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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Alison Bechdel's masterful FUN HOME.Fun Home -- The very best graphic novels ever created -- a category Alison Bechdel's Fun Home fits comfortably, assuredly into -- are gripping, immersive and literate. As I experienced Bechdel's Fun Home, I found myself comparing its masterful blending of words and images to some of the most accomplished comics I've read in my lifetime.

Bechdel's arresting visual ingenuity recalled Will Eisner's most skillful techniques in some places; her visual wit on par with Eddie Campbell. Her fearless attempt to recreate the hidden, broken life of her family is worthy of the graphic memoirs of Robert Crumb. Her narrative ambition and storytelling confidence put me in mind, above all others, of the very best works of Alan Moore, from From Hell to Watchmen to The Birth Caul and Lost Girls.

Not that Bechdel's work in any way imitates or even emulates these peers of hers. Rather, the powerful way she exploits the potential of the comics medium to tell her life story (and that of her father, and how they converged, and how they diverged) pushes both autobiography and comics forward in the same ways some of the medium's most accomplished creators have done before her. Bechdel has raised the bar for anyone who puts pen to paper with the intent of explaining and exploring themselves and the world they came out of, and up in.

I'm embarrassed to say I did not know what a gifted cartoonist Bechdel is; her ink line is loose, easy and confident, a bold and pleasing style somewhere between the meticulous Rick Geary and the breezy Lynn Johnston. Crucially, she is a master at depicting both interior and exterior environments, lending an enormously authentic air to critical scenes throughout Fun Home. When we're in the baroque family home of her childhood, we're really there amid the decorative treasures her father obsessively collected. When we're gazing out over the Hudson at the Bicentennial, it really is 1976 and we're somehow in New York City. There's no unconvincing background or shaky sense of place at any point in Bechdel's story.

According to an interview provided by the publisher (Houghton Mifflin), Bechdel extensively researched her life story using old letters and diaries (actually used in the artwork thanks to her canny, organic use of the potentials of Photoshop), and the author's efforts at presenting her story as honestly and forthrightly as possible lend a paradoxical air of sceptical verisimilitude. She admits throughout that these are her memories and perceptions, and goes to great lengths to show that her memory -- all human memory -- is an unreliable tool at best. Stories are worth creating, telling and remembering, and as Alan Moore has said, I agree that in some way all fictions are true; but just as great art can come out of possibly unreliable memory, great (or at least comforting) truth can be lost in the hazy mists of receding time. It's this convergence of time, memory, recollection and the acknowledgement of loss that makes Fun Home the truly great graphic novel that it is.

Bechdel's Fun Home recreates the nonlinearity of human consciousness on the page, piecing together the sections of her tapestry to show where her father's life (and in particular his secret homosexuality) intersected with her own coming of age and coming out of the closet. I thought of Alan Moore's Big Numbers when I considered the way she was able to draw parallels and find intersections that might have remained forever hidden even from herself, had she not created Fun Home. Her father's love of literature, likely something of an escape from the oppressive era in which he found himself a gay man, was passed on to his daughter, who came of age in a time, thankfully, when it was somewhat more acceptable to be what you are born as, whatever that may be. A time in which the revelation of secrets might actually not cause you to consider staging your own death out of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, or possibly, ultimately, sheer exhaustion.

Fun Home is a memoir, a mystery, and a masterpiece. It is, by far, one of the very best graphic novels yet created, and a work that will linger long after you finish it. Bechdel's life story is uniquely hers and universally all of ours, and it is worthy of all the attention, analysis and praise its readers can shower on it. Most of all, it is a great novel that cries out to be read and demands to be talked about. Because if people could have talked about the issues contained herein at the time her father was alive, he might still be alive today to read his daughter's story, and tell us what he, himself, thinks of it. I'd like to know what he would have to say, but I never will.



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