Bechdel At Uvm: Wisdom And Whimsey

Alison Bechdel painting.


by Elayne Clift

She’s a black belt in karate, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, an award-winning cartoonist and writer, Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate, and what one critic called an “intellectual populist.” She is also an astute observer of the human condition who reveals an abundance of emotional intelligence, both personal and political, in her work. To top it off, she has a great sense of humor.

All that makes her exhibition, “Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel,” on view at Burlington’s Fleming Museum, a must-see before it closes on May 20.

Bechdel, who grew up in a family of literature, art, culture and secrets — her father was a closeted gay man who likely committed suicide and her mother, an amateur actress and critic, felt repressed — said, “To some extent, I see my work as an attempt to rebel against them and to express myself outside the world of literature and fine arts.” She began drawing cartoons as a child and never stopped. “When I was young, cartoons were viewed as low-brow and not respectable,” she explained. “But now comic arts are recognized as a literary form and as art. It’s amazing to have a show at the Fleming Museum.”

Her career spans several decades. Many people know her work as a graphic memoirist because of her pioneering comic strip about a group of lesbian friends, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008 and was syndicated in over 50 alternative papers. She is also known for her books “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” (2006) and “Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama” (2012), all of which figure prominently in the exhibition.
“Fun Home,” a New York Times bestseller and the basis for a Tony-award winning musical, explores Bechdel’s relationship with her father, her coming out, and her father’s possible suicide. “Are You My Mother” follows her relationship with her mother, girlfriends and therapists and shares her exploration of psychoanalytic theory. Both books are multi-layered, complex and use non-linear storytelling. They are among the primary bodies of work presented in-depth in an exhibition that explores Bechdel’s work as a writer, an artist and an archivist of the self, “someone who constantly mines and shares her own experiences as a way to communicate something vitally human: the quest for love, acceptance, community and social justice,” as museum curators Andrea Rosen and Margaret Tamulonis put it.

Bechdel’s two books are given ample space in the exhibition along with “Dykes to Watch Out For,” first published in New York City’s “WomaNews” in 1983. The first “Dykes” cartoon, which led to a multi-panel comic strip, featured “Marianne, dissatisfied with the breakfast brew…” She is labeled “plate no. 27,” as if part of a series, which it later became. Then there is “Twyla” who “is appalled,” and “Hepzibah,” who “alarms her hostess.” In 1986, Firebrand Books published its first compilation of “Dykes to Watch Out For” comics, which became one of its biggest sellers.

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