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Collage Technique in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Małgorzata Olsza

“It’s rare to find an art that is intelligent about itself.”

– Pablo Picasso (after Bois 169)

The relation between art and comics, or, indeed, art in comics, is a curious one. Comics thrives on intertextuality, intervisuality, and intermediality as a means of enhancing and expanding its poetics. References, be it verbal, visual, or intermedial, appear in micro and macro contexts, as one-time quotations and general frames of reference. Such visual elements acquire different meanings depending on the frame of reference, be it in relation to the point of view of the character, the poetics and mechanics of comics, or the competence of the reader/viewer. In any case, the presence of such visual “quotations” provokes a discussion of the role and function of “high art” references in the presumably “low” art of comics.

Indeed, Will Eisner first included fragments of newspaper articles and handwritten letters in The Contract With God (1978). Art Spiegelman expanded this primarily textual sphere of references in Maus (1986, 1991), incorporating into the structure of his graphic texts maps, photographs, as well as a faithful copy of his early comic entitled Prisoner on the Hell Planet. Charles Burns references the Bible and The Adventures of Tintin throughout Black Hole (2005) and the X’ed Out trilogy (2010, 2012, 2014) respectively. David Small alludes to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Stitches (2009), while David Mazzucchelli incorporates frescos by Giotto alongside drawings of modernist architecture in Asterios Polyp (2009). Joe Sacco frequently features maps and diagrams in his texts. Craig Thompson, on the other hand, employs Arabic calligraphy as a systematic visual aesthetics in Habibi (2011). Chris Ware and “quotes” Cezanne in Jimmy Corrigan (2000), while Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (2002), merges prose, drawings, photographs, and  film stills.

In view of the above developments, in the present article, I investigate the meaning and mechanics of literary and visual quotations and allusions found in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), proposing to read them in the theoretical context of collage and collage technique. First popularized by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the 1910s, collage is primarily the product of modernist art theory and sensibility. Interestingly enough, despite its avant-garde origins, collage also employs popular mass-reproduced imagery, bringing together the “high” and the “low,” which provides for an interesting platform for the discussion of comics. First, the theory of collage will be briefly discussed and a close reading of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home shall follow. I shall discuss selected panels and pages of Fun Home, demonstrating how they inform the reading of Bechdel’s “tragicomic” as a text based on creative oppositions, that of not only the verbal and the visual, but also popular and modernist. Ultimately, I aim to demonstrate how the reading of such a complex intermedial work of art becomes increasingly self-reflexive and self-critical.

Beyond “High Art:” Collage in Modernist Practice

Modernist interest in collage was of a twofold nature. The focus was either on “materiality” created with scraps of paper or on the relation between figure and ground, which problematized the “flatness” of the image. Indeed, Clement Greenberg in his essay “Collage” emphasized the “corporeal presence” of collage, only to then comment on the fact that “the affixed paper or cloth serves for a seeming moment to push everything else into a more vivid idea of depth,” so that “[t]he actual surface becomes both ground and background, and it turns out–suddenly and paradoxically–that the only place left for a three-dimensional illusion is in front of, upon, the surface” (72). Greenberg, in keeping with his elitist view of modernism and its practices, flatly denied any points of contact between the avant-garde and the mass or popular nature of collage elements, concentrating instead on medium specificity and the postulated conflict between the actual “flatness” of the work of art and its superficial “depth.”

Such a reading of collage imprisoned the form in the “ivory tower” of modernist practices in order to, as Greenberg pointed out, save art from becoming “relatively trivial interior decoration” (“Laocoön” 24). While Greenberg’s interpretation does not encourage any investigation of popular art forms, it is nevertheless possible to adapt his theory to the study of comics, and other popular culture texts, by slightly shifting the focus. Instead of emphasizing the pursuit of “flatness” and “medium purity,” we should turn to the study of the relation between “figure” and “ground.” Similarly, the severed links between modernist art and mass culture should be re-established.

