Let's start here: The most acclaimed book of 2006 is a graphic novel. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's illustrated memoir, has been showered with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, and breathless raves from Entertainment Weekly ("Grade: A"), Salon.com, and the New York Times Book Review besides.
For nearly twenty-five years, Bechdel has been publishing a syndicated comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. Now Fun Home, a "memoir tragicomic" about the secrets of an outwardly typical family, marks her first attempt at long-form narrative, as well as her first nonfiction.
When a coworker called it "easily the best original graphic novel since Craig Thompson's Blankets," a bright bulb suddenly lit up our office. See, Thompson lives here in Portland, and his groundbreaking autobiographical novel, published in 2003, was the rare graphic work that crossed over to mainstream readers. (Time magazine called it "achingly beautiful.") What if, when Bechdel visited Powell's in June, we brought the two authors together for a conversation?
In some respects, they couldn't be less alike. Raised by fundamentalist Christians, Thompson is a preternaturally gifted illustrator, less comfortable with text than a brush. "Drawing is the more obsessive and easy part," he explained. "The writing is a lot of sweat."
"I think I feel the opposite," Bechdel admitted. "The more fun, exciting part for me is the writing. I love the drawing, but it's work." Sixteen years Thompson's senior, the Oberlin graduate was raised by a high school English teacher and an actress, liberal academics. At 232 pages, Fun Home is by far the longest work of her career. Blankets is practically epic by comparison, clocking in at 582.
And yet both books describe inquisitive, artistic children in small-town America; both books, like their authors, defy easy categorization; both will be read for years to come. We gathered shortly before Bechdel's appearance at Powell's. They started talking shop before I'd even turned on the recorder.
Alison Bechdel: When did you do Carnet? You're so prolific.
Craig Thompson: I should have brought a copy for you. I brought a copy of Blankets in case you didn't have one.
Bechdel: I do. I've been hauling it all over the country. It weighs twenty pounds! But when did you do Carnet?
Thompson: In 2004. I was kind of touring for Blankets. I did that very quickly. It was fulfilling in that way.
Bechdel: Do you draw with a brush?
Thompson: I did. I used a brush pen for that.
Bechdel: What size of a brush in Blankets?
But wait. I want to start with glowing flattery and also confessions. Your book is profoundly amazing. It's very exciting.
Bechdel: Thank you, Craig.
Thompson: It's a profound, amazing novel. But the confession part is that I've been aware of Dykes to Watch Out For, and have acknowledged it and respected it, but I've never immersed myself in it before.
It could be because it's a strip. I'm not as drawn to the use of comics as serialization or strips.
Bechdel: A lot of people have trouble getting immersed in a story that is intermittent like that.
Thompson: And I don't know where it runs in Portland.
Bechdel: It runs in a gay paper.
Thompson: Okay. That segues into the next topic. Am I just isolated from queer culture?
Bechdel: No, queer culture is isolated from you. That's the sad part.
Thompson: If someone like me, who lives in Portland and has more liberal leanings, is isolated from it, there must be plenty of people that never access queer culture. They are going to be blown away by your book.
Bechdel: That's my great sadness and regret about the comic strip: that it has never reached a broader audience. I'm hoping that this book will drag more people in.
Maybe that will happen. I don't know. It's mostly in gay papers, which automatically limits the readership. I'm trying to have more of an online presence now.
Thompson: And you collect them.
Bechdel: They're collected in books. That also reaches more people. I'd love to get in more alternative weeklies.
Thompson: The Mercury should carry it.
Bechdel: But you make an interesting point. I feel like I've been doing this forever, and now all of a sudden somebody's noticing.
Thompson: It feels like a totally ignorant confession from my end, though. As if I haven't been paying attention.
Bechdel: No, don't feel bad. How would you know?
Dave: How long had you been working on Fun Home when you heard that Houghton Mifflin was interested?
Bechdel: I was well into it. The whole thing took me seven years.
Blankets took you five years, right?
Bechdel: Fun Home took seven years. And I sold it in 2003, about four years into the process, so it was pretty well established by that point.
