For nearly six weeks, Alison Bechdel has been living in a castle in Italy, drawing life-size portraits of adults in yoga poses. It may not be the kind of work you'd expect from the writer-illustrator of the cult comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and graphic memoirs Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?, but she says it was time for a change. "I was about run dry when I arrived here. Now I feel fantastic." Over Skype, Bechdel leans toward the camera. "I mostly draw in real life with a pen, then I put it in a computer and make little changes. So usually, I'm working really small. This has been a great, organic, fun, freeing thing to work really big." She beams when she says "big," excited about the sheer scale of her new work.
This has been the summer of "big" for Bechdel. A musical based on Fun Home is set to premiere on Broadway; she was awarded the artists residency in Italy; and the day before we spoke, she was announced as a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. That last bit of news is what she's having the hardest time wrapping her mind around. Her voice rises in pitch when she talks about the MacArthur grant. "This is so weird. My life has been so crazy. I've had about five lifetimes worth of good fortune. For six weeks, I've been at an artist residency in Umbria, living in a castle with a bunch of other artists. Now this?"
The MacArthur grant provides the recipients with more than bragging rights. Bechdel and her fellow "geniuses" will also be gifted $625,000 to be paid out in increments over a five-year period. Bechdel is shocked and grateful to be named in such esteemed company, though slightly concerned about how such a large sum could change her approach to her work. "It's such a huge gift of security, but security can have a double edge. In many ways, needing to earn a living really drives me. Don't worry, I'm very happy to have it. But I can see there may be pitfalls to it. I want to be very careful not to be lulled into complacency. I want to keep taking risks. I think the point of it is to enable you to take risks, but I can see how it would have the opposite effect. You feel like you have to have a lot of gravitas or be a 'serious' writer now. I hope I don't get derailed by that."
Surely, longtime fans and observers of Bechdel's work hope the same will be true. The comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For ran for 25 years (1983–2006) and was renowned for its humorous depiction of the everyday lives of lesbians in America. Even in her graphic memoirs, Bechdel has a way of approaching dark memories with a lightness that comes from having survived her own crucible. This is why her body of work has often been considered a reliable archive of life in the LGBT community over two decades. For Bechdel, this was always the plan. "I feel like my work has been very intimately and inextricably bound up with the LGBT movement. I was part of it. I was reflecting it."
A consistent concern for Bechdel, lately, has been the unintended consequences of LGBT groups campaigning for acceptance via rhetoric that can be boiled down to "we're just like you." "One of the main topics of my comic strip was what happens as we become assimilated and more accepted? What's lost and what's gained. It was something I was very passionately interested in and wanted to document." From those conversations, she gathered that many of her contemporaries had the same concerns she did. "At the danger of waxing nostalgic about the 'old days,' I don't want to be like everyone else. I want acceptance, but I want acceptance of my difference, not my sameness. It's a funny contract. The cultural machine wants to chew everyone up and turn them into this uniform little substance."
Bechdel is painfully aware that what led her to being awarded a MacArthur grant must have been her "otherness" more than anything that makes her "normal." "You couldn't pick a less likely career trajectory likely to lead to a MacArthur award than what I've been doing. A comic strip? It's crazy."
Still, it's been working out since before the fellowship came along. Even beyond the long-standing popularity of Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel's graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? have been great successes in their own right. Since the publication of both books, Bechdel's mother has passed away (her father's death is the subject of Fun Home), and she's still processing this through her art. "It's terrible when your parents die, it's a horrible loss. It's an almost unbearable kind of freedom. My mother died a year ago, and I'm in this new phase. I feel like it could free me up to do something really good, and I hope it does. Everyone's parents exert this conservative pressure on us. It's rare for that not to happen. Our parents kind of colonize us in a way. We're their subjects and it's our job to liberate ourselves from them, and it takes a long time. I've reached a stage with my mother's death where I'm wondering, Now what do you do with these 10–20 years you have left of freedom? That's what I've got to find out."
First, there will be a new book. "It's called The Secret to Superhero Strength and it's about my personal physical fitness history and the various fads I've followed. It's about other stuff too, but thats the structure. It's also about creativity and the relationship between these physical activities and my own creative progress and evolution, because they're connected." Another thing Bechdel would like to work on is how she creates. "The next phase of my art is to have an easier relationship with it. I know this is strange to say, because I'm a cartoonist, and you would think it's fun to draw comics, but I have a rather tortured relationship to my own creativity. That's what I want to explore in this new book. Is it possible to have creativity come less painfully? I hope that I can get to that place."
Finally, when asked what advice she would have for other young queer women artists, Bechdel demures. She's not usually one to dispense advice, but when pushed she gives up a bit of information. "Just tell the truth. Try and be as real as you can, examine your own motivations as deeply as you can. I think we're all basically selfish creatures, and it's hard to break out of that. I think that's what anyone creative is trying to do. Just get beyond that cynicism."