The controversial current cover of Time magazine reads, “Are You Mom Enough?”; the image is of a young woman breast-feeding her three-year-old son (it illustrates an article on attachment parenting). It's just one example of the ways our culture is fascinated by motherhood—and the countless ways it can go wrong. That's also the topic of Are You My Mother?, the latest book by cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, longtime author of the Dykes to Watch Out For comics. While her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, told her father's story, Bechdel's newest book is the result of her herculean attempts to better understand herself, her mother, and their relationship. It's a highly intelligent work that offers a deeply intimate look at Bechdel’s relationships and working process. Bechdel is speaking and signing books tonight at 7:30 PM at the Swedish American Museum (5211 N. Clark); it's free with the purchase of a book, and companion tickets are $7.
I thought we could begin with the basics. Can you describe your creative process while writing both Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
I thought I had figured out a pretty clear methodology when I wrote Fun Home. My particular way of combining words and pictures and telling a story. I thought, ‘Oh, OK, I can keep doing this.’ But that wasn’t really the case. I had to figure out a whole new way of doing things for this book. I felt like I was at sea—I was really figuring it out as I went along. For me, writing both of these books was a total process of discovery. It’s painful and nerve-racking to work like that. But if you’re honest, it’s what you have to do.
How do text and the visual play off against other?
Visuals are my language. It’s how I express my ideas. It’s like film in a lot of ways. The images are integral to expressing the ideas.
I think both books are very cinematic.
This book is a lot more visually dynamic. I do a lot more with point of view and angles. It’s a more sophisticated way of drawing. In Fun Home, the design was basically a six-panel spread. I used the physical book a lot more in Are You My Mother?.
Was that just a result of maturing after writing your first book?
Yeah, maturation. It’s like I learned to play my scales in Fun Home. And now I was able to play a few chords. . . .
There’s a two-page spread in Are You My Mother? where you show yourself at four different ages. It seems like that would be nearly impossible feat without graphics.
My girlfriend actually pointed that out to me! I’m an infant, I’m 26, I’m ten, and I’m 40. That’s insane. When I first showed my agent a draft of Fun Home, she said it was crazy and no one could follow it. But when I got it illustrated, she agreed that a reader could follow it. It makes a huge difference.
How would you characterize your drawing style?
I have two totally different switches in my brain. One is drawing while looking at a thing and the other is drawing from my imagination. I did the latter as child, and I don’t anymore. I want to do more of that. I want to do more of everything. I want to study figure drawing—I’ve been saying this all my life. I want to actually get practice looking at figures.
Are there other ways you’d like to improve your technique?
I’d like to draw more simply. In Are You My Mother?, my drawings got more lifelike than in Fun Home. My process involves me posing as a lot of my characters. I took like 4,000 photographs that I worked from for this book. I’d like to become less reliant on photographs. Or not. I don’t know. It’s a comfortable drawing aid.
I love to draw. But I can only draw from life, not my imagination.
The problem is, [drawing from life] necessarily creates a more complex, intricate drawing. If you’re drawing out of your head, you tend to draw more simply. For example, Chris Ware's work is staggering. He draws these really simple geometric figures. On the iconic to realistic spectrum, I’m very much on the realistic end.
Are You My Mother? reminds me of Joan Didion. You both have an acute sense of self and remember your lives in exacting detail.
I love her work too. I love how she combines storytelling and essays. In a sense, Are You My Mother? is a very close reading of my life. It's just a way to look microscopically close at events in my life—when things happened in relation to other things. It was very illuminating. And I only know that because of my own record keeping.
Was there ever a moment where you thought, ‘Oh shit, I don’t really feel comfortable telling my audience this story?’
I pretty much knew how it’d be. One scene was really hard and awful to write about: the childhood sex drawing scene. The whole time I was writing it I was in various states of misery and self-loathing.
What was particularly difficult about that scene?
It’s so revealing. I’m basically talking about a childhood sexual fantasy. But maybe that’s not so revealing in this day and age. It just felt like it was a new level of revelation and it took me a while to get comfortable with it. Well, I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it now, but I had to write it, it’s part of the story.
Did you ever feel like you were imposing the present on the past?
I didn’t feel any dissonance. I feel like these are my memories. It’s weird committing memories into a physical form. Apparently every time you have a memory, the very act of recalling it changes it. I’ve done that in a really big way by putting it in a book. I'm kind of divesting myself of these memories. And it’s hard to access the true thing anymore, if it ever was there to begin with.
So what is it about the motherhood that makes it such a popular trope in literature?
I feel like mothers are just fucked. Being a mother is an impossibly consuming task. I don’t know how anyone does it. I can’t imagine doing it. I have zero maternal instinct. Motherhood is like the root problem of everything. It all comes down to what [Donald] Winnicott says, it’s the root of misogyny. We were all dependent on a woman at some point, and we all hate that.
It’s also the most universal relationship. We all have a mother. And yet there’s no clear answer to what it means to be a good mother.
Right. What’s so comforting about Winnicott and his good-enough mother theory is he seems to think that most people just do fine. He felt like people know instinctively know what to do. God, I was flying on a plane yesterday in front a mother with four children. One was a baby on her lap. And she was just amazing.
On a final note, I just saw the “Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” at the Art Institute and I was amazed at how relevant his work still feels. Why do you think comics have endured as an art form?
I think comic books have a broad audience. It’s not relegated to its own section anymore. Like gay and lesbian stuff isn’t relegated to its own section. I don’t know where the genre will go. I feel like comics might save the hard copy book. They demand a physical book in a way that prose don't because you need to relate to the page spread. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. The terrain is always shifting.