Thompson: That would have been when book publishers were just getting interested.
Bechdel: It's the first graphic novel Houghton Mifflin has done.
Thompson: And you were at what step in the process when they bought it?
Bechdel: It's hard to describe. I didn't have a clear methodology. I started by writing. At some point, that segued into writing in a drawing program. Finally I started adding actual drawings.
Thompson: What's a drawing program?
Bechdel: I ended up writing it in Illustrator.
Thompson: Laying it out in panels?
Dave: Had you attempted a book-length story before?
Bechdel: No. In the collected books of my comic strip, I would do extended pieces or little novellas, maybe fifty pages, but that's the longest I had done previously.
Thompson: I brought the Blankets roughs, just to show you the first thumbnail version. Here I was laying it out.
Bechdel: [Looking through a six-inch stack of Craig's loose-leaf pages.] You just draw this right out of your head. There aren't even any pencil sketches!
Dave: We have a video on the web site of Alison showing how she creates panels, taking pictures of herself acting out the posture of each character. How do you get the story on paper, Craig?
Thompson: First I have note cards with ideas of scenes, and then an outline, and then I just start plowing forward. It took me a year to do a rough draft of Blankets, and then I discarded about a hundred pages and added a hundred more.
In the book I'm working on now, I'm in the fourth draft and I still don't know what I'm doing.
Bechdel: I couldn't even keep track of what draft I was on as I worked. They would all overlap and blur together.
Thompson: What were the lowest points in the process?
Bechdel: It began at a low point. It was very difficult for me to get started because I had absolutely no confidence in my writing. The comic strip is all dialogue, which is a very different kind of writing.
Thompson: But your writing is amazing. For me that was the most humbling part of the book. I don't have this sort of articulation with words.
Bechdel: I felt humbled about how astonishingly beautiful your drawings are, how fluent they are, because mine are so crabbed. I put so much effort into them.
Thompson: I should contest that because—
Bechdel: It's not that you don't put effort into these. Clearly you do. But there is a fluidity to them that is awe-inspiring.
Bechdel: It's so nice to be able to spread out.
Thompson: It's visually accessible.
Bechdel: The comic strip is a very constrained format. I have ten panels, and I have to get a whole story into them every other week. I don't have room to spread out at all. I can't use different size panels or shapes even. It's very rigid, so this was a treat. The open space totally panicked me, but I got to really draw. It's all I can do just to fit people's heads in the comic strip.
But the low point was at a place where I was just deleting everything. I'd write a sentence and then delete it. I had no faith in what I was doing.
Thompson: At what point was that? A year into it? More?
Bechdel: Maybe two or three years into it.
Dave: How would you answer the same question? What was the low point for you?
Thompson: I'm at a low point now with the new book.
Thompson: Part of it is the ending. But it's just a lot of editing before even finishing a draft.
Bechdel: Did anybody edit Blankets?
Thompson: No. The cool thing... No, it's not always cool, but the benefit and the drawback of having a small comics publisher is that I've had zero editorial interference. For instance, nobody saw the Carnet book. It didn't even get proofread.
Chunky Rice has moved to Pantheon now, and it's been proofread for the first time ever. They caught spelling mistakes. That book has been in print for six years and there are spelling mistakes! I'm like, Oh, good to fix those, finally. How embarrassing.
Bechdel: It's a lot of work to fix spelling mistakes when you do it by hand, isn't it? I cheated by using a digital font.
Thompson: It looks good though. As long as it looks good.
The mistakes aren't so bad. What's tedious is that I do a lot of the translation work by hand. This is where you'll get ahead. I don't translate it myself, but the translator gives me words and I draw it in.
Bechdel: Because you insist on that?
Thompson: It's partly the relationship I have with certain European publishers. They're like, "We can't just have this sound effect next to this part of the text which is brushy, organic-looking."
Bechdel: That's a lot of work.
Dave: It's enough for most authors to put together a string of words; they don't touch the design. That's a lot for one person to take on, not just in scope but in terms of skill sets. Have either of you done collaborative projects?
