Last week, I picked up "Fun Home," Alison "Dykes to Watch Out For" Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel, finding it on the recommended table at my local comic shop, the incomporable (and wittily named) Secret Headquarters in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
Fun Home tells the story of Bechdel's girlhood growing up with her closeted, literature-obsessed father and her bitter mother in a Victorian house that her father was remodeling, bit by bit. More than anything, this is the story of Bechdel's father, a third-generation funeral home owner who teaches English to make ends meet. Bechdel grows up surrounded by, and oblivious to, his illicit affairs, including some with the young men he hires to babysit her and her brothers. Meanwhile, Bechdel struggles with her own sexuality, coming slowly to realize first that there is such a thing as a lesbian, and then that she is one.
Bechdel's drawing style — familiar to many from her excellent syndicated strip — is both friendly and confessional, painful truths revealed in the lines as much as the speech-balloons. She is merciless in cracking open her life and the life of her family, and the story veers from hilarious to tragic, often on the same page.
The story is told in a dreamy style, meandering forward and back in time, illuminated with renderings of her girlhood diary, letters her father wrote to her mother, excerpts from the books that were her father's secret encoded messages to her. As an artifact, the hardcover book is handsome and mysterious, with sly die-cuts in the staid green cover and neon orange boards beneath with illustrations revealing the hidden truths of Bechdel's family home.
"Fun Home" manages the painful trick of getting us to sympathize with people whose flaws are monstrous, by laying out the way that Bechdel herself came to that sympathy.