But just as in my university days, in my sheltered university life, when I mistakenly started to believe that the world had become more liberal, open-minded, and accepting, I think the internet, or at least the sites I found myself on, led me to celebrate too early the "mission accomplished" of graphic novels. Case in point, Canada Reads 2011 (just 2 years ago). While Jeff Lemire's Essex County was a contender, and proof of at least some progress, it was eliminated on the very first day with several panelists dismissing it as not real reading. I can accept that not all graphic novels are created equal, that some (just like regular novels) can be down right crap. But I challenge anyone to not be challenged by Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.
A quote from an old review of mine came back to haunt me as I read Fun Home: Can I say that I love poetry but I hate words? Alison Bechdel uses a lot of words and references in Fun Home that I did not know, and only few of which I bothered to look up. For instance:
I was Spartan to my father's Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete.Even if you do understand all of this, I don't think many readers would say it was an instant connection. Yet I was enjoying the book and giving Bechdel a pass on her demanding, sometimes exhausting, vocabulary when I had criticized poets for doing that same thing before... almost. When I considered it in more depth, I think the essence of my poetry review was not necessarily with all of the challenging words, but it was poets who use big "poetic" words for the sake of using big "poetic" words; to be pretentious, to purposely obscure, to posture as a poet. But Bechdel differs because she comes across as sincere in her word choices. I had to concede that she's simply a smarter person than I and any problem with her vocabulary is a problem with my own.
Plus, the visuals helped me at least keep atop of the plot and themes. There are two main things going on in Fun Home: Bechdel's coming to terms with the death of her father (whom she struggled to connect with, whose death was a likely suicide, and who had a lot of secrets for her to discover) and Bechdel's coming to terms with her sexual identity. Of course, this is a memoir and major events like these are clearly connected, making my dividing the book into two plots a little inaccurate. But it would be hard to say which event readers would declare the focus of the book.
Personally I thought the book began to run out of steam in the last quarter— major events had already occurred and it started to feel repetitive— but I'd enjoyed it enough up to that point that I'd still say the book is a compelling read.
The artwork reminded me of Lynn Johnston's work if Lynn Johnston hadn't written for a weekly newspaper. That is to say, Bechdel's characters were very similar stylistically and in their expressions, but Bechdel's backgrounds, colouring and angles were superior in quality. Nothing Johnston wasn't clearly capable of, but she had tighter deadlines to meet after all. (Somehow I meant this paragraph as a complement to both women, but I'm not sure if that's the way it came out!)