Bechdel: I hate collaborating. I try to do it as little as possible.
Thompson: When have you done it?
Bechdel: I've done jams and that type of thing.
Thompson: I've done all kinds of sellout work in the comic book industry to pay the bills, which to me is the worst. I mainly made a living doing illustration, which was fine and easy, but it was really depressing to do comics-related collaborations. I've done Spider-Man and stuff like that, little things, and they are pretty miserable. Also because that's not really my world, more mainstream comics.
Bechdel: I don't know your training. Did you go to art school?
Thompson: I did for a semester, and that's all I could afford. Then I just worked crap jobs. I was driving a delivery truck for a newspaper and somehow got promoted to the design department. I was a really low-end ad stylist at a newspaper, doing classifieds and grocery ads and truck ads and that stuff. It wasn't a very glamorous job, but I did that for a year, and it was a foot in the door toward other low-end design jobs.
Bechdel: I used to work at a newspaper. It was very good training for doing a graphic novel, keeping track of so many visual details.
Dave: What were you doing there?
Bechdel: I was a production manager at a gay and lesbian newspaper.
Dave: Graphic novels and comics are fundamentally visual, but until you read them you might not think about the spatial demands: what belongs on a left page, what should go on the right, where in the story you're going to need to a two-page spread and how to pace for that. And then if you have to make a change, remove a page, for instance...
Bechdel: You're intimately involved with the whole book. You've caressed every surface of every page. If you write a regular book, it's a one-dimensional construct, a line of text that flows endlessly. But here you have to handle every page.
Thompson: And it can be frustrating at times. When a page has to face in a particular way, or if I want this top panel on the left side...
Bechdel: Your pages are so beautifully designed. Mine are just rigid little six panels or something.
Thompson: I think there's a universal self-deprecating quality to cartoonists.
Bechdel: Really, though. I feel like as part of a younger generation you've been exposed to more visual language. And you've internalized it. At least that's my theory about you. I would never think of the way you see those things.
Thompson: If we're going to talk generations of cartoonists... you're older than I thought.
Bechdel: I'm very old. I'm forty-five.
Bechdel: I just met Seth.
Thompson: I was surprised that he is as old as he is. But you would be part of the Dan Clowes generation.
Thompson: I'm thinking of your peers, though, because I do feel there are different generations of comics. When I was coming into this industry or scene, my peers were the same age as me. We were friends. We had similar sensibilities about what we wanted to do with graphic novels. And there was some separation of us and the last school.
Bechdel: The thing is that I've never been part of the comics world. I started working in the early eighties doing this lesbian comic strip. Comics are a teenage boy-oriented industry, and back then it was much more so; there was no question that my work was not going to be part of that universe. So I entered the gay and lesbian literary world. That was my venue.
I've never been to the San Diego Comic-Con.
Thompson: It's a terrible experience.
Bechdel: It sounds terrible.
Thompson: I went for the first time when Blankets debuted. I had heard the stories. I guess I knew what to expect, but it was still so much more intense and horrible than what I expected. But also super entertaining.
From a cartoonist's view, it's kind of degrading because you have a little more respect for your work than to be lumped into this insane convention hall with a bunch of stormtroopers and people in fantasy outfits. But just for the experience of American culture, it's pretty amazing. You watch parades of people who come from all over the United States dressed as characters from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
One night I was in a hot tub at my hotel, and some people joined me. I ventured to ask if they were there for the Comic-Con. And they were like, "Oh, yeah!" The guy said, "I was dressed as Indiana Jones!" And the woman said, "I was dressed as Black Canary!" I asked, "Black Canary?" She told me who it was.
They started talking about how they met at one of these costume things, and how there's so much partying and orgy-action going on. There's so much scandal. Their friends come from all over the world for this event, and they spend thousands of dollars on costumes. They went on and on. I was fascinated.
Finally they asked, "What are you doing at the Comic-Con?" I said, "Oh, I'm a cartoonist." They said, "Oh, yeah? What cartoon do you do?" "It's called Blankets." They hadn't heard of it, so I described it: "It's about growing up in Wisconsin and being a kid, coming of age, and about romance and breaking free of Christianity." They just looked at me like I was the biggest freak in the world.
