The class is reading a new graphic novel every week now, and this was the first week I had too much material to cover in the allotted time. Not a bad problem to have, and far better than having too little material, but still a slight disappointment. Fortunately, since the students are now seasoned veterans we had the luxury of skipping the once-obligatory discussions on how to read comics, otherwise we wouldn't have covered half of what I wanted to say about Alison Bechdel's work.
Not that Fun Home doesn't reward sustained attention to its art, which tends to get a bad rap from comics fans. (Apparently Ng Suat Tong agrees.) Bechdel's art is subtle and it's focused on telling her story, and neither quality caters to a comics community that currently expects formalist experiments in page design or primitivist exercises in drawing for drawing's sake. Certainly the book's literary aspirations can be overwhelming, even overbearing (has anyone ever really needed to use the word "humectant"?), but they don't negate Bechdel's command of her images.
The only other time I taught Fun Home it came at the end of a class on twentieth-century American literature and we spent a day reading the art, tracing its correspondences and contradictions with the text, its intertextual allusions, its historical markers, and its quiet commentaries on the main action. My favorite example is still the copy of Time magazine somebody is reading on page 181, a post-Watergate cover featuring a head shot of Gerald Ford and the fatuous caption "The Healing Begins." With admirable economy, the cover links the false resolution offered by Ford's pardon of Nixon to Bruce Bechdel's own narrow and equally unearned escape from the law--and it's wedged into the corner of a panel that shows Bruce already eyeing another man while his exhausted wife looks on. There's nothing visually remarkable about that cover but it's the perfectly chosen detail, and its silent relation to the rest of the panel and the rest of the graphic novel is an expert use of the visual narrative track--part of Bechdel's mastery of the nuts and bolts of comics.
We didn't get to talk about that panel this time, or the Wind in the Willows map that Bechdel finds so fascinating. (As yet another comic that bridges the gap between the symbolic and the real, that one probably interests me more than any of my students). That left us more time to mull over the multilayered literary allusions and Bechdel's ambivalent, evolving attitude towards literary criticism (always relevant to my students!); more time for the ethical dilemmas raised by her exhumation of her family's secrets; more time for the stereotypes that Bruce and Alison both appear to endorse and that I cannot in good conscience let any class on Fun Home go by without addressing.
If we didn't address them, I'd worry that it would be too easy for some students to come away from Fun Home believing that all gay men go cruising for underaged boys or that all feminists are lesbians. The former is actually fairly easy to deal with since plenty of evidence in Fun Home, notably Alison's own experience, challenges the idea that gays are recruited and not born. (And since this class already had experience looking at Art Spiegelman's depiction of his father's equally stereotypical, equally real flaws.) But the latter... sometimes I wish Bechdel hadn't included that line she overhears at a college party, where another student says "Feminism is the theory. Lesbianism is the practice." I've already heard enough "I'm not a feminist, but..." comments in the classroom--almost always from female students, invariably followed by some utterly uncontroversial feminist statement--to know that many college students already have some pretty serious misconceptions about what feminism is. I have no desire to throw another log on that fire.
Not that Bechdel sets out to do that, by any means--the line is a great illustration of the second-wave feminism that was au courant when Bechdel was in college, and of the kind of dogmatic pronouncement that still is and always will be all the rage among college students. (Try bringing that up delicately in a college classroom.) It's a good opportunity to talk about the intellectual climate of Bechdel's coming out, but it's ironic that Bechdel's lack of commentary makes such a discussion necessary. Because it isn't often that Fun Home withholds comment.
It's a work that explains itself too well, unpacking its neatly arranged metaphors with such precision that there's nothing left for the reader to do except go along for the ride. Now there's a sloppy metaphor Bechdel would never use--going along for the ride while somebody's unpacking? Unless the ride and the unpacking were separated by at least ten pages about Jean Genet, and followed by a scene in which her father actually did unpack his neatly packed suitcase in the middle of a family road trip, all of it tied up with a recreated photograph and a neat parallel to The Maids.
Bechdel's self-explication would seem to leave little for a class to do, but the metaphors are so exact and layered with such tender care that simply tracing them can fill an hour or two if you're not careful. And a productive hour at that--the dual Joyce and Homer analogies in the final chapter justify the whole project as Bechdel demolishes her teacher's tired New Critical exercise in tracing allusions while erecting a new intertextual framework that's at least twice as ambitious as anything her professors would attempt. And those analogies lead up to the reversals of the final pages, exactly like the reversals of the opening pages but now with a novel's emotional weight behind them. Bechdel might identify her metaphors for us, but that's just the tip of the iceberg compared to understanding how they work and what they tell us about her and her father.
From a distance Fun Home may look like yet another realistic autobiographical comic, distinguished only by its naked literary ambitions. Up close it's one of the most subtly, meticulously constructed comics of the recent boom in graphic novels. So subtle that you have to work to follow Bechdel even as she explains her best tricks.