Illustrated angst
Graphic novel explores a fractured American family

by Joe Foster

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin 2006.

I’m not really sure what exactly it is about the graphic novel form that lends itself to brutally honest and intensely retrospective powerful autobiography and scathing socio-political commentary. Maus, Persepolis, Ghost World, Fun Home, and so many others courageously blast away the niceties that other writers seem to take for granted. Maybe it has more to do with the typical artist and the typical audience, rather than the medium itself. The young and the angry create and seek these works of art, and we all know how painfully honest an angry teen can be.

This medium has an amazing capacity to express. A single detail in a single picture can take the place of pages of description. There’s one picture in Fun Home that shows the author on the phone, the phone cord clenched in her fist. With little or no back story you can glance at this image and know that the phone call is a difficult and stressful one. With the appropriate history, this image can be as telling as a slap in the chops.

The graphic novel genre can also be a safe haven for bad writers that can draw well. Too often while wading through the selection, you come across empty characters and slack-jawed plotting cleverly camouflaged by really, really cool artwork. It is here that many graphic novels have ruined the prospect of wide-ranging acceptance for those few, rare gems in which the flawless marriage of poetic prose and emotive artwork creates a work of beauty and truth.

One of those gems is Fun Home, in which Alison Bechdel tells the story of her adolescence and the last years her father was alive. He spent his days restoring an old mansion to surpass its original splendor, creating a façade that closely mirrored the one he created for his own life. He was a merciless slave driver, and Alison was predictably uninterested in feeding his visible passion. He worked as an English teacher and in his mother’s funeral home as the embalmer. His work served to distance him from the world. His invisible passion lived in darkness and shame behind the façade of the happily married family man. He had numerous affairs over the years, usually with younger men that he loved passionately.

Alison, over the course of the book, grew from an awkward diary-and-sketchbook-toting young malcontent to a journal-and-sketchbook-toting college malcontent. She was somewhat socially inept, due to an inability to decipher her own identity. During the self-discovery years that are college, Alison discovered that she was gay as well, but before she knew the truth of her father’s hidden life. We witness her exploration into her own identity and the new social class in which she suddenly finds herself. Her self discoveries lead to the discovery of others, and she falls in love at about the same time that her father is killed, under suspiciously suicidal-looking circumstances.

Spending their days working and playing in their grandmother’s funeral parlor, “The Fun Home,” Alison and her brothers are bonded with cynicism and a dark-humored view on life that would be impossible to duplicate. Just before their father’s funeral, Alison and her younger brother “greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins.” The whole thing, every circumstance surrounding his death, was so absurd that they just could not control themselves. Who embalms the embalmer? Tragicomic indeed.

With the well-documented dearth of honesty in the autobiographical world recently, it’s great to see a work that is so obviously true and honest. There is no aggrandizement of self or circumstance. Such stories need no embellishment, and the way this one is told is as wry and deprecating as only a funeral home kid could create. •

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