Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Graphic Novel Review - Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For many, the term graphic novel is synonymous with comic books and brings to mind a certain set of clichés: superpowers, busty babes, muscled guys, out-there villains, and copious badassery. Even those whose interest goes beyond superhero comic book fare are mainly familiar with writers who started out as comic book writers.

However, the genres and styles within the medium go beyond the more mainstream stories published by companies like Marvel and DC. As with any industry, an indie segment exists -along with varying degrees of indieness and indie cred (but that’s a whole other post...). The point is that many of these indie writers and artists start out with self-published or underground comic strips and then choose to move on to graphic novels as they improve at their craft and gain notoriety.

Alison Bechdel’s career has pretty much followed this path. She created her strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, in the late eighties, continued to gain fame and evolve as a writer and artist, and then published her first graphic novel, ¨Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”, in 2006. Chock-full of a different kind of badassery (the erudite writer sort), it is the ideal “gateway” book for literature snobs who turn their noses at graphic novels.

A sublimation of a strained father-daughter relationship, the book is both a chronicle of the author’s childhood and a post-mortem reconciliation with her father, a bibliophile high school English teacher and part-time funeral home director that also happened be a closeted gay man. After a stint in the army and a taste of life as a cosmopolitan expat in Europe, he returned to his hometown in rural Pennsylvania to take over the family’s funeral home business. Small town domestic dystopia, not of the trite sort, ensued.

This graphic novel has popped up regularly on must-read lists since it was published (for a reason), but what sets it apart is the author’s erudition. Bechdel’s mastery of language and her love of literature take center stage. There are no adventures, magical worlds or mind-bending possibilities here. The art is nice and dynamic, but it’s not meant to dazzle or awe. Rather, it is a vehicle for reflection, symbolism, and the story the author wants to tell.

All in all, this is an introspective story that bisects the life of a family and draws conclusions about the author’s parents without demonizing or (too much) blaming. With plenty of references to high-brow literature -the connecting thread between chapters is her father’s reading list: Joyce, Wilde, Fitzgerald, Camus and Proust, among others- and GRE-level words on every other page that will have you running to your dictionary (dictionary app), the book is cerebral without becoming pedantic. “Fun Home” is not only a great read; it’s the work of a thoughtful storyteller who is not afraid to flaunt her intellect, or excavating the skeletons in her family’s closet. Go on, take a break from your Marvel trade paperbacks, awesome as they might be, and check this one out!

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