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Review of The Comics of Alison Bechdel: From the Outside In

By Noah Mullens

Utell, Janine, editor. The Comics of Alison Bechdel: From the Outside In. University Press of Mississippi, 2020. Print.

Scholarship on Alison Bechdel has all but canonized her work in comic studies, a circumstance that can prevent or enable new modes of thought. Bechdel first rose to popularity when she published her graphic memoir Fun Home in 2006. Ever since the book was named Time magazine’s Book of the Year that same year, Bechdel’s work has become a staple in syllabi for literature courses and commonplace in scholarship concerning queer comics, psychoanalysis, and activism. In The Comics of Alison Bechdel collection, Utell attempts to expand on preexisting scholarship by arguing that Bechdel’s corpus cannot be engaged without considering her attempts to make “visible the self out in the world alongside the inner world of the subject” (XIV). By taking this approach, Utell’s main goal is to investigate how performing queerness impacts Bechdel’s role as an outsider as well as her depictions of interiority. This collection builds on the “outside/in” approach through three sections that examine Bechdel’s influence on comics, her questions of relationality, and her use of space. The fifteen essays in this collection cover a lot of ground, weaving together theoretical perspectives (ex. see Howard) with research in the Alison Bechdel Papers (ex. see Van Dyne). 

Some of the essays in the collection stand out as doing especially innovative work with bringing new frameworks to Bechdel’s corpus. For example, Michelle Ann Abate’s chapter draws fascinating (and novel) connections between Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2004, hereon referred to as DTWOF) and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip. Abate writes that, “whereas [Bechdel’s] graphic memoir [Fun Home] is widely seen as being steeped in the past of her childhood, her serial comic strip is just as strongly associated with the contemporaneous present of her life as an adult” (83). Abate intervenes in this common idea that Bechdel’s DTWOF was only inspired by her life as an adult, writing that “the strip may also have been shaped by ones that transpired during her childhood” (83). By drawing on past interviews and scholarship on the cultural-historical impact of Peanuts, Abate uses her background in children’s literature to present an imaginative angle to DTWOF. Though Bechdel’s comics are rarely imagined as inspired by children’s media (or as an alternative to children’s literature), Abate convincingly speculates that Bechdel drew inspiration from the role of therapy, anxiety, and Peppermint Patty’s tangible lesbianism in Schulz’s Peanuts. 

The collection builds on Abate’s nuanced approach to Bechdel’s work by including multiple essays with interdisciplinary approaches. For example, in her analysis of rural space, Katie Hogan also folds in theories of rural queer life to add new nuances to Fun Home. Likewise, Alissa S. Bourbonnais creatively deploys untraditional scholarship in dance to conduct close readings of Fun Home’s chapter title panels (in a later essay, Tyler Bradway similarly examines the inside covers of Are You My Mother), an aspect of the graphic memoir she claims to “appear as an afterthought, if at all, in Bechdel scholarship” (92). Though Bourbonnais recognizes how “it may seem that the chasm between the two art forms such as a dance and graphic narrative is too great to form a basis of comparison,” (90), the chapter raises interesting questions of how to read “choreographed memory… [or] performative aspect of remembering” (93) in the archival body of a text. 

Bourbonnais’ chapter leads nicely into the next, which is Leah Anderst’s treatment of the Fun Home musical adaptation. Anderst, alongside Margaret Galvan’s chapter on Servants to a Cause (1989-90), mark a welcome inclusion of texts from Bechdel’s repertoire that may otherwise go understudied. Whereas most of the chapters deal directly with DTWOF, Fun Home, or Are You My Mother? (2012), Anderst introduces adaptation studies as a critical site for understanding Bechdel’s oeuvre. Anderst foregrounds how the musical theater adaptation of Fun Home amplifies emotional experiences by turning Bechdel’s disembodied narration in the graphic memoir into a physical character on stage (116). Going back to comics, Galvan’s contribution examines Servants to a Cause, a comic strip Bechdel ran 19 episodes of before it was pulled. Galvan’s attention to media environment and intersectionality was striking, especially in moments where she walks the reader through how the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian publications like the Advocate led to grassroots comics being dropped from publication (223). Galvan’s work shows how scholars can work with the Alison Bechdel Papers housed/archived at Smith College to consider the politics of queer publishing, or, more broadly, to conduct research on Bechdel’s writing process and understudied works. 

The collection is also strong in advancing scholarly approaches to DTWOF. Though not as under studied as Servants to a Cause, DTWOF receives less scholarly treatment than Fun Home, making the six contributions here that discuss the comic strip notable. In her essay, Anne N. Thalheimer demonstrates how concepts of gender were negotiated over time in the strip by analyzing the complications of one character, Sparrow, declaring herself a “bisexual lesbian” (30) and another character performing as a drag king (31). She writes that, “[l]anguage shifts even though print is static, and if ‘lesbian’ is a frame that is culturally determined, it must change as culture does: it is not the same word it was thirty years ago” (35). By claiming this, Thalheimer tracks how DTWOF oscillates between a lesbian feminist politics and a queer understanding of identity. Judith Kegan Gardiner continues to think about gender in DTWOF through her fresh and well-written investigation of men and masculinity in lesbian comics. In one of the more persuasive close readings of DTWOF, Katherine Parker-Hay uses the strip “Unminced Words” to articulate Bechdel’s investment in bridging queer theory to everyday relationality (47). Readers interested in the connection between queer theory and praxis, as well as the complications of identity in lesbian spaces of the ‘80s and ‘90s, will benefit from these nuanced examinations of DTWOF. 

The Comics of Alison Bechdel: From the Outside In covers a wide variety of topics ranging from performance art, network studies, cartography, and narrative theory. The collection will be of interest to scholars in comics and Alison Bechdel, but also for scholars in queer studies, memoir studies, performance studies, and archival research. The individual essays will also be useful to instructors teaching Bechdel, as all of them are relatively short and concise in their arguments. Though there was a breadth of original approaches that incorporated contemporary conversations of Bechdel’s work, at times the collection could had benefitted from a stronger connective tissue between the works. For example, though the three subsections are helpful for pairing chapters together thematically, the array of approaches made the essays read as loosely connected with only sparse references to other chapters. There were also some missed opportunities in chapter organization. Though most of the essays were adequately paired together (for example, Bourbonnais chapter on dance is preceded by Anderst’s analysis of the musical), essays without a clear match were bookended to the beginning or ends of sections. This reader would had also liked to see a more comprehensive index that reflected the innovative work occurring in the individual essays (for instance, canonical author and interlocutor James Joyce is indexed, but not the keywords “choreography” or “rural”). 

Be that as it may, these chapters give a glimpse into the current state of Bechdel scholarship and serve as a solid foundation for future works, such as Bechdel’s most recent publication The Secret to Superhuman Strength and the film adaptation of Fun Home. Importantly, The Comics of Alison Bechdel: From the Outside In serves as a necessary contribution to the Critical Approaches in Comic Artists Series hosted by the University Press of Mississippi, to what this reader hopes is a beginning for the series in examining the works of less mainstream grassroot and queer comic writers.

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