I just finished Alison Bechdel’s brilliant graphic novel Are You My Mother—my first graphic novel ever. It was a Christmas present from my teenage son, a comic fiend, who for years has been trying to get me to read graphic novels. He’s explained the way you have to read them, right then left and on that way down the page. “You have to look carefully at each picture, Mom, you can’t just read the words,” he’d say, exasperated with my cursory read. “But I like words,” I’d explain. “It’s what I’m used to.”
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama sat on my shelf for months. (When your son gives you a book with this title, it has to be a bit awkward, right?) But he thought I’d like it, so at last I cracked the book open. And I couldn’t put it down. I was surprised to find it is, in fact, a memoir. Bechdel draws her girlfriends, her analysts, her mother and herself. In the beginning, the character Alison is attempting to write a book about her mother and finds herself stymied. Through the aid of Virginia Woolf, Woolf’s friend, the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, as well as Freud and Jung, Bechdel looks unflinchingly at herself and her mother and reaches the heart of their tangled and fraught relationship.
Genius comes in many forms and one of them, it turns out, is the modern graphic novel. Now I’m looking forward to Bechdel’s first book Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic.