The graphic novel is a genre often associated with lighthearted topics, shallow plotlines depicted in garish colors, and dialogue oriented more towards punchlines than introspection. Alison Bechdel subverts all this in her autobiographical novel, Fun Home. Even the title is already a subversion, an act of direct opposition towards the characteristic graphic novel. The ‘fun’ alluded to in the title is not the adjective to describe a good time but an abbreviation of the word ‘funeral’. This foreshadows the tone of the rest of the book: subversive and definitely more on the shadowy side of things.
The central relationship of the book is the one between Bechdel and her father and the story is told in retrospect after his death. This is the premise for a plot, or a life, which is not so much fun as it is thought-provoking. Examining the father-daughter relationship from childhood onwards allows Bechdel to explore multiple aspects of the adult she has grown up to be. In college, Bechdel comes out to her parents only to discover that her father was attracted to men. Subsequently, she tries to piece together the story of her father’s life, and suspected suicide, in an effort to understand her own identity. In the absence of her father, who even alive was emotionally distant, Bechdel turns to literature, history and philosophy for answers and packs a colossal library worth of ideas into the graphic panels.
Bechdel embraces the narrative versatility of the graphic novel, with all the potential for zooming in and out of individual panels or inventing panels not restricted by ordinary borders, such as a handwritten letter covering an entire page. At the same time, she moves away from graphic novel tradition. There are no flashing colors (everything is kept in subdued whites, greys and greens), no speech bubbles with onomatopoeia hovering over conversations or slow-motion fighting scenes. This does not take away from the possibilities of the graphic novel, however. By keeping the look of the book understated, Bechdel is able to bring across the tone of the story she is telling just right. The story of her life, her efforts to develop her identity, and her intellectual quest to provide a framework for this self-discovery would not function in multi-colored setting with flashy speech bubbles. Bechdel’s muted art paves the way for a more introspective reading experience that lets the reader peak into Bechdel’s mind and retreat into one’s own all at once.
Fun Home is what the adult version of the high school bookworm should read. The kid who hungrily read everything from The Amazing Spider-Man to To Kill a Mockingbird and has now graduated on to Homer’s Odyssey will feel at home in this novel as Bechdel (both the writer and the character in her own life story) grapples with James Joyce’s Ulysses, relates to figures from Greek mythology and dives into a treasure-trove of lesbian literature, such as Colette’s Earthly Paradise. The personal story and the intellectual backdrop exist as one; much like a painted panel has a background with characters penciled into the foreground. As theory and personal account exist side by side, Bechdel is able to make her own life more manageable through abstraction and render the theoretical considerations on which she, quite literally, draws more personal and accessible. Fun Home is interdisciplinary on the next level, not only thinking in different disciplines but combining life and letters in one stroke of a paintbrush.