As regards the latter aspect, it is worth mentioning that for numerous post-greenbergian critics, the nature of materials utilized in collage is by no means unremarkable. On the contrary, the fact that Picasso and Braque utilized “popular” and “low” materials, including scraps of wallpaper, newspapers, bottle labels, posters, advertisements, or musical scores, may be read as a commentary on social, political, and cultural issues of the time (fig. 1, 2). For instance, as the art historian Thomas Crow points out, “[t]he principle of collage construction … further collapsed the distinction between the masterly and the burlesque, by turning pictorial invention into a fragmented consumption of manufactured images,” which, in turn, allowed one to interpret Cubism  as “a message from the margins not only in the graphic content of the intruder objects, but in their substance and organization as well” (28). As such, from the point of view of cultural contestation, collage gave raise to high art/low art transactions that “dislocate the apparently fixed terms of that hierarchy into new and persuasive configurations, thus calling it into question from within” (Crow 33). Collage thus stands for change, resistance, and contestation.

Figure 1. Picasso, Pablo. Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc. 1914. Block-printed, white-laid, wove, and wood pulp paper, newspaper, charcoal, India ink, printer’s ink, graphite, and gouache on fine linen unprimed canvas. 73.2 x 59.4 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.
Figure 2. Braque, Georges. Violin and Glass. 1914. Oil, charcoal and pasted paper on canvas, oval. 115.5 x 80.8 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel

Respectively, the inclusion of “low” elements in what constitutes essentially a work of “high” art opens new perspectives on the decorative character of collage. As Lisa Florman observes,

In Greenberg’s history of Cubism, the invention of collage had marked an epochal moment, the moment, as he said, when the decorative surface of the work was at long last “transcended and transfigured,” dissolved into the purely subjective space of optical illusion. Of course, that history was dependent upon the repression of the commodified, mass-produced nature of many of the elements of Cubist collage. Unlike the collages themselves, Greenberg refused to admit even the potential presence of the literally and commercially decorative within the field of modern art. Our own attention to the specific materials of those collages now suggests a slightly different history, one in which the invention of papier collé is, however, no less epochal. Through its invention, we might say, the threat of the decorative – the possibility that modern painting might in fact be assimilated to decoration (or entertainment) pure and simple – was, at long last, openly acknowledged (78).

As Crow and Florman demonstrate, the contestatory and, at the same time, entertaining nature of collage also plays an important role in its interpretation as a cultural and artistic phenomenon. As such, it is possible to find similarities between collage and comics – its structure, page layout, and sequence arrangement but also its subject matter and intricate use of input materials in the form of verbal, visual, and cultural intertexts.

Indeed, when placed in such a context, collage is no longer a link in the chain of avant-garde artworks that, for Greenberg, culminate in Abstract Expressionism, but becomes instead a model of thinking about art in terms of signifying opposites:

Using what semiologists would call a “paradigm” – a binary opposition through which each half of the pair gains its meaning by not signifying the other – the collage’s manipulation of this pair declares that what any element in the work will mean will be entirely a function of a set of negative contrasts …. Picasso’s collage thus makes the elements of the work function according to the structural-linguistic definition of the sign itself [in Saussure’s words] as “relative, oppositive, and negative.” (Foster et al. 113).

Collage is thus primarily a system of signs, in which “meaning itself becomes a function of the system rather than of the world” (Krauss 18). Collage rejects established hierarchies, referential visual language, and paves the way for a visual “play of signifiers,” which may also inform the interpretation of comics.

When applied to comics, collage technique acquires still new meanings. It problematizes the global reading of the entire page as opposed to the reading of the individual panel. It emphasizes the processes of fragmentation and unification that define comics as an art form. It also comments on the use of the verbal in comics in relation to the visual. Last but not least, it problematizes the use of visual and verbal “quotations.” All of these pairings, the page/the individual panel, the caption/the panel, image/text, original text/intertext may be thought of in terms of signifying opposites, whose meaning is negotiated in relation to the entire system of comics. A close reading of Fun Home shall demonstrate how collage aesthetics and method may inform the reading of Bechdel’s work and thus the language of comics in general.

The Self-Conscious Density of Fun Home

When it was first published in 2006, Alison Bechdel’s largely autobiographic comics Fun Home, subtitled A Family Tragicomic, received nothing but praise from critics and readers alike.1 Indeed, drawing on pop culture, modernist literature, and her own family archives, Bechdel explores and confronts the difficult history of her father’s closeted homosexuality, his unnatural death, and her coincident development as an artist, a feminist, and a lesbian. As pointed out by the author herself (after Chute, “Interview” 1005) and as further examined by Yaël Schlick (28), Bechdel in each of the seven chapters of Fun Home refers to either a specific writer or text which symbolizes, summarizes, or corresponds to her personal and artistic growth. Indeed, Fun Home both builds on and in itself constitutes such a diverse and sophisticated body of work(s) that it was universally hailed a contemporary comics masterpiece. Sean Wilsey in his review for The New York Times praised Bechdel for both her drawing and her writing, stating that

[Fun Home] is a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions, with panels that combine the detail and technical proficiency of R. Crumb with a seriousness, emotional complexity and innovation completely its own. Then there are the actual words. Generally this is where graphic narratives stumble. Very few cartoonists can also write — or, if they can, they manage only to hit a few familiar notes. But Fun home quietly succeeds in telling a story, not only through well-crafted images but through words that are equally revealing and well chosen. … A comic book for lovers of words! Bechdel’s rich language and precise images combine to create a lush piece of work — a memoir where concision and detail are melded for maximum, obsessive density.

In Bechdel’s comics words and images combine to create “maximum, obsessive density” much in keeping with the fundamentals of collage art, which depends on “abrupt density of pattern” (Greenberg 72). This density of Fun Home has been examined in different contexts. Fiorenzo Iuliano reads Bechdel’s work as a creative rendering of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in the theoretical framework of Gilles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs, arguing that just as Proust’s masterpiece discovers truth in the process of interpreting signs, Fun Home is an “experiment in decoding” the truth about Alison’s and her father’s sexual identity (217-218). Ariela Freedman, respectively, investigates Bechdel’s “literary influences,” demonstrating that Fun Home engages in a productive and creative dialogue with her chosen literary models and addresses them through time and space (126). Yaël Schlick further develops this argument in her essay, pointing out that thanks to the use of varied references, Fun Home “is both highly and rigidly structured, yet also implicitly critical of its own structuration” (31), which, it should be added, is much in keeping with the principles of collage art. In view of the above theoretical considerations, or perhaps, in dialogue with them, I shall address the self-conscious density of Fun Home.

Fun Home, which is primarily “about the procedure of close reading and close looking” (Chute, Graphic Women 182), builds its structure through the use of different “scraps” in specific contexts. Indeed, I propose to see Fun Home as conceived around collage technique – different modes of using textual and visual “quotations” – references to works of literature, paintings, photographs, movie stills, maps, and the like. I shall discuss the selected pages and sequences of Bechdel’ work, demonstrating how collage technique informs the reading of Fun Home as a text based on “negative contrasts” that of not only the verbal and the visual, but also fact and fiction, male and female, parent and child, popular and modernist.

Setting Up “Negative Contrasts”

The first example of quotation I wish to explore in more detail concerns a panel in Fun Home in which Alison walks in on her father reading a book in their home library (84) (fig. 3). The father is seated in a comfortable armchair, with his head down, engrossed in the book. A huge bookshelf may be seen behind his back. Alison-the-character walks in on the right-hand side of the panel but it is Alison-the-narrator who speaks first. She observes in a caption above the panel: “There’s a scene in The Great Gatsby where a drunken party guest is carried away by the discovery that the volumes in Gatsby’s library are nor cardboard fakes” (84). The quote from F.S. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby follows in a caption which appears in the top left corner of the panel: “’What thoroughness, what realism!’ he exclaims. “Knew when to stop, too. Didn’t cut the pages!” (84).2 A final metatextual comment by Alison-the-narrator contained in a caption in the bottom right corner of the panel thus brings the scene to a close: “My father’s books – the hardbound ones with their ragged dust jackets, the paperbacks with their creased spines – had clearly been read” (84). As can be seen, the caption above the panel provides the context, the caption in the top left corner of the panel references Fitzgerald, and the caption in the bottom right corner of the image acts as an exposition.

Figure 3. Alison and her father in their library, from: Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home, 2006, p. 84. FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel. Copyright © 2006 by Alison Bechdel. All rights reserved.

The pretense of Gatsby’s library is confronted with the reality of Bruce Bechdel’s collection of books that are read and studied extensively. Decoration/authenticity, fiction/reality, lie/truth, comics/books – “negative contrasts” are set up here only to be further problematized by the collage-specific opposition between “figure” and “ground;” in this case, the verbal and the visual. The drawing which corresponds to, and in two cases encloses, the captions is one of Bruce Bechdel sitting in an armchair in his library filled with well-read and tarnished books. Yet, he is not reading The Great Gatsby, as the reader/viewer would have the right to expect, but instead studies Nancy Milford’s Zelda (1970), a biography of F.S. Fitzgerald’s wife – Zelda Fitzgerald. Fiction and reality coalesce. The reader/viewer is not able to choose whether this act of “staging” Bruce Bechdel in the context of The Great Gatsby, significantly reading the biography of a woman overshadowed by the legend of her husband, should be interpreted as a fictionalization or, on the contrary, as an authentication of the father. Ultimately, this ambivalence is resolved in a caption on the following page in which Alison-the-narrator announces that “in a way Gatsby’s pristine books and my father’s worn ones signify the same thing – the preference of a fiction to reality” (85). The father chooses fiction, while the daughter, opts for reality – the tension between them is still present. They are similar in their love of literature, yet differ in their artistic choices. Metaphorically speaking, one is “figure,” while the other is “ground.”

Fun Home frequently sets up, but also subsequently dismantles, “negative contrasts” that contribute to its structural density. In fact, as K.W. Eveleth points out,

[Fun Home] sometimes collapses and even conflates temporal moments (in the form of Alison-the-character’s visualized experience and Alison-the-narrator’s interjections) in ways that unsettle traditional ways of thinking about time, space, and causality. This mazelike self-reflexivity, the propensity of passages to turn back upon themselves in confusing and misleading ways, leaves readers groping for walls and falling back on easy notions of true direction. (88-89)

Fun Home explores the tensions between conflicting attitudes embodied by Alison and her father but also embeds them in a single structure, because, as Alison-the-narrator eventually admits, the two have always been connected “through a vast ‘network of transversals’” (Bechdel 102).Apart from such textual “scraps,” Fun Home boasts a wide variety of visual quotations, including stills from It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed (10), the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford (64), The Rifleman, a TV series from the 1960s (95), and Coalminer’s Daughter, a biographical story of Loretta Lynn (222). Bechdel has also incorporated fragments from The Addams Family cartoon (35, 36) and the Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner cartoons (174). Most importantly, however, Fun Home contains numerous photographs, both from family archives (1, 25, 55, 64, 71, 72, 87, 100-101, 102, 120, 121, 151, 164, 187) and various books or newspapers (64, 74, 85, 229, 231).

Indeed, Bechdel’s comics is truly what Nicholas Mirzoeff called “a visual archive” of human memory (29), where images one sees bring back memories of other visual references but also constitute an attempt at recording the past through the visual, and not just through the verbal, by means of icons taken from popular culture. Furthermore, as Lisa Saltzman observes,

[i]n treating these sources, Bechdel relinquishes her characteristic line to imitate, in pen and ink, the defining visual and material characteristics of the given object, adopting a what might be called an evidentiary style. And were this stylistic shift not enough to signal the distinctive place and function of such items in the narrative, their representation tends to break the organizing logic of the graphic schema…. (85)

While Bechdel is not literally incorporating visual scraps into the structure of her comics, she does the next best thing available to her in a mass medium – she recreates the original as closely as possible. The artist does not insert actual material elements but adopts and adapts collage technique to suit her medium. To paraphrase Mieke Bal, Bechdel has turned visual quotations “into a statement about meaning as work, and work as meaning” (77-78). Indeed, the profane and the sophisticated, the artefacts of popular and high culture, placed together on equal terms in a collage-like structure, demonstrate the self-reflexivity of comics. Similarly to collage, comics has its roots both in “high” and “low” art. As Bechdel’s’ work demonstrates, comics may be said to continue the development of the “traditional” novel, utilizing established literary and artistic practices, and embrace the heritage of popular imagery, including movies, television series, magazines, and other comic books. Just as collage itself in Thomas Crow’s interpretation (28-33), comics also represents change, resistance, and contestation.

Both textual and visual references infuse Fun Home with new meanings and complex poetics. Thanks to its use of verbal and visual “scraps,” Bechdel’s text sets up, and consequently problematizes, the “negative contrasts” of the verbal and the visual, saying and seeing, male and female, parent and child, homosexual and heterosexual, fact and fiction, autobiography and belles-lettres, authenticity and posing, high modernism and popular culture. Indeed, as Judith Kegan Gardiner points out, Fun Home “achieves a sense of complexity through layering multiple visual styles, texts, and allusions. [It] ruminates over the same events, circling ever inward and accumulating ever more evidence from the family’s documents and the literary canon” (202). Thus, indirectly, Bechdel’s work alludes to the way in which collage operates in general – as a dense layering of citations, ever dynamic and ever changing, alas in the structured system of captions, panels, and sequences.

“Figure” and “Ground:” Between The Verbal and the Visual

The next category of “scraps” used in Fun Home comprises documents of various kinds, both typed and handwritten. Indeed, Fun Home features meticulously copied pages from Albert Camus’ A Happy Death (28) and The Myth of Sisyphus (47, 48), Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (92), Colette’s Earthly Paradise (205, 208), Kate Millett’s Flying (218), and James Joyce’s Ulysses (222, 226, 230). Fun Home also contains faithfully represented newspaper articles (125, 195) and various official documents (161, 184, 202). Epistolary exchanges between family members (49, 62, 63, 65, 77, 145, 200, 211, 212, 230) are included alongside entries from Alison’s diary (141, 142, 143, 148, 169, 180, 181, 183). Dictionary entries are featured as well (57, 74, 106, 156, 171, 197). Interestingly enough, such materials appear within panels and frames, i.e. spaces which in comics have traditionally been reserved for the visual. When placed in such a context, the written invades and merges with the drawn.

In collages by Picasso and Braque, the figure/ground ambiguity played an important role – the composition and layering of materials gave rise to the overlapping of planes and structural density. In Fun Home, by analogy, the insertion of text into image implies the verbal/ visual ambiguity, which informs the entire structure of comics as a twofold form. Indeed, this process could essentially be described as texting the image and imaging the text. Word and image are present simultaneously in the same semantic unit, the panel, complicating the reading of comics as an essentially heterosemiotic creation, as proposed by Elisabeth El Refaie. Indeed, El Refaie treats comics as heterosemiotic rather than hybrid texts, pointing out that in heterosemiosis “sign systems are juxtaposed and played off against each other in a way that draws attention to their differences” (21). This, in turn, entails “the explicit mixing of different sign systems for rhetorical purposes” (36).3 As a result, comics, similarly to collage, comes across not as a mere accidental “combination” but as an elaborate, and most importantly, coherent and logical structure, in which the verbal/visual difference constitutes the driving force.

To further this argument, let us turn to Rosalind Krauss’s take on collage. Krauss refers to a double status of text-as-image found in Pablo Picasso’s cubist collages as “the circulation of the sign” (27). It is possible to draw a parallel between the nature of the phenomenon as witnessed in collage and in Bechdel’s work. Krauss observes that

the magic of the whole collage, indeed the brilliance of the game it plays, is that the two opposite meanings (…) are generated from the “identical” scrap of paper, the “same” physical shape. Like Saussure’s phonetic substance, this support is seen to take on meaning only within the set of oppositions that pits one against the other (…). Picasso’s sheet, sliced in two, is thus a paradigm, a binary couple married in opposition, each taking on a meaning insofar as it is not [emphasis original, MO] the other. Figure and ground become this kind of contrary here, joined and redoubled (…), so that just as one fragment is, literally speaking, the back side of the material from which the other was cut, the circulation of the sign produces this very same condition. (28)

Treating the verbal/visual ambiguity found in Fun Home on a par with the figure/ground ambiguity, the semiotic system constituting the essence of collage, allows for more nuanced readings of this complex phenomenon, taking one back, in a truly “circular” fashion, to the idea of oppositions first discussed in relation to The Great Gatsby quote. Indeed, in the final part of this article, I shall focus on three different cases of the verbal/visual circulation, analyzing a dictionary entry, a handwritten diary, and a fragment of a book, with a view to both describing the internal mechanics of the phenomenon and demonstrating the manner in which it informs the wider reading of Fun Home as a text based on creative binary pairs.

The first example is a dictionary entry for the word “queer” (Bechdel 57). It appears at the very beginning of chapter three and is not accompanied by a caption directly above or below the drawing, but features instead three smaller captions within the space of the panel. They read respectively:

My father’s death was a queer business – queer in every sense of that multivalent word./ It was strange, certainly, in its deviation from the normal course of things. It was suspicious. Perhaps even counterfeit./ It put my family in a bad position, it thwarted and ruined each of us in particular ways [forward slashes indicate division into captions, MO]. (Bechdel 57)

The message contained in the captions focuses on the death of Alison’s father and the devastation it caused in the family. It explores the ambiguity of the word “queer,” drawing an analogy between its meaning in the sense of “strange” or “deviation from the norm” and the curious circumstances of Bruce Bechdel’s fatal accident. The message contained in the drawing of a dictionary entry is one of “authentication,” “scientific authority,” or “verifiable reference,” but also one of “looking for answers or clues.” At the same time, in contrast to this connotative meaning of the dictionary entry, key phrases of the definition of “queer,” such as “at variance with what is normal,” “suspicious,” “qualmish,” “to thwart,” “to ruin,” or “counterfeit” (Bechdel 57), are highlighted to counter the message of “verifiable reference.”

In this paring of “authentication” with “suspiciousness,” one “signifies” when juxtaposed with the other. Alison-the-narrator’s comment is emotional and riddled with doubt, pointing to the “’tricky’ narrative sequence and multiple, disparate modes of self-inscription” (Watson 53) she employs in Fun Home. On the other hand, the dictionary entry is impersonal and authoritative. What emerges in “the circulation of the sign” that occurs between the two semantic spheres is the vast ambiguity and problematization of “queerness” in relation to the father’s and the daughter’s homosexuality. “Queerness” appears only as a flicker between the interpretative and personal caption and the authoritative and impersonal drawing of a dictionary entry. This collage of text and image establishes itself as a heterosemiotic construct pregnant with obscure meaning in relation to queer sexuality and queer visuality, which forces one “to squint, to strain our vision and force it to see otherwise, beyond the limited vista of the here and now” (Muñoz 454). When faced with the complexities of queer identity, the simple “either text or image” or “either figure or ground” model breaks down, as the notion itself operates within the dynamic “circulation of the sign.” The dense layering of the verbal and the visual found in Fun Home, however, manages to capture this complex, and, in the case of Alison’s father, repressed, notion.

The second example of the verbal/visual ambiguity concerns the drawings of Alison’s diary entries. Reproduced with great care, they mimic the handwriting of Alison as a child and as such they may be regarded as another instance of “authentication” or “verification.”4 Yet, when considered in the wider context of “the circulation of the sign”, the inclusion of entries from Alison’s diary also comments on the very act of life writing. Alison-the-character started her diary at the age of ten. At first, she simply recorded the events from her daily life, such as “It was pretty warm out” or “I got out a Hardy Boy Book” (Bechdel 141), but soon her objective reporting gave way to doubt and commentary, as she began to question her experiences. “My simple declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best,” Alison-the-narrator discloses in one caption, “utter lies at worst” (Bechdel 141). In order to deal with this gap between the real and the recorded, the signified and the signifier, Alison-the-character started to insert the phrase “I think” after each sentence in her diary (Bechdel 141, 169). With time, she transformed it into a special sign – a visual shortcut used to convey her doubt (Bechdel 142). Jared Gardner refers to this sign as “an estimator (used in statistics to represent the unknown); or, more familiar to humanists, like the proofreading symbol indicating where additional text should be inserted” (3-4). Robyn Warhol, in turn, observes that “in a text like Fun Home there’s no need for language to carry the whole weight of the visual—the physicality of things, of the body, is unnarratable in words, so the drawings stand in for the curvy circumflex as signs pointing to the gap in signification” (10).

The evolution of the diary page from text to image, as the distrust of language deepens, is not just an expression of Alison-the-character’s dilemmas. This transformation is deployed in order to “open the work of art onto the abyss or chasm of meaning” (Krauss 282). When the drawn diary entry appears in Fun Home for the first time, it still functions both as text-as-image and image-as-text. The reader/viewer treats it simultaneously as a drawing, a visual representation of a certain object, and a piece of writing that he or she is able to read. The text-as-image and image-as-text thus resemble the famous rabbit-duck illusion, described by Ludwig Wittgenstein as “seeing as/seeing that” (194-197). At the final stage of Alison-the-character’s “epistemological crisis” (Bechdel 141), however, that what was once simultaneously text and image eventually establishes itself as primarily the visual (Bechdel 148). The reader/viewer no longer attempts to read the diary entries – he or she ceases to treat it as text. Overridden with a “a curvy circumflex” (Bechdel 142), the diary becomes an image – ambiguous, polysemous, doubtful. To quote Nicholas Mirzoeff, it creates “multiple visual and intellectual associations both within and beyond the intent of the producer of that image” (209). In Alison’s childhood diary, text is rendered inadequate and transformed into an image because of a “gaping rift” (Bechdel 142) between the signifier and the signified. In Fun Home, this primal crisis of representation and life-writing is resolved by means of the verbal/visual ambiguity. Collage method offers a way out of this impasse, much in keeping with Charles Hatfield’s remarks on objectivity and distance in graphic autobiographies:

