So last night’s Alison Bechdel reading was way cool. After going to so many poetry readings (and admittedly having a somewhat biased attitude against graphic novels before Bechdel’s book), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a graphic novel reading. What, I thought, are they going to put the panels up on a projection screen, and she’ll read along to them? Well, yes. That’s exactly what happened.

Bechdel was introduced by some Rutgers Ph.D. blah-blah-blah who works for the Village Voice or something. I’m sure she’s perfectly nice and respectable and talented, but her intro was way too long – I wanted to see Bechdel, not some Rutgers alumnus muckety-muck.

Anyway, Bechdel took the podium and started the reading by giving a sort of introductory lecture on her initial fascination with comics and drawing, and how that translated into this career she has now. She talked about the strong connection she felt to the work of Charles Addams (creator of the Addams Family), both because her house resembled the Addams’ house, with very ornate and complicated decor, and also because the truth in Addams’ cartoons didn’t quite match up to how it appeared – and Bechdel felt the same could be said about her own home life. She even showed, at some point, how she wanted to use a panel of Addams’ in her book – but instead of just inserting the original Addams panel, she painstakingly recreated it by hand.

After the introduction, Bechdel read the first chapter of Fun Home. Something about the meeting of Bechdel’s voice and her art on the screen was mesmerizing: the audience was absolutely silent for the entire reading of Chapter 1. The reading managed to give the novel a whole new dimension, and I was totally entranced in the story all over again. I’d forgotten how carefully (and how artfully) Bechdel had managed to weave the narrative of her own life with the narrative of famous literature – the first chapter of Fun Home focuses on the familiar story of Icarus and Daedalus, where her father is both Daedalus (so focused on his own passion that he is unaffected by the suffering of others) and minotaur (ferocious and unpredictable).

After the reading from the book, Bechdel showed some slides (and a brief move) demonstrating the technical aspect of her creative process: the actual steps to drawing and shading a panel, creating the novel, etc.

Bechdel was charming, self-deprecating, and candid. It was an amazing experience to hear her last night. I’m glad I got over that whole “comics are for nerds” phobia I had, because this book was truly awesome.

Rick Rottman, over at BentCorner, has blogged before about the idea of feminists reacting to events in the world of comics (When Fangirls Attack is a website compiling articles on gender politics in comics), which leads me to wonder: how well balanced is gender in the comic industry? How are women represented? The old stereotype, of course, is that consumers and readers of comics are nerdy, lonely adolescent boys who can’t get laid and so they play D&D, read comics, and use the women depicted in the comics as fuel for their fantasies. I haven’t ever read or heard much about women being into comics, women creating them, etc. And having seen only a small amount of the artwork involved in what I considered standard comic fare, the sex appeal of women was definitely played up.

Of course, I’ve never delved too deeply into any of these subjects because – I’m totally game to admit this – I was a genre snob. I totally believed that good literature simply couldn’t exist in the comic package, and I was perfectly content to dismiss the entire genre on the basis of my unresearched, uneducated opinions.

So maybe it’s fitting that it was a lesbian (who appears to be a feminist) taking liberties with famous literature that first destroyed my perceptions of what comics are and can be. And the mainstream press was all over this one too: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Time – the list of outlets praising Bechdel’s novel goes on and on. Maybe it’s because Bechdel’s pairing of the comic form with her memoir content is easily accessible to most people: there’s no suspension of disbelief required, no need to understand fantasy or alternate realities or superheroes. Does this make the genre easier to handle? To interact with? Maybe it’s the familiar literature that she braids into her own life: Greek mythology, Fitzgerald, Camus – these are names lit snobs like myself know and love.

I’m not sure how the comic industry received Fun Home – perhaps the reception wasn’t quite so warm. But it’s interesting that a gay woman brings some positive mainstream media attention to an industry that can often be perceived as potentially sexist (even misogynistic at times).

Some Bechdel links:
Dykes to Watch Out For
Buy the book!
Bechdel on YouTube!

And another picture of her, because I think she’s totally adorable: