She came. She spoke. We laughed.
As soon as cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel appeared on stage at the Michigan Theater and graced the nearly-full crowd with her presence, she too laughed … at herself.
“There’s an old saying that cartooning is a field for people who are mediocre artists and mediocre writers, and I would say that in my case, those things are pretty much true,” Bechdel remarked. Soon after, Bechdel presented the audience with her rejection letter from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s that genuine, self-deprecating humor and her idiosyncratic cartoons that captivated the audience on January 22.
But her accolades, such as her 2014 MacArthur Genius Award and breakthroughs for the LGBT community, prove that she’s far from mediocre in her profession.
Bechdel was selected to speak about her biographical graphic novels and the art of cartooning for part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, which has partnered with The Zell Visiting Writer Series and The Institute for Research on Women & Gender. Speaker Series Director Chrisstina Hamilton said Bechdel has been requested to speak numerous times and is highly regarded by Stamps students.
Though ultimately delivered with insightful, witty candor, Bechdel’s presentation tugged at the audience’s heartstrings as she spoke about her unconventional upbringing, defined by the dramatic twists and turns within her family life. She evinced her signature ability to find humor in misfortunes rather than succumb to them, proving her greatest talent lies beyond her work.
Bechdel’s graphic novels examine what most are shy to admit — let alone publish — such as the poignant tale of her father’s secretive, sexual double life that led to his eventual suicide. Yet openness and freedom from inhibition is the essence of Bechdel’s powerful storytelling.
Staying true to her childhood dreams, Bechdel made a name for herself and developed a unique style tinged with honesty.
“I always wanted to be a cartoonist, even when I was a little kid,” Bechdel said. “But it was soon pointed out to me that was not a very practical career choice.”
No stranger to grit and perseverance, Bechdel kept at her craft even when prospects were bleak.
“It took a lot of work and a lot of years before it actually became my job,” Bechdel said. “I had to keep pursuing it, keep pushing it, slowly let go of my paying day jobs. It was a long process committing to it.”
Bechdel emerged in the cartooning field with her marginal lesbian comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” (1983-2008), which originally was not intended for publishing. Instead, the comic was the medium through which Bechdel extracted humor from the lifestyles of her and her friends.
“After I graduated from college, I had recently come out as a lesbian and I just started drawing these comics for me and my friends about women like us, women who looked like us,” Bechdel said. “It was very unusual in the early eighties to see any kind of different looking women in the media, you would just see very feminine women and we were all countering that kind of image and looking kind of wild, crazy and androgynous.”
Though well known for her comic strips and darkly humorous graphic novels, Bechdel is also the creator of her surname-titled test, which assesses the gender bias in films. The Bechdel test deems a film as feminist if it satisfies three requirements: one, if there is a scene with two women, two, the women have a conversation and three, if that dialogue is about something other than a man.
For fans of Bechdel and those who missed the presentation, a comprehensive showcase of her work will be on display at the Institute for Humanities through February 25. The exhibit features original diaries from Bechdel’s youth, the infamous rejection letters, notable comic strips and clutter from her creative process.
Amanda Krugliak, arts curator for the Institute for Humanities, modeled the exhibit after Bechdel’s childhood home with great attention to detail, even mimicking its wallpaper.
“Conceptually, the idea of the room is to place it in the context of the house she grew up in, which was this kind of Victorian house,” Krugliak said. “Her father was really interested in interiors and getting something just right from the Victorian period. I thought it would be interesting to use that as a starting point and think about all these things coexisting in this room — past, present, her work, but also bits and pieces of growing up.”
Bechtle also touched on the media’s response to the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newspaper targeted because of its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
“I think everybody can see the significance of cartoons and comics especially right now,” Hamilton said. “We’re sort of in a very fresh and precious moment with the terrorist acts that happened in Paris just in the last couple weeks that were directed specifically at cartoonists.”
Though intended for comedic effect, comics are undoubtedly a powerful tool. As evidenced by the recent, horrific Parisian tragedies, it’s clear that they can have formidable effects. Yet, the influence of the medium’s worldly succinctness is one to admire.
“Obviously the power of the cartoon is sometimes more powerful than words can solve, that visual element can take it to another place,” Hamilton said. “The ability for comics and cartoons to juxtapose real-world issues in a visual and separate world formant give people the ability to instantly see things that otherwise might take a novel to explain.”
Rather than acting in haste after the world deals us an unfavorable card, perhaps we can move forward from adversity by taking a note from Bechdel and extracting humor from our misfortunes rather than succumbing to them.