The cartoonist projects and objectifies his or her inward sense of self, achieving at once a sense of intimacy and a critical distance. It is the graphic exploitation of this duality that distinguishes autobiography in comics form most autobiography in prose. Unlike first-person narration, which works from the inside out, describing events as experienced by the teller, cartooning ostensibly works from the outside in, presenting events from an (imagined) position of objectivity, or at least distance. (115)

In Fun Home, the copied diary entries, though problematically linguistic, function in the visual context of the panel. They are, as if, parenthesized, and thus tamed, as images. They “signify” both within and in opposition to the heterosemiotic verbal/visual system of Fun Home. One the one hand, they are incorporated into the visual sequence as “panels.” On the other hand, they oppose Fun Home’s complex, yet ultimately coherent, verbal-visual structure. Indeed, as Robyn Warhol argues, through the combination of the verbal and the visual Bechdel is eventually able to come to terms with her epistemological crisis: “Where [young Alison] had left holes marked with the “curvy circumflex,” Fun Home fills in with pictures” (10). The verbal/visual ambiguity present in the handwritten diary entries comments on the possibilities and limitations of life writing and completes the autobiographic text, which is not construed as either a verbal or visual tale but as an inseparable combination of both.

The third and final example of the verbal/visual ambiguity present in Bechdel’s text concerns carefully reproduced pages from literary classics, including A Happy Death and The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus and, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, Earthly Paradise by Colette, Flying by Kate Millett, and Ulysses by James Joyce. These texts essentially shaped Bechdel as a person and as an artist and they acquire still further meanings when assessed in the context of the relation between the verbal and the visual. Julia Watson points out that the pages copied from great works of literature expose the inherent verbal/visual character of the page in comics:

[Fun Home’s] dazzling textual collages of drawn objects often interact to form a kind of metacommentary on the comic page as a site of intertextuality. The panels, gutters, and page, as bounded and delimited visual space, allow texturing of the two-dimensional image through collage, counterpoint, the superimposition of multiple media …. Bechdel’s rich exploitation of visual possibilities places Fun Home at an autobiographical interface where disparate modes of self-inscription intersect and comment on one another. (129)

The inclusion of a fragment of a printed text in a panel, traditionally defined as the site of the visual, makes the reader/viewer aware of the double, heterosemiotic, nature of the text he or she is reading. The “semiotic other”  (Mitchell 184) suddenly appears in the sphere reserved for the image only; the word as if shows through the layer of the drawing. Fun Home thus establishes itself not just as a conceptual but also as a very much material collage. The fictional worlds of Camus, Proust, or Joyce are juxtaposed with the autobiographical tale, while the drawings and the faithful reproductions of the text interpenetrate in a single frame. As such, comics, analogously to collage, defines itself as a self-conscious and self-critical form.

Figure 4. The “Ulysses page,” from: Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home, 2006, p. 228. FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel. Copyright © 2006 by Alison Bechdel. All rights reserved.

A closer look at a page from James Joyce’s Ulysses overridden with captions filled with Alison-the-narrator’s comments (Bechdel 228) well exemplifies the postulated complexity (fig. 4). The panel within which the reproduced page is inscribed constitutes both a readable multileveled text and a collagelike visual composition. Indeed, this page-within-a-panel-within-a-page simultaneously reads as a text-within-a-text and an image, similarly to collage that is construed as a visual form and a linguistic sign. The reproduced page from Ulysses, containing Molly’s famous monologue, occupies the top half of the page. At the bottom of what constitutes simultaneously a page from Joyce’s text and a panel delineated by Bechdel, the reader/viewer may discern paratextual elements in the form of “[The End]” and “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921” (Bechdel 228). These inscriptions mark the end of Ulysses and put a stop to Alison-the-narrator’s comments contained in four rectangular captions. The captions come down in an arc from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of the page/panel, reading respectively:

In a telling mistake, dad imputes the beseeching eyes to Bloom instead of to his wife Molly./ But how could he admire Joyce’s lengthy, libidinal “yes” so fervently and end up saying “no” to his own life?/ I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death./ Ulysses, of course, was banned for many years by people who found its honesty obscene [forward slashes indicate division into captions, MO].  (Bechdel 228)

