the diminutive suffix “ka.” so that “Swastika” itself literally means “well-being” – except well (sorry) – not anymore).
The point = things are more than just what they are. And an equilateral cross, with its four legs bent at 90 degrees can be the symbol for a whole toxic ideology. Right?
In the same way (I’d argue) The Bechdel Test is more than just a test to see how many women characters are speaking to each other about what: it’s also a barometer that can be used just to test how massively sexist and lopsided our movies are (*holds it up in the air* yep – my one is still showing: “ARE YOU FRIGGING KIDDING ME?”) /// Side-note: Was watching something the other day (I forget what) and it doing the whole “Father/Son Issues” thing (or like it’s so nicely put in the a Lost episode title: “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”) and I was like: why is this such a common trope? Why not Father/Daughter Issues? Or Mother/Son Issues? Or Mother/Daughter Issues? And then realised oh yeah – it’s because Hollywood doesn’t care about women aka it really sucks at passing the Bechdel Test /// Actual real example: I watched a film called Hesher the other day. And yeah – it seems all smart and well-made and stuff. But – wow – all the female characters (well – I counted two: so – I guess that should be “both of the female characters”) are just there to provide support and epiphanies to the main male characters and while I could go yeah blah blah it has a superficial understanding of token stand-ins where the women are less characters and more just cardboard cut-outs that the film doesn’t really seem to care about all that much apart from how they relate to the main male protagonists (or whatever) blah blah – it’s just way easier to say: it’s just another film that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test and you can kinda get what I mean – right?
Moving on to Fun Home (which ok yeah I still haven’t reread yet but I’ve already read it like twice before so whatever) and using this whole “about” thing to pick at some of my issues with it. Well yeah: ok – so the story of the comic is Father/Daughter Issues – suicide and sexuality (what Mazin said). But beyond that (and the reason why so many people seemed to love it so much) is that it’s about books and using books to understand your life and all that (again: what Mazin said). But – ha! – there’s also another step beyond that – that should hopefully illuminate why (despite it being a really good well made emotionally affecting comic) it does kinda stick in my caw just a bit (and this bit you are all welcome to disagree with – opinions just being opinions and everything) but at it’s core (almost seemingly from the point of it’s conception) Fun Home is about the respectability and cultural domination of the idea of literature as the bestower of value and worth (hey – check me out with the clever word sentences!). Or (in other words): “Oh finally! A real graphic novel!”
Really want to write a whole lot more on this (have really only just gotten started) but will leave there it for now (typing is hard!).
Yes, Fun Home is the kind of graphic novel that really appeals to me. A
“real” graphic novel, though? Yes – but there are many rooms in both houses,
First, it’s a while since I read it, but I totally did not get the feeling
the literary allusions were pretentious. I thought they were seamlessly
blended into the story – a case well made by Mazin and Loz below. I think
the literary thing has been over-emphasised by the book’s reviewers wanting
to prove they could check all the references. Joel, I think your issue is
really with Dotter – mine is, anyway. THIS is where the literary
fellow-travellers are really taking over what should be kept as a subversive
form. Loz, I’m surprised you cite Dotter together with FH !
I think one reviewer said something really interesting in commenting on the
“two-part visual and verbal narration that isn’t simply synchronous” that
(for me) the best graphic novels achieve. I think that Mazin’s observation
about the blending of the literary stuff with the story – “the texts
appeared as images with doodles and notes, handwriting you had to decipher,
visual references” is a good example of this narration. Incidentally, for
me, the master here is Joe Sacco in his edgy reportage on Bosnia and
Palestine (a pale imitation of which is offered by Guy de l’Isle in
But FH’s subversiveness is what sets it apart from Dotter. Maybe some of
this is contextual, but I think the father/daughter memoir aspect Joel
identifies really is significant. Maybe it is a shame they do not get on
better but that is perhaps the point. Sure, FH is ironic. It truly is a sad
story. A few days ago I was discussing the privileging of the father- son
relationship with someone and did a Google search on “Fathers and football”
– all 5 drop-down search prompts suggested something about Fathers, SONS and
football. Kind of in this context I find what Bechdel and her father share,
or do not share, about their sexual identities is compelling. Plus, not
that it counts but it does, the house looks like the one in Psycho – more
sexual identity questions in Scooby Doo Gothic. Great!
This is fascinating: “Fun Home is about the respectability and cultural domination of the idea of literature as the bestower of value and worth.”
