Alison Bechdel, born in 1960 in a rural part of Pennsylvania, went on to establish herself as an acclaimed illustrator and memoirist. An outspoken lesbian, she created the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1983, which would run for more than two decades. Later in 2006 she published the graphic novel Fun Home, a work that looked at her relationship with her father, who was secretly gay as well. The book was turned into a 2015 Broadway musical which won multiple Tonys. Bechdel has also created another graphic family novel, Are You My Mother?, and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014.
Background and Upbringing
Alison Bechdel was born on September 10, 1960 in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and grew up with her two younger brothers in nearby Beech Creek. Her parents, Helen and Bruce, were a creatively-minded pair who lived in Europe for a time. Bruce had a love for literature while Helen was a budding actress. But, with Helen pregnant, the two returned to Pennsylvania to run the family’s mortician business after Bruce’s father died.
Alison’s upbringing consisted of lots of family time and upkeep of the funeral home. She also developed a passion for illustration. Unknown to Bechdel, her father was attracted to men and unable to freely express his desire due to the prejudice of the times. With her dad quite unhappy, Bechdel later recounted instances of his dominating, brusque behavior and a household of alienation where everyone became locked in individual activity.
Long-Running Comic Strip
After graduating from Oberlin College in the early 1980s, Bechdel worked as a word processor in New York while starting her own comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which made its debut in 1983. The strip was showcased in a variety of alternative newspapers and ran for 25 years. The series was also anthologized in book form with The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008), with previous collections having been published over the years as well.
Graphic Novel and Tony-Winning Musical
In 2006, Bechdel published a work that was years in the making, the memoir/graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, with a title inspired by the clan's funeral home. The highly literary outing recounted Bechdel’s early years and her own revelations about being a lesbian while eventually coming to understand who her father was. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and named Time Magazine’s No. 1 Book of the Year.
In the spring of 2015, a musical adaptation of Fun Home debuted on Broadway, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori. The show became a runaway success, earning 12 Tony nominations and winning five, including awards for Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris, portraying Bruce) and Best Musical.
Bechdel followed up Fun Home with Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012), another graphic novel that explored the author’s emotionally complex relationship with her mom. Then in 2014, the author received the MacArthur Fellows “Genius” Award. She has also greatly influenced analysis of the cinematic world, with the Bechdel Test, coined from her comic strip, utilized to measure the presence of female characters in film.
(Profile Photo: Chase Elliott Clark via Flickr)
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