San Diego is really nothing to do with what we do.
Bechdel: I'm not eager to go. But it's always been a very separate world.
I don't know a lot of cartoonists. I know a lot of gay and lesbian cartoonists. It's always been a ghettoized subculture, but you know what's interesting? I feel like gay and lesbian material is moving toward the mainstream in a similar way that graphic narrative is moving toward the mainstream. I've caught a wave with my book. I was in the right place at the right time. I can tell this very queer story in a format that's really hot, so people will buy it. It's just surprising to me how it's taking off and getting all this attention.
Thompson: The book deserves it.
Dave: Your books have a lot in common. You both grew up in small towns. In some ways, both books are about becoming artists.
Bechdel: Oh, I want to talk about the becoming artists part. Embedded in Fun Home, I have my cartooning manifesto: why I became a cartoonist and why it's important to me. But it's buried.
Thompson: I was going to say. It's subtle.
Bechdel: In your book, it's manifest. You talk explicitly about drawing and the escape it offered. You talk about burning your drawings. And when you start to paint on Raina's wall, that moment of making a mistake, it was very moving to me, just the act of putting ink on a surface. It feels like that's a central thing going on here.
Thompson: In Fun Home, I remember the page where you're talking about these almost OCD, nervous tics, the marks you made in your journals.
Bechdel: I would make repetitive graphic marks in my diary as a kid. I was afraid of lying, or writing untruths, so I would add these little notes that said, "I think," to qualify the sentences. It was a way of undoing myself. Eventually it got too time consuming to write those words over and over again, so I made them into a little symbol, and the symbol got bigger and bigger, and I would go over it and over it until whole entries in my journal were obscured.
In a way I feel like this memoir is just an elaborated version of that, these crazy, repetitive marks on paper.
Thompson: It's not much different from, in the Crumb documentary, what happened to Charles Crumb, where he starts filling up sketchbooks with little marks.
Bechdel: Yes! It's a wonderful book.
Thompson: About hypergraphia.
Bechdel: Obsessive writing. Do you feel compelled to draw?
Thompson: Drawing is the more obsessive and easy part. I don't think the drawing is much of a struggle. The writing is a lot of sweat. I just want to draw. But I'm not interested enough in drawing on its own. That's part of the reason I do comics. I've done illustration for a living, but the image on its own is boring.
Someone asked me at a recent Powell's signing what my favorite panel or page is that I've ever drawn, but I'm not really interested in the images themselves. I'm interested in the thing that happens between the panels that you can't describe.
Bechdel: That's interesting. I think I feel the opposite: the more fun, exciting part for me is the writing. I love the drawing, but it's work. It's arduous, at least the sketching and layout.
Thompson: Is the strip the same?
Bechdel: Less. Writing the book felt more rewarding and gratifying to me, but I saw you get all excited when you talked about drawing, and I know I felt like that about the writing.
Bechdel: I wanted to ask about that, too. I must confess: I didn't read it all. I skimmed it and I read certain passages, but I did not read the whole thing.
Thompson: I brought a couple of my sketchbooks from when I was working on Blankets. [Craig opens a pair of spiral-bound notebooks.] There are a few Proust quotes in here. As I'm reading things, I'm also making notes in my journals.
[Turning pages.] Some of these are shorter quotes from other people. Here's a great one from Degas. He said, "Don't read. You only do it out of laziness to avoid thinking. One must have one's own personal thoughts." I thought it was funny because this whole book is filled with quotes from books.
Bechdel: Were you drawing here [in your sketchbook] with a ballpoint pen?
Thompson: At the time, that's what I was using. I'd love to see your sketchbook.
Bechdel: I don't even keep a sketchbook. I only draw when I have to.
Thompson: I think you're more in the school of Joe Sacco, who is my favorite cartoonist in America.
Dave: What makes him your favorite?