Eagerly awaiting more on this, but for now q amused Joel recoils at the idea given that he’s a librarian!
But srsly. I think this is less about the book itself or the author’s intentions, and more about its reception by critics (and those blurbs). The latter can be stupid I agree, but it’s unfair to slight Fun Home as a result. I think Joel is way off in ascribing cynical motives to the author, for example. Very much doubt that a work this raw and personal is done for tha dollaz.
Soooo: the literary allusions. It’s telling that Bechdel explains explicitly why they are used:
“I employ these allusions not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison”
I say “telling” because each allusion Bechdel uses is ALSO explicitly explained. Fun Home isn’t like rounds of Radio 4’s Quote Unquote where you are quizzed on your literary knowledge. It’s not a game of spot the reference, because Bechdel always does the work for you and gives you all the answers. Which is why some ppl can read it and not even be fazed by its uber-literate stylo. And her attitude is the opposite of haughty. Instead she describes the habit almost as a tic – and the reasons behind it are actually (when you read the above) q sad.
I almost get the sense that the references are involuntary – an abnormal, almost pathological way to engage with the world. I like to draw a link with the obsessive compulsive disorder Bechdel develops and then overcomes when she’s 10. There is a sense in Fun Home that literature becomes about asserting control of a reality that is in fact ~beyond~ your control. Developing links and patterns to your experiences is a way to digest and understand them, and there is a comfort and satisfaction to that very similar to counting things and coming to an even number.
That for me is the central insight in the book, and why I think it’s so brilliant.
Ok – right – where was I? Oh yeah: “Fun Home is about the respectability and cultural domination of the idea of literature as the bestower of value and worth.” (Lolz).
I realise at this point that maybe I shouldn’t have taken my foot off the pedal and just kept going with my rantness. Because I’m finding it strange trying to get back to where I was before – like searching around for in the dark for a small piece of thread I dropped somewhere on the floor…
But ok – using Ilia’s cheeky little “but for now q amused Joel recoils at the idea given that he’s a librarian!” comment as my way in: well – I guess that’s the point isn’t it? Libraries / Books / Literature (it’s all the same thing right?) have an image that’s propagated that is all like: serious serious / intellectual betterment / you might not like it – but it’s good for you / eat your greens! etc (you all know what I mean right?) aka – yep – “the bestower of value and worth.” (if I use this phrase again I’ll just call it TBOVAW for short). Like – I guess this kinda stuff is most evident when you compare the way people talk about liking books as compared to liking films or comics or whatever. Yes yes – that whole “high-art” / “low-art” thingie. The stuff at the bottom is trashy and disposable and not really worth thinking about in that much detail while – well – the stuff on the top shelf (top shelf? Is that what I mean?) is TBOVAW and will make your life better and all of that etc.
And yes – I totally get that there are books or whatever that are out there that are really well made and written and designed to do lots of really smart things (I’m tempted to use Infinite Jest here as an example – seeing how I read it this year and it’s like supposed to really super-good and one of the pinnacles of literature or whatever: and I just kinda found it a little bit (well – a lot) boring and stuffy: but then maybe that’s just a good way to get distracted).
My point (there’s a point?) is that stuff we should venerate and (if you have to) label with that big Capital A – “Art” – is the stuff that’s less about making yourself seem smart (because let’s face it – you’re really not that smart) and more about entertaining you in a really really good/smart/whatever way. But instead we have our priorities all flipped around the wrong way. Case in point: The Ballad of Halo Jones is way better than Fun Home (sorry Alison Bechdel – and thanks to Luena (who I saw briefly at Idea Store Bow yesterday) for pointing it out): but Fun Home is the one that gets all the kudos and the social respect (well – ok – maybe not all: and well – it’s way more complicated seeing how they came out more than 20 years apart but the point still roughly stands: futuristic societies, robot dogs, dolphins = it’s not exactly screaming “literary’ is it? But hell – memoir, suicide, sexuality = now we’re talking!).
I wanted to tie Non-Stop into this at some point – so: last week me and Mazin watched Non-Stop. Which – as you all should know – is the film where Liam Neeson goes mental on a plane. While we were watching about two thirds of the way through – it I turned to Mazin and asked him what he thought and he said it was “silly.” Which – wow – kinda sums up in just one word a lot of what I’m trying to say. I mean – because yeah ok – Non-Stop isn’t the best made or the most sophisticated piece of entertainment I’ve ever seen but it’s still pretty good (if it helps any – I’d give it a 7 out of 10). And I think it misses a whole lot of how it’s made and a lot of the interesting stuff it does by just saying it’s “silly” (it’s very possible that I’m reading way more into that word than Mazin maybe intended – but what the hell right?).
