Last night I finished Alison Bechdel’s excellent comics memoir, FUN HOME. I don’t have a whole lot to add to the raves (it’s been on on NPR, it’s gotten fabulous reviews, it’s selling like hotcakes all over), but it probably ranks up there with some of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read.
While it’s a genuinely enjoyable read, with a subject matter as engrossing and complex as any prose memoir, the carnivorous, thieving cartoonist in me solidified some of my feelings about the form, and found some good things to steal…
Disclaimer: Gerry over at Backwards City recently linked to this Wired article about academics at Comic-Con, so more than usual, I’m fully aware that writing about comics is pretty lame. “You have this dog and you love it, and you want to find out why you love it. You dissect it, and you’re left with this dead bloody dog on the table. That’s one of the things that academics do.” But I’m going to do it anyways, and haphazardly at that.
JUXTAPOSITION OF VOICEOVER NARRATION AND IMAGE/DIALOGUE
For me, the greatest technical accomplishment in FUN HOME is the juxtaposition of Bechdel’s written, first-person narrative with her panels and speech bubble dialogue. This might be a “duh” observation, as word/picture juxtapostion is something you might take for granted as a pre-requisite for comics, but that’s simply not the case. Take something like Brian K. Vaughn’s equally excellent Y: THE LAST MAN, for instance: it plays out like a really intricate movie: there is no narrator, only a camera’s eye. The same for most gag strips, like PEANUTS and KRAZY KAT: there is no narrator, only the characters and speech bubbles.
What voiceover narration (for lack of a better term) allows you to do in comics is make bigger jumps in between moments in time and images, thereby freeing you from the kind of static, talking head syndrome of plays or scenes in film. It also, through juxtaposition, allows you to cram a bunch of information into a tiny amount of space. My favorite folks who use the technique (and consequently, my favorite cartoonists) are Lynda Barry and James Kochalka. What it really is, I think, is the perfect integration of writing and art.**
Anyways, in creative writing classes, they’re always harping at you to show, not tell.*** Use concrete language verses abstract language. If you notice, much of the voiceover narration is ridiculously abstract, but combined with the concrete images and dialogue of the panels, you get this sweeping, novelistic effect…a soothing voice that takes your reader by the hand and leads them through the world, reflects on what is happening. Less voyeuristic, I guess, and more like a tour…
RECURSIVE NARRATIVE, ARCHIVAL ELEMENTS, AND THE UNITY OF STYLE
As Hillary Chute in her Village Voice review pointed out, “Fun Home ‘s narrative is recursive, not chronological—it returns again and again to central, traumatic events.” This is something that I think begs to be looked at in terms of world-building. FUN HOME isn’t so much a chronological retelling of events as much as it is a world.
Dylan Horrocks, once again:
…the panel is a unit not of time or space, but of meaning (a kind of sememe). And rather than being arranged in a sequence, Kochalka’s units are arranged in rhythmic patterns. The purpose of these patterns, he claims, isn’t merely to depict the flow of time, but to “create and activate a world inside us.”
Now, most discussion about comics (or fiction, for that matter) assumes that their main purpose is to tell a story – a narrative that moves through time; hence McCloud’s description of comics as a “temporal map.” But here, Kochalka seems to suggest something quite different: that comics create a world, a place. Instead of SPACE = TIME, this is SPACE = SPACE.
Bechdel returns again and again to maps and explaining events in geographical terms, and FUN HOME is like a map of Bechdel’s brain, and her archive: it contains “handwritten letters from [her] father, typewritten letters from both her parents, her father’s police record, dictionary entries, her own childhood and adolescent diaries, and many maps. Bechdel re-drew—re-created—everything in her own hand.”
That Bechdel chose to re-draw all these elements in her own hand is a trick to graphic novel writing: the style unifies the disparate elements, so you can turn to any page, and it looks like it comes from the same world, filtered from the same mind.
Okay, that was kind of a pantload. I promise tomorrow I’ll just post a pretty picture and call it a day.
**Dylan Horrocks recently said on his blog: “[Comics] allow you to be both an artist and a writer all at once. And many (James Kochalka is one example who comes to mind) seem to me to defy any attempt to place them in either of two such arbitrary ‘camps.’
***which makes me wonder, really, if there’s any hope for applying the MFA workshop format to making comics. Check out this great interview with Francine Prose about the sorry state of MFA programs.