Thompson: First, because it's socially and politically relevant material. It's really dense. Journalistic elements appear in his comics that I haven't seen anywhere else. So there's journalistic work and documentary, but also comics; it's exciting on all these different levels. I think his intent and drive as a cartoonist is of a higher brow than all other cartoonists.
Someone asked me recently if there are graphic artists I look up to, and I was like, "Not many of them are worth looking up to." I can like their work, but at the same time, I don't know if we've been reaching high enough in some ways. And I think Joe does.
Similar to Alison, he's not interested in keeping a sketchbook. He loves the writing. That flows for him very easily. The drawing is very meticulous and laborious.
Dave: Alison, whose work do you feel that way about?
Bechdel: I agree about Joe Sacco entirely. And of course Chris Ware is some kind of insane genius, although I study his work more than read it because it gets theoretical so quickly. As a cartoonist, I get so interested in how he's doing things more than what he's doing.
Dave: Craig, what would you say is the hardest part for you? Is there something you think you're not good enough at?
Thompson: I don't think I'm that good with words, and with writing in general.
Bechdel: I'm not good with design.
Thompson: Really? What do you mean? Composition?
Bechdel: Composition of a page or a page spread is just beyond my scope.
Dave: How would you explain this book on the table?
Thompson: I was going to say!
Bechdel: Most of these pages are very straightforward.
Thompson: There are some compositions here that I thought were profound. I was wondering if they were compositions that could only come from an accidental photo reference.
Bechdel: That's probably the case.
Thompson: I also have questions about the house. Were you able to go and reference it? Because the house is a character in the book.
Bechdel: It is. And fortunately, my crazy, obsessive father thoroughly documented the house in photographs, which I had access to.
Dave: Both of you were writing very personal stories about your family. How was that during the process, and how is it now? It would be one thing if you wrote books that no one ever saw, but Fun Home is everywhere these days and Blankets was written up in Time magazine.
Bechdel: I didn't expect that people were going to see this book, which is partly why I was able to write it.
Thompson: I can relate to that totally.
Bechdel: I'm used to my small subculture of an audience, and those are people that I wouldn't mind knowing these things about my life. My family would never see my Dykes to Watch Out For cartoons. If I had thought early in the stages of this book that my Aunt Jane was going to see it, I couldn't possibly have done it.
Thompson: I felt the same. My first comic book, Good-Bye Chunky Rice, was popular in alternative comic circles, so that's three thousand readers or something. It was a pretty small following.
Bechdel: I didn't read that when it came out, but it's brilliant.
Thompson: Chunky? Thank you. I'm flattered that Pantheon was stoked to do a new release of it because it's my first book. But I didn't think a lot of people would see Blankets.
The most intimate people's reactions to Blankets sort of devastated me creatively for a while. I was ready to give up drawing because of the response of some people close to me. I wasn't really ready for it.
And I assume there has to be crossover in the way the communities we grew up in reacted. Your family was much more literate and academic than mine. And more liberal probably.
Bechdel: Yes, that's safe to say.
Thompson: But at the same time, growing up in a rural community...
Bechdel: Talking about the audience phenomenon, not expecting a wide audience to read it... That's part of the cartoonist manifesto I was alluding to earlier. I became a cartoonist somewhat by default because it was a medium that my hyper-artistic parents didn't know anything about. It was a way I could express myself creatively under their radar.
They were both into poetry and literature. My mother was an actress and my father was into design. I found this way to do my own thing. As an adult, I continue to do that culturally. I don't perform well under a spotlight.
The very lowbrow nature of comics was appealing to me because I felt like I wasn't going to be scrutinized. But now... Well, there goes that idea.
Thompson: I feel the same, in terms of it being a medium that passed under my parents' Christian, fundamentalist, right-wing censorship radar. All the other mediums in the house were censored. Movies, they'd watch before we could watch them. Television shows, there were only a couple a week that we were allowed to watch, the really saccharine, tame ones like Full House.
Bechdel: Oh, god.
Thompson: Music, only Christian music. No secular music, as they called it. I remember once I had an MC Hammer tape that got smashed. And I tried to make excuses, like, "He sings this song, it goes, 'You got to pray just to make it today.'" That one got smashed. But comic books, because it was a little kids' medium, weren't checked.
Bechdel: Very interesting.
Dave: Meanwhile Alison's father was recommending Fitzgerald.
Bechdel: Also, my parents never censored anything. And they took us to very inappropriate movies at young ages.
Thompson: I brought this from my Jack Chick collection. It's a little comic called Doomtown: The Story of Sodom. I found it at a bus stop in Milwaukie, Oregon.
Have you seen this one?
Bechdel: No. Oh, god.
Thompson: It's pretty hilarious. I mean, it's terrifying and hateful, but I grew up with that sort of teaching.
Bechdel: I thought it was so funny in Blankets at the point in the book where you consider doing religious propaganda with your drawing skills.
But this [alluding to the Jack Chick comic]... I love that they know how effective comics are. This is freaky.
Thompson: I'm sorry. I didn't know if you would find it as funny as me. I collect these.
Dave: I should warn you, we have just a minute or two before Alison has to sign books and head off to her reading.
Thompson: I feel like we've just started! But I could talk about my parents' reaction to my work that crosses over strangely into the queer community, in terms of them associating in abstract ways. Because they think of my work as Satanic. I've felt them becoming more acceptant of me, but at the same time they equate my book with The Last Temptation of Christ or something. It's liberal media that's perverting people's views of Christianity.
Bechdel: What's your relationship like with them?
Thompson: We talk every week or two. I'd say it's more honest since Blankets, but they're still upset by the book. It's been four years. They claim to be upset mostly on a spiritual level.
With my mom, I'll have a religious conversation, and it'll just be surreal — and this is something that you must have to deal with all the time, the whole division in the United States, politically and spiritually. Obviously, liberals have their own ethics and spirituality; things that happen in the right-wing world are totally immoral to us. And they have the same view of us. Where's the meeting ground? It's such a conflict. How do we have communication?
Bechdel: Is that an agenda for you?
Thompson: Partly. My new book is about Islam. I'm still trying to figure all that out. I want to have a dialogue.
I want to have a dialogue with my parents, and I try to, but I just can't comprehend their faith and ignorance, and they can't comprehend that there would be any goodness in the way I've chosen to live because it doesn't involve Jesus.
Bechdel: That's intense. And you're not even gay!
Thompson: This was a coming out for me, though. With my parents.
Bechdel: But there's not a lot about them, except for the terrifying scene with your dad and the cubbyhole.
Thompson: But I come out in terms of not being a Christian. We were postponing that conversation.
Bechdel: Did you not show them the book until it was done?
Thompson: No. I knew that the disapproval might hinder me from finishing it. Did you show your mother?
Bechdel: I worked on Fun Home for a year before I told her what I was doing, and then I knew I had to tell her so she wouldn't have a stroke or anything. And she's been remarkable about it. She doesn't like that I'm exposing all of this information, but she understands that the story is the important thing. She even said that to me: "The story is the important thing." Which I think is remarkable, given that it's trampling on her life. But she's pretty cool.
Dave: I think that's a good place to end.
Thompson: It is.
Alison Bechdel visited Powell's on June 15, 2006. Craig Thompson, who lives about a half-mile away from me, as it turns out, met us at the Powells.com workspace before Bechdel's event downtown.
"For with the perturbations of memory are linked the intermittencies of the heart. It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession. Perhaps it is equally inexact to suppose that they escape or return. In any case if they remain within us, for most of the time it is an unknown region where they are of no use to us, and where even the most ordinary are crowded out by memories of a different kind, which preclude any simultaneous occurrence of them in our consciousness. But if the context of sensations in which they are preserved is recaptured, they acquire in turn the same power of expelling everything that is incompatible with them, of installing alone in us the self that originally lived them.... The self that I then was, that had disappeared for so long, was once again so close to me that I seemed still to hear the words that had just been spoken, although they were now no more than a phantasm, as a man who is half awake thinks he can still make out close by the sound of his receding dream."
— from page 784 of Craig's edition of Remembrance of Things Past
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State