But then that’s how we’re kinda trained throughout our lives to understand and digest the stuff around us. The stuff that’s low-brow and robot dogs and Liam Neeson going mental on a plane – well – that’s silly stuff and not worth the time to think about – and let’s just dismiss and leave it to the plebs. But hell – a serious comic about proper issues and books and everything? Well (should we say it again?): “Oh finally! A real graphic novel!”
To be clear tho – my issues (and it should be pretty clear at this point that I’ve got issues) isn’t with the books themselves (and damn – I should say again that yeah – mostly – I pretty much like Fun Home: it’s a good comic): it’s way more with well – the critics or to use the phrase that I like to use: “the cultural gatekeepers.” Growing up – and discovering this whole world of films and books and comics and music and everything else – the people who wrote about all this stuff was often the only word you had to go on (this was before the internet: a simpler time when everyone rode dinosaurs to work and The X-Files was the best television show ever) so yeah – it’s fair to say that I ended up putting a lot of trust into the stuff that people would say. The only problem is – that as I got older I very slowly started to realise that the vast majority of the people out there whose job it is is to digest and explain and adjudicate between “whats good” and “whats not” really don’t even have the start of the slightest clue and yeah – ok – “who cares about critics?” and whatever: but these are the people who are helping us to ascribe meaning and value to the things that we consume. It’s how we all “know” that “Breaking Bad” is the best thing eva and “Lost” is a waste of time – right? (Wrong). So yeah – if I may go so far: they’re making the world a worst place by virtue of the fact that the middlebrow stuff is proclaimed as the greatness while the greatness is cast aside for not being serious enough. And this (scary thought) is most probably not just something happening now – but something that has probably going on forever….. (but then – well – I guess it’s hard to tell).
Case in point: I totally agree with James’ point (which he manages to make way more succicently than my seemingly endless babble) that my issue is way more with dross like Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (urgh!) than with the coolness of Alison Bechdel (because yeah – once more – I do really like Fun Home! Just maybe not so much as what it stands for).
And while I’m agreeing with James (and maybe just to move a little bit out of the rant and more into – I dunno – actually talking about the book?): I like his quote from a cultural gate-keeper than actually maybe knows what they’re talking about – a lot of the best stuff in Fun Home is (yes) where the “two-part visual and verbal narration that isn’t simply synchronous” – or as I’d phrase it: the words and pictures do different stuff at the same time. The one bit that really sticks with me is the “stuck in the mud for good this time.” (You all know the bit I mean right?)
Because – well – yeah: that’s the good stuff. words and pictures coming together to create a meaning that none of them could convey themselves. That’s the “real graphic novel” stuff. And summing up – I guess my only contention would be that you can do that kinda stuff with anything. The only limits are the ones that we let others oppose upon ourselves. Everything is a real graphic novel maybe? I mean – apart from all the rubbish ones.
90% of all criticism is rubbish, (http://youtu.be/CHtjl8V483A), a middle-class parlour game where the working-class are generally only allowed in to be mocked (“Oh, so you don’t like the new Wembley Stadium where you’ve gone to watch football all your life? Well; let’s get an architectural critic in to explain to you why you are wrong.”). And there is a reason why so many ‘novelists’ are writing articles for the Guardian about how they can’t afford their writing studios in the heart of Bloomsbury any more while genre writers continue writing in Costa or their lunchbreaks at their day jobs because they never got invited on the Today programme in the first place. One day I really must get my ‘Margaret Atwood is my favourite science-fiction author’ t-shirt made, and send her a picture just to annoy her.
I don’t disagree with you but I don’t think you’re exactly comparing like with like, Halo Jones was work for hire and unfinished work for hire at that, even something like ‘Lost Girls’ got more discussion over indecent images of children and critics trying to tell Alan Moore he was making art, not pornography.
‘But then that’s how we’re kinda trained throughout our lives to understand and digest the stuff around us. The stuff that’s low-brow and robot dogs and Liam Neeson going mental on a plane – well – that’s silly stuff and not worth the time to think about – and let’s just dismiss and leave it to the plebs.’
