Is A Picture Worth A Thousand Words? Black Hole by Charles Burns (2005) and Fun Home By Alison Bechdel (2006)

Is a picture worth a thousand words?  Sometimes.

To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of graphic novels, considering them to be more expensive and lengthier cousins of comic books.  I did enjoy Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and its sequels.  Satrapi’s illustrations hammered the human toll of the Shah’s overthrow in Iran.  However, I made the mistake of following up Satrapi’s thoughtful work with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.  The Walking Dead justified my prejudices.  It’s  a comic strip on steroids sans superheroes.  Kirkman’s sadistic account of a zombie apocalypse  makes sensationalism boring and repetitive. Rick’s group of survivors,  Kirkman’s main characters, encounter group after group of barbaric fellow survivors.  The ongoing encounters begin to blur with the only variables being who gets killed, who gets mutilated, and how.  There are only so many times you can make the point that humans unleashed from the restraints of civilization are more dangerous than zombies. Hell, that’s probably even the case with the trappings of civilization intact.

Summer invites lighter reading, and I decided to give graphic novels a second chance. I started with Black Hole by Charles Burns. Ultimately Black Hole was disappointing, although it’s a far better work than The Walking Dead.  It’s high school in the 1970’s in the suburbs of the State of Washington.  There’s cool kids and outcasts, but this time the geeks transform into literal freaks.  An STD causes the infected to erupt with various and variable deformities. A girl grows a tail.  A guy’s neck develops a miniature, second mouth.  Those are the more fortunate.  Others develop tumescent eruptions that prompt them to flee to the woods, where they build makeshift huts and scrounge for food, rejection and ostracization made palpable.

I know Burns is using a metaphor for alienation and sexual anxiety but literal little me had some trouble getting past the fact that it was the geeks who were getting all the action, with only one popular girl among the afflicted.  And how is it that no authorities/parents figured out that a group of kids had gone AWOL, living in an encampment just outside town? And the kid who’s so bullied that he goes Columbine focuses his rage on his fellow geeks.  I’m not sure that geeks devour their own.

Black Hole puts the graphic back into graphic novel. The hole is a metaphor for–yep, you guessed it.  Black Hole is flooded with illustrations of slits as well as drawings of snakes and serpents, the other side of the Freudian coin.   The drawings are sometimes erotic without being salacious. Burns’ ending is also a black hole: there’s no resolution, and Burns departs from convention: the popular girl and stoner guy don’t fall in love.   But then, Burns is right about one thing: the teen years are black holes clouded by uncertainty even about the present much less the future. Decades ago, Carole King asked, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”  That’s just the tip of the iceberg of teenager angst.

Alison Bechdel has single-handedly redeemed the genre.

Bechdel’s  Fun Home is an illustrated memoir about sexuality, gender, and the enduring power of literature.  It’s a graphic memoir where the  writing is as powerful as the drawing.  Bechdel is erudite and cerebral.  She mediates her life through Camus, Proust, Joyce, Wilde, Fitzgerald, and James adding abundant allusions to Greek mythology and equally abundant references to popular culture.

Fun Home refers to the funeral home owned by Bechdel’s father, Bruce, in rural Pennsylvania.  It’s also an ironic label for the Bechdel household.  Bechdel grows up in a home presided over by a remote and embittered father.  Bruce is closeted, and his frustrations whip the family. His moods shift on a dime and his obsession with perfection heighten the stress. Mom’s equally embittered. Helen, a high school teacher who performs in local theater, discovers early  in the marriage that she’s a beard. She has staying power, but she’s not meant for gracious matyrdom.  Bruce dies after being hit by a truck.  It’s either an accident or a suicide.  Bruce either did or did not walk into a truck.  The death occurs just shortly after Bechdel comes out to her parents.

We learn that  Bruce is meticulous.  He’s a part-time funeral director/high school teacher, with passions for home restorations and gardening.  Bechdel marvels at her father’s  inventiveness, and Bechdel compares him to Daedalus. “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea?  Or just disappointed by the design failure?” Bechdel asks.  Bechdel resents how Bruce  “treats his furniture, like children, and his children like furniture.”  Bechdel and Bruce clash. ” I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly.  Utilitarian to his aesthete,” Bechdel explains.

In subsequent chapters, Bechdel peels back the family layers, onion-like.  She comments on gender roles.  Young Alison wants to wear swim trunks like her brothers, has no interest in attending the school dance, prefers wearing sneakers to a wedding, plays dress up in her father’s suits, leading to “a war of cross-purposes” with Bruce. “While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through me.”  Her portrayal of her family as atoms circling in separate orbits is haunting and searing.

Ambiguity adds texture: there’s the circumstances of Bruce’s death and his relationships with male high school students whom he hires as assistants.  As she gets older, Bechdel reaches a partial understanding with Bruce through their shared love of literature  When Alison comes out  (fittingly Bechdel realizes she is a lesbian through her reading including a volume of Colette given to her by Bruce), Helen is not supportive and tells Alison about Bruce’s homosexuality, a revelation that allows Bechdel to make some sense of her childhood.   Bruce  writes assuming that Alison know’s that he’s gay.  He tells Alison to keep her options open and is defensive about not having come out himself:  he’s no hero and the times were different.  In one of the funniest and happiness scenes, father and daughter venture into a gay bar only to be ousted because Alison is underage.  Alison concludes that inventive as Bruce is, he’s no Daedalus in one crucial respect.  “He was there to catch me when I leapt.”

Bechdel brings a mighty pen to her illustrations. The drawings are detailed down to the titles of books in the stacks and an episode of The Flying Nun playing on a background television. The blue-gray inke juxtaposed against the black outlines and black-lettered dialogue adds a fun note to Fun Home.

Bruce’s lack of choices stands in sharp contrast to Alison’s jubilant coming-out.  It’s stories like these that call the melting pot into question.  Some groups, like the millions of men and women like Bruce who were forced to deny themselves, entered the pot only by coerced conformity.  Blacks were consigned to a separate pot.  Native Americans were shuttled to a pot reserved only for them.

Bechdel’s tale shows things are getting better but  they’re still not where they should be. A couple of years ago, a bunch of incoming freshmen boycotted Fun Home when it was assigned at Duke.  During this Pride month, a red state elected a vehemently anti-gay Congresswoman.

Alison Bechdel has lent her name to a test for measuring gender equality in books, theater and film: there’s at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  If we need to have a test, then we’re still falling short.

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