Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist, author, and, it must be said, total hero. Over the course of her career, she’s dedicated herself to asking the wider culture for more dynamic representations of women in books, comics, and film, and to providing them herself. In 1987 she started publishing her landmark comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran in newspapers nationwide for nearly 20 years—chances are, you’ve heard of the “Bechdel Test,” which gauges the visibility and realism of female characters in movies and is based on a DTWOF strip she wrote over 30 years ago. In the past decade, she’s also written two graphic memoirs about her relationships with her parents: Fun Home, published in 2006, and Are You My Mother? (2012).
Alison said during a talk she gave in Melbourne last month, “Telling the truth has always been a compulsion to me.” You can tell when you look at her work, whether she’s telling the truth about her queer friends’ lives in the 1980s and ’90s or about the family secrets that dominated her childhood. She graciously spoke to us about how, when she realized she couldn’t find honest representations of herself and people like her in the media, she decided to create them herself.
BRODIE: What inspired you to become a cartoonist?
ALISON BECHDEL: We’re all cartoonists at the beginning. Like, all children draw. But most people stop telling stories with pictures [eventually]. So for me, it’s not really why I became a cartoonist; it’s why did I not ever stop?
Did you tell people, when you were very young, that you wanted to become a professional cartoonist?
Yeah, I did, until I was 13 or 14 and people started discouraging me by saying, “Oh, you know, there aren’t very many openings for cartoonists. There are the comic strips in the newspapers, and none of those people ever die, so you won’t be likely to get a job.”
And it’s like, “Why don’t you study business? Just in case!”
You went to college at Oberlin—what did you study there?
I majored in art, but I was thinking I would go into graphic design or book design—something practical like that.
Is there something now, that, looking back, you wish you’d studied or learned more about earlier in your life?
Huh. [Super-long pause] No. Stuff has worked out pretty well for me in terms of knowing what I need to know, when I need to know it.
What were you doing, life-wise, when you started drawing Dykes to Watch Out For?
I was just out of college, and I had given up on the idea of being a cartoonist. I started drawing [DTWOF] just for fun. I wasn’t thinking about them as any kind of serious, professional effort; I was drawing cartoons about lesbians for me and my friends because I didn’t see images of people like us out in the world, and I felt like I needed to see a reflection of myself.
How did it turn into a published comic strip?
I was showing it to my friends; at the time I was also volunteering at a feminist newspaper. Someone said, “Why don’t you put some of these in the newspaper?” So I did, and then I got a wider readership. It was still just for fun; I wasn’t getting paid for it. But once I got it in the newspaper, I had to keep doing the strip every month, and that was really great practice. Finally, after two years of doing that, I started submitting the cartoons to other newspapers and charging money for it and ; I started to syndicate myself.
Did you ever have someone that you asked for advice before you worked it all out?
Not at the very beginning. I’ve always been kind of a loner; I always think I have to figure everything out on my own. That’s something I would tell someone starting out: Ask people for advice.
I don’t know if I’m a great person to give advice to young people on how to get started, because things have changed so much! Like, there aren’t print newspapers the way there used to be when I was in my 20s; it’s a very different landscape. It’s much more internet-based now, and there are many more opportunities I know nothing about. But the principles of getting your work out there and not being afraid to give it away in the beginning—all of that is still true.
Fun Home what brought your work to a wider audience after years of your working on a niche comic strip. What was that first bit of mainstream success like?
Well, it’s not like it happened all of a sudden…although it did happen kind of abruptly. I knew that [Fun Home] was reviewed very well, and [that] it sold a lot of copies. But it took a while for what that meant to sink in, and I’m still adjusting to it. I’m used to being the underdog, you know? When I was doing Dykes to Watch Out For, I was the outsider, fighting for inclusion. And then, one day, they just opened the door and…included me! And it was disorienting, like, Oh! Now what?
It’s been amazing, and one especially great thing about it, for me, has been that my Dykes to Watch Out For comics have gotten kind of retroactively crossed-over. They’re taken seriously now in a way that they weren’t when I was doing them. That makes me really happy.
I’ve heard that you’re kind of shy. How do you reconcile that with telling really personal stories in your books? Do they give you a way of expressing yourself that you have trouble with otherwise?