Really? That’s maybe what we are told to do but does anyone ever talk about what they said on Newsnight Review any more? The internet has opened it up so any person with an opinion can shout into the wind about what they think and there is some good stuff out there, even ‘down’ to the lowest level of the latest DC-Marvel mega-crossover. Someone at Mindless Ones is trying to do the whole 300 issues of Cerebus including all the main references Dave Sim mentioned throughout it’s production.
It’s annoying and lazy that we’re only just starting to get past the age of the ‘comics aren’t just for children any more’ era but I suspect it’s because the type of people that say that are seeing their market share erode, and about time too. So Joel, own your silly movie watching with pride and hold your head up high!
This looks like the core of Joel’s point:
“the stuff that’s less about making yourself seem smart (because let’s face it – you’re really not that smart) and more about entertaining you in a really really good/smart/whatever way”
So from conversations with Joel here and elsewhere, I know that he (correct me if I’m wrong) privileges the tactile entertainment features of films and comics and is interested in the technical ways these are achieved – his example of the best bit from Fun Home is a case in point.
I on the other hand get a lot of my kicks from character and themes. Basically, I do think books can make you smarter. Case in point: my appreciation of Fun Home comes down to an idea it conveys about how we use stories to comfort ourselves. This is something I’ve felt but Bechdel articulated in a way that made sense to me for the first time. Fun Home exemplifies the notion that one of the purposes of art is to explain ourselves to ourselves.
I don’t think it’s an either/or choice between those two approaches, btw. Art is a multi-purpose tool and good criticism should engage with both ideas and craft (and arguably w/r/t comics, commentary is pretty light on the latter). The danger with an anti-greens policy is that in flipping cultural biases over completely you lock yourself away from awesome things because they appear ‘elitist’ or ‘pretentious’ (c.f. Loz’s class war rhetoric). Canons should be open to challenge and revision, but a Pavlovian rejection of them can be as close-minded as all of those “finally a real graphic novel” people we rightly disparage.
I have the core of a point? Or my point has a core? Or both? Or neither? Or all of the above?
I am very much of a fan of the idea of Art being a swiss-army knife of awesomeness that can be used to open bottles of champagne / take out that stone from your boot / stab anyone who disagrees with you right in the eye.
Just to slightly correct Ilia’s description of myself as being “anti-greens” (if that is indeed the brush I’m being tarred with?) I would say actually the thing I’m trying to overturn is less the apples and more the applecart (to which I can hear you all say: “huh?”). I mean – there’s lots of greens / apples that are “serious” “elitist” or “pretentious” that can – yes – bestow your life with meaning and value and all the rest of it. My only “but” is that those things should be worked out on a case-by-case basis and that nothing should ever be accepted as being somehow beyond the critical pale (eg there was a (rubbish) Atlantic article I read a while ago that starts like this:
“The obsession with production, coupled with a surprising shoddiness in composition, permeates the entire album. There is nothing beautiful… an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent.”
–The New York Times, June 18, 1967
“Music may never be the same again.”
–The Washington Post, June 18, 1967
These quotes are from two reviews of the same album that ran on the same day in two of the most venerable newspapers in the United States, almost exactly 46 years ago. The album in question was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Suffice it to say, only one of these reviews was right.
To which I say – huh? What? How can only one review be “right”? Does it not make sense to say that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might be a little bit over-cooked and over-rated? Well – no. Not really. For some people (lots of people) – certain albums and books and films and whatever are just “good” and nothing anyone can say will ever change that… Well: that’s the thing I’m against. So – (to make sense of that earlier metaphor) not the apples themselves but the applecart holding it that say “These be good apples.” To which I say – “Huh? Who says? I say booooo! And let’s turn the whole thing over!”
And the crowd goes wild!
Hmm lots of points to talk about.
This thread is more highbrow than the book, so actually I’m not sure what to talk about.
I was annoyed by The Booklist quote ‘One of the best graphic novels ever’. To me that just sounds like someone who read the first (good) graphic novel, is blown away, but is totally unaware of all the other stuff out there. Someone to ignore.
Actually the thing I remembered most (which is originally one little speech bubble) is the bit where Alison is struggling to read a book she dislikes (Ulysses) to get points for an independent project, when all the reading she is doing on the side would itself have counted, ” ‘contemporary and historical perspectives on homosexuality’ would have had quite a legitimate ring”.
This is the epipheny Gretchen Rubin (Happiness Project) also had when she saw the dense textbooks her friend had to read for her course. ‘but this is what I would read in my spare time anyway’ said the friend and inspired Gretchen to quit law and become a writer (she had already researched and written a novel in her free time for fun).
