Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel

I’ve heard great things about Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, about her relationship with her father. While I haven’t had a chance to read it myself, when I heard about her upcoming Are You My Mother? I decided to check it out.

Thomas Allen (Canadian distributor for Bechdel’s publisher HMH Books) was kind enough to send me the advanced uncorrected proof of Are You My Mother? to review. It contained only the first chapter of the book, and so while I cannot give a full review, I can certainly tell you my reaction to that excerpt. Here it is: I want to read more.

I looked up the book online, and saw this article that says HMH has planned a first printing of 100,000 copies for Mother, which is “a pretty daring number for a sophomore literary writer, and one of the biggest ever for a [graphic novel].” Great news, especially if you loved Fun Home and can’t wait to read more. Mother is on sale today!

From the blurb: Mother takes a look at the life of Bechdel’s mother,

voracious reader; music lover; passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man […] [Mother] leads readers from the life and work of iconic 20th-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life.

Personally, I can’t wait to see the “explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration.” In the first chapter alone, Bechdel begins by wondering how best to tell her mother about Fun Home to reflecting on Virginia Woolf, symbolic dreams and psychotherapy. There is a touching glimpse of Bechdel as a child, dictating the events of her day to her mother who wrote them in a journal. Bechdel’s recitation was, she admits, “obsessive-compulsive” in the amount of mundane details, yet still her mother “was listening to me. Whatever I said, she wrote down.” In stark contrast to this is her confession to her therapist that she is drawn to the work of Donald Winnicott because “I want him to be my mother.”

Bechdel’s mother as she appears in the first chapter is a complex figure — loving yet critical, eager to give constructive criticism on Mother yet at other points also seeming to distance herself from the work. I am already fascinated by this woman, and am eager to read more about her. The excerpt ends with a powerful montage, a cluster of photographs Bechdel discovers and arranges “according to my own narrative.” Apparently taken as a continuous series of shots, the images of Bechdel as a baby in her mother’s arms reveal the mom making funny faces and the baby getting progressively more delighted. In the second to the last photo, the baby is practically screaming with laughter, only to end with the baby’s wary glance at the man behind the camera in the last photo. So much is said in two pages. The juxtaposition of her mother’s chatter about Lady Gaga in the present day (in jagged boxes) with Bechdel’s narration about the photographs (in regular rectangles) heightens the poignancy of the moment. You can almost feel the past and the present merging, and you are pulled right into this family’s tale.

Bonus: the proof I received also included a peek at Alison Bechdel’s process of creating this memoir. I had no idea how much work went into creating a graphic memoir. I always just assumed the cartoonist drew the page by hand and then scanned it onto the computer and then somehow ink and colour it digitally. Okay, to be honest, I was more than a little blurry on the details after the drawing by hand part.

For Bechdel, I learned it is a twelve-step process using practically the entire Adobe Creative Suite. I was most fascinated by the fact that her first step is writing the story on Adobe Illustrator: “even though I’m on the computer and not holding a pencil, I’m conceiving of the page in terms of images and design at the same time that I’m writing the narration and dialogue.” Confession, in case you haven’t figured it out by now – my only experience in cartooning is doodling comic strips, usually when bored at school. My process consists of drawing stick figures (or if I’m especially creative, peanut figures) and then having talk bubbles beside their heads. So I find it utterly fascinating that Bechdel (and, for all I know, perhaps lots of other graphic novel writers) designs the layout of the panels first, before drawing anything.

I don’t know if that glimpse into Bechdel’s creative process will be in the published book, but I certainly hope so. I’ve always respected writers and artists of graphic novels. Seeing Mother under step-by-step construction fascinated me, and made me respect them even more.

Great news, by the way, for Bechdel fans — she’ll be at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival on Saturday, May 5th! Tip: show up early. She’ll be at TCAF for only a day, and I bet there’ll be a huge line.

UPDATE: I’ve just received a review copy of the entire book from Thomas Allen Ltd. Thanks Thomas Allen! My review of the finished book will be posted later this month.

1 thought on “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel

  1. Pingback: Review | Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel | Literary Treats

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