In her fictional/factional, literary/autobiographical, popular/modernist collage of texts and images, Bechdel explores “binary couples married in opposition” (Kraus 28). Fun Home compares and contrasts the life of Joyce’s protagonist with that of Bruce Bechdel. Though one is “ground” and the other “figure,” in the end both form a unique whole. Alison-the-narrator observes in the second caption that Molly Bloom eventually embraced “lengthy, libidinal ‘yes’ so fervently,” while Bruce Bechdel ultimately said “’no’ to his own life” filled with “sexual shame” (Bechdel 228). Bechdel thus explores “queer perspectives on trauma that challenge the relation between the catastrophic and the everyday and that make public space for lives whose very ordinariness makes them historically meaningful” (Cvetkovich 111). In a telling superimposition of texts, texts-turned-images, characters, and narrative voices, the reader/viewer discovers not only a sophisticated play with the verbal and the visual but also a bitter comment on a life that “could have been,” but because of shame, inhibitions, and social demands never “was.”

In a wider context, the reader/viewer may connect “the Ulysses page” with a two-page spread featuring a photograph of Bruce Bechdel’s lover Roy (Bechdel 100-101). Though the latter is a “pure” image which functions within the semantic (play)field of the two-page spread, there exists an interpretative link that as if pierces through the pages of Fun Home and connects the two, exposing the tragic duality of Bruce Bechdel’s fate. The photograph of Roy is both a promise and a proof of sexual fulfillment and erotic truth, while the page from Ulysses signals repression and resignation to the “fiction” of heterosexuality. Both “the Ulysses page” and the photograph of Roy “pertain to the order of time and the world, but their juxtaposition (…) reveals a larger reality” (Jehlen 2) that is constructed and reconstructed by Alison-the-narrator and consequently the reader/viewer within a double framework of heterosexuality and homosexuality, social norms and individual freedom, literature and life, word and image, “figure” and “ground.” The circulation of the sign based on productive oppositions expands to include the circulation of texts, images, truths, and lives.

As can be seen, Fun Home, in a truly collage manner, establishes itself as a dense, creative, and fluctuating text that challenges and engages the reader/viewer in equal measure. Textual and visual “scraps,” that is explicit and implicit quotations and references contained in word balloons, captions, and panels, problematize the reading of Bechdel’s work as, essentially, a junction of creative opposites. The antagonistic notions of fact and fiction, authentication and fictionalization, homosexuality and heterosexuality, high art and low art, modernism and comics, the verbal and the visual are brought together and dismantled in the “mazelike self-reflexivity” (Eveleth 88) that Fun Home shares with the structure of collage. Indeed, word and image, never truly apart but always interconnected, through their “mazelike” character inform the poetics of Bechdel’s work, rendering it a dynamic and unstable text, albeit inscribed in the firm structure of the respective chapters, pages, captions, and panels. Collage practices imbue Fun Home with creative oppositions that ultimately “open up new and troubled spaces of representation” (Whitlock 975).


[1] Fun home was chosen as the best book of the year by, among others, The New York Times, Time, and The Los Angeles Times.
[2] The actual full quote from The Great Gatsby reads: “’See!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?’” (Fitzgerald 41).

[3] While the question of different sign systems working together in one text seems to be the most important, El Refaie’s argument concerning the negative connotations carried by the word “hybrid” is also valid: “Due to its provenance in biology/zoology and its uses in nineteenth-century scientific racism, the term hybridity carries problematic connotations of purity and pollution, which, when applied to social, cultural or textual forms of mixing, may obscure the very phenomena it is meant to illuminate. When hybridity is used to describe the combination of words and images in comics, for example, it may have the unfortunate effect of reifying the two modes and encouraging scholars to draw ill-conceived parallels between some people’s suspicion of the merging of semiotic modes in the comics medium and their dread of racial mixing” (22).

[4] Bechdel emphasized in an interview that she copied the handwriting “[v]ery painstakingly. That was one of the crazier rabbit holes I went down into on this project – reproducing my childhood diary entries and my dad’s handwritten letters. It’s all very carefully traced and redrawn. Except for one very small bit of actual childhood handwriting that I just scanned in a moment of laziness” (Chute, “Interview” 1007).

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Posted in Volume 10, Issue 3: Comics and Fine Art Forum