Then I also think it’s weird the way Alison and her parents write so many letters. Nice weird, but odd. When I was at uni and abroad I phoned my parents (maybe their internet was down).
I’m also impressed at how hard working the father is. All that DIY, gardening, dogwood-napping. What an amazing amount he seems to have gotten done. It seems like the kids got a good DIY education. The fact they had no actual parenting was, I think, a separate problem.
If the father is so emotionally broken (unable to have any loving relationship with his children or, it seemed, to see them as people) you might think that would come from his childhood. Yet the fraction that we see of it, his grandmother, shows her as a loving affectionate parent. Is the idea that his ‘lost life’, living the wrong life with someone he didn’t love (assuming he was gay and not bi) what messed him up??? (actually I’m voting for childhood, we never saw his relationship with his Dad).
I also liked the line (regarding the beer buying court summons) ‘the real accusation dared not speak it’s name’. Very funny. Also the line about Mr Bechdels awesome capacity for cognitive dissonance. 🙂 (p119)
I think I can respect the idea of using literary allusions as a distancing method. Much easier to do difficult things at one remove.
Hmm, I don’t actually have a whole lot to say, and I read the whole book again yesterday.
Going back over the thread:
Loz said that the Bechdel Test “… is the idea that a film should have at the minimum two female characters and they should, at the minimum, at least once in the film have a conversation with each other that has nothing to do with men.”
Joel also answered this, but I want to have a go too.
The Bechdel Test does not necessarily say this SHOULD be the case. It just says if this IS the case. You wouldn’t expect a war movie or the Shawshank redemption to pass or any movie that SHOULD feature an all male cast.
In fact the Bechdel test is a lot like BMI. It MIGHT mean you are horribly obese (sexist), it usually does but you might also be really ripped. And if that is the case, it’s pretty obvious. Therefore, the cases that are not obese/sexist are obvious and the rest need it pointing out to them. (BMI should be swapped for just measuring your waist, not sure what the film assessment equivalent would be).
Here’s a nice reference to the Bechdel test http://skin-horse.com/comic/todays-comic-352/ (Nick is a helicopter. Joel can you include the comic in the review?)
Also re ‘Real graphic novel’ Dykes to watch out for is a better contender as it predates the internet and ran for 30 years, that gives it loads of ‘real’ness.
But I got this in before the deadline.
Sandman Season of mists here I come (actually, like Alison I already read this for fun when I first got all my Sandman books back).
P.S. Nice line about the Swiss-Army-Knife art.
P.P.S. One day I really must get my ‘Margaret Atwood is my favourite science-fiction author’ t-shirt made, and send her a picture just to annoy her. 🙂
It’s great that this thread has prompted me to reread FH – just finished now. It really is a good one.
Rereading it leads me to think it is powerful less for treating with a father-daughter relationship but more for its subversiveness in flipping this relationship around. The ground which the father and daughter share about their respective same – sex preferences is more clearly mapped out than I remember, especially towards the end of the book. They get past the bit where they cross-identify with each other (dressing in front of the mirror) and actually end up talking to each other. It seems to me now it is not quite such a sad story after all, except for this not happening earlier.
But it is not just an affecting story. It looks like a case of an artwork which checks some elitist boxes actually being good – that is why the clever stuff blends in with the story. I loved Loz’s “hairdryer” rant about middle-class parlour games, Mazin’s pizza analogy and Joel doing a car-chase applecart smash-by but I think Ilia is right about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. On Joel’s case-by-case basis this one passes.
It is obviously the literariness or ” literariness” that is getting up people’s noses and I think there is a general cultural shift going on here which Christine touches on. Some of Bechdel’s recollections go back a long way – the 1976 Bicentennial of the USA’s nationhood features in the story, for example. Ok, so I was writing letters to my parents then and they were writing to me. We were not living/being educated in the same country but letter writing was generally a lot more common than now. Moreover, in the pre-internet, email, sms, facebook/social network app, streaming and video download age etc etc it was not unusual for a book-based and self-consciously “literary” expression to creep into one of the only – incredibly – means of communication available – eg. the Fitzgeraldesque expressions in Bechdel’s father’s letter to her mother. They were just templates – and signifiers of sensibility. So, in an account of an emotionally distant family of education users and providers it is easy to see how these templates assume such a significance in the story.