For some reason, I have this exhibitionistic streak, despite being a pretty shy person. My autobiographical work is the way I connect with other people. I don’t necessarily do it personally, but through my work, I’m willing to make myself vulnerable.
In researching your memoirs about your parents, you learned a lot about who they were. What did writing those books teach you about yourself?
Those books were projects of self-exploration, definitely. Sitting down and looking over one’s history, from a perspective of decades, is often really productive. I don’t think any of us have that kind of perspective, at the time, on our own lives.
Sometimes, when I’m writing personal pieces for Rookie, I have to overcome a nagging voice in my head that’s saying, Oh, who’d want to read about me? Which is something I think a lot of writers, especially female ones, have to come to terms with—saying, “My story matters, and it’s as important as anyone else’s.” Did you have to get over that voice in order to tell your stories?
Yes. I have to get over that every morning when I get out of bed! It’s tough, but part of how I manage that problem is, I always try to write about something else in addition to myself. My book about my father was also a book about different writers that my father loved; the book about my mother was also a book about psychoanalysis and how therapy helps us. Personally, if I’m reading someone’s memoir, I’m not interested in just the story of their life. Even if it’s the most riveting story imaginable, I also want something larger in that story.
When you’re working on a book, what does your day look like?
I try really hard to get up and be at my desk as soon as I can every day. Even though I’m a cartoonist, I’m not always drawing; I do a lot of thinking and writing before I put my drawings down, and I write best in the morning. So, an ideal day for me is to write in the morning, like, from eight until one, and then to convert [that work] to drawing. I can draw fine later in the day, and even at night, but my writing brain doesn’t stay sharp.
I’ve read that you work straight into [the image editing program] Adobe Illustrator. Did you have to take a course to learn how to use that kind of software?
I haven’t taken a course, because I feel like I would be overwhelmed by all the millions of possibilities, so I very carefully just learn the stuff that I think will help me. In fact, earlier, when you asked if there was anything I wish I had learned earlier in my career, I was gonna say, “All of this computer stuff!” But Illustrator and Photoshop didn’t exist then.
I was just fascinated by Harriet’s notebook—her impulse to write, her adventures. Literally spying on people, going up in that dumbwaiter, observing life, and then writing it down. It just seemed like the whole point of life, you know? Here was a kid who wrote about something real.
I think, as a young lesbian, I was also picking up on this heroine as a lesbian character. But, you know, she was a child—there’s no way to really say that Harriet is a lesbian. As I got older, I was curious about [the book's author] Louise Fitzhugh, and I eventually found out that, yes, [Fitzhugh] was gay. It was something about [Harriet]…she was not interested in boys, she was not interested in dresses, she had zero interest in the things the girls in the other books I was reading were interested in. I think that’s what I was picking up on. Harriet was all about her work.
Over the years, the Bechdel Test, which is based on one of your comics, has become the standard for measuring how women are represented in film. [The "test" measures gender equality in movies according to three criteria: (1) Whether there are at least two women in it, (2) whether those women ever talk to each other, and (3) if their conversation is ever about something other than a man.] I’m wondering if that’s a lot of pressure, or if you’re just proud to play such an important role that conversation.
It’s been confusing to me, because it wasn’t like I sat down and said, “Here! I now decree that this is the Bechdel Test!” It somehow just evolved through this network of feminist film students. But, yeah, I feel really proud—what a great legacy! It does feel connected to my work, [which] has been all about creating women characters who are fully human, three-dimensional protagonists. So I like that.
My friend who introduced me to your work told me how affecting it was for him to see your character in Fun Home, who, as a college student, sought out gay literature wherever she (you!) could find it. He said it reflected his coming-out experience of trying to find any character experiencing something even slightly similar to what he was going through. Do you ever hear from people that one of your works has been that text—the book they’ve searched for that actually relates to their lives?
People have told me that, and it’s so amazing. You know, I could just die now and feel like I’ve done something useful. It’s funny—when I think back about that chapter, about my own searches—I was reading really depressing things like The Well of Loneliness [the 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall]. It makes me happy to think that I’ve provided updated alternatives to some of that stuff. It’s a huge honor, and a deep delight.
Finally, what have some of the highlights of your career been?
Huh! Gosh…I guess one amazing thing was when Time magazine named Fun Home their number-one book of the year. That was pretty huge—not just “graphic book,” but book, of the year. That’s the pinnacle of my career to date. ♦