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All Graphic Memoirs Coverage

A new graphic memoir from Alison Bechdel is always a treat, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength is no exception. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), which concentrated on Bechdel’s father, became not only a bestseller but also a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. The subsequent Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012) was also a bestselling hit. The long wait for Bechdel’s third book—and the first one to be published in full color—is now over, and this time her long-standing obsession with exercise is in the crosshairs of her literary lens.

“My bookish exterior perhaps belies it,” she writes, “but I’m a bit of an exercise freak.” She immediately adds, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ‘good at sports.’ I’m not a ‘jock.’ That’s a whole different ball game, and not my subject here.” Instead, she takes readers on a very personal journey—divided into decades, beginning with her birth in 1960—that showcases America’s many fitness crazes over the years.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Alison Bechdel reveals the surprisingly physical process of creating her illustrations.

Bechdel’s early fascination with exercise was sparked by Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads in comic books. These ads made her realize she was “a textbook weakling” and led her on a lifelong quest for strength. “It’s a world gone mad!” she observes about the current state of working out. “Pacifists paying for boot camp! Feminists learning to pole dance! Geeks flipping tractor tires! And the trends keep coming!”

Don’t be fooled, however. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is much more than simply a fab, fit, fun retrospective. With her trademark self-deprecation and deliciously dark humor, Bechdel takes a thought-provoking look at her gradual realization that she’s gay, as well as at her search for transcendence as she ages and faces the specter of her own mortality. While exploring these themes, she devotes scenes to literary and philosophical heroes who may at first seem like unlikely exercise gurus: Jack Kerouac, Margaret Singer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and more. Rest assured, in Bechdel’s talented hands, such commentary works beautifully, immensely enriching the book.

Every page yields a variety of delights. There’s the poignancy of a full-page depiction of her last walk in the woods with her beloved, complicated father in late 1979, just months before his death. There’s the surprise of peppered-in fun facts. (Ralph Waldo Emerson was so grief-stricken a year after his first wife’s death that he opened her coffin.) And there’s the simple, repeated joy of reading a really great line. After a karate class in the 1980s, Bechdel guzzles a Budweiser and says, “There was no constant, namby-pamby suckling of water bottles in those days.”

The Secret to Superhuman Strength is the liveliest literary workout you can get. Bechdel’s unique combination of personal narrative, the search for higher meaning and nonstop comic ingenuity will leave you pumped up and smiling.

Alison Bechdel’s unique combination of personal narrative, the search for higher meaning and nonstop comic ingenuity will leave you pumped up and smiling.

In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel writes, “My bookish exterior perhaps belies it . . . but I’m a bit of an exercise freak.” You name it, she’s tried it: running, hiking, biking, snowshoeing, weightlifting, running, paddleboarding, karate, in-line skating, aerial yoga and more.

At the start of my call to Bechdel’s home outside of Burlington, Vermont, I suggest that we should be doing something like cross-country skiing instead of sitting on our bums, chatting. “Although I’m sure I couldn’t keep up,” I add.

Bechdel laughs and says, “For all my bragging in that book, I’m not super fast or skilled at anything.”

She has her limits, Bechdel admits—increasingly so. The last time she did aerial yoga, for example, “I got up too fast and I ended up having a weird vertigo thing for two days.” She turned 60 in September 2020 and has noticed that “I’m still putting in the work, but I’m getting slower and weaker. I can’t do stuff I used to do, and it’s very disconcerting.”

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Secret to Superhuman Strength.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength is a book with so many layers that it’s hard to describe; even Bechdel struggles to put it into words. Basically, she says, “It's the chronological story of my life through the lens of my fitness obsessions.” She began the project in 2013, “with a desire to write something about mortality and getting older”—an idea perhaps reinforced by her mom’s death that year.

On the heels of her previous graphic memoirs, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, about her father, and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, Bechdel initially thought she might be in the mood for a change of pace. “I felt like I wanted to take a break from all of the intensely personal, introspective books,” she says, “but I don’t seem to be able to do that.”

Bechdel theorizes that her compulsion for candor may stem from her Catholic upbringing. “The notion of confession was always a very powerful experience for me as a kid,” she says. “I feel like I'm still confessing—like I'm going to receive some kind of absolution if I do it accurately enough. But I will have pangs afterwards. ‘Oh my God, I can't believe I revealed this,’ or, ‘Oh my God, my poor family.’”

“I wanted to capture some of the vitality and the exuberance of just being alive.”

Like all of her books, The Secret to Superhuman Strength is not only enlightening but hilarious, with a multitude of unexpected delights. Bechdel is the first to admit that it “veers into many different areas that you wouldn't think were necessarily connected to exercise.” Take, for instance, transcendence—how exercise gives her “the feeling of my mind and body becoming one.” To explore some of these ideas, she relies on repeated appearances by literary greats such as Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

One writer led to another, she explains, “like a chain reaction. . . . I started seeing ways that their actual lives informed mine—the ways they struggled with relationships or struggled with drinking too much or struggled to establish themselves as an author.” She’s thankful that “graphic narrative allows you to weave together some pretty complex material in a way that feels easily digestible.”

Visually, this is Bechdel’s first book in full color; previous books were simply tinted, with shading. “I wanted to capture some of the vitality and the exuberance of just being alive,” she says, “and that seemed to demand color.” Her wife, Holly Rae Taylor, is also an artist and helped with the extensive coloring. Bechdel calls this a good pandemic project—one that kept the couple “entertained and busy.” “If I hadn’t been home all day, every day, working for 18 hours, I wouldn’t have gotten the book done,” she says.

Bechdel’s creative process is a workout in its own right, largely because she takes photos to use as references for each sketch.

Throughout composing The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Bechdel kept up her running regimen, but weightlifting fell by the wayside. Her creative process, however, is a workout in its own right, largely because she takes photos to use as references for each sketch. “It makes drawing into a kind of a physical activity. I'm not just hunched over a drawing board,” she explains. “I'm posing. I'm sketching. I'm running outside with my bike to set a scene up. So it's all drawing, but it wouldn't look like drawing to someone watching.”

Now that the book is done and Bechdel finally has some free time, who would she want to work out with if she could choose anyone, dead or alive? She says her first thought is “hanging out with Rachel Carson and looking in tidal pools . . . but that’s not really a workout.”

Eventually Bechdel decides she would love to hike with 19th-century journalist Margaret Fuller: a climb up Maine’s tallest peak, the 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin, famed for its precarious Knife Edge Trail. “It seems scary to me,” Bechdel says, “but I think Margaret and I would push each other to do it.”

Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir is a comic marvel that will make you think.

For readers who enjoy immersing themselves in memoirs and true crime, the comic book format offers even more to devour.

In a world saturated with superhero media, it bears repeating that comic books are a medium, not a genre. There’s nothing wrong with capes and tights and giant robots, of course, but to reduce the wide world of comics to such a narrow view does a disservice to the medium’s vast possibilities. Through tales of darkness, recovery and self-discovery, three towering works of graphic nonfiction reveal the full breadth of comic books’ expressive power.

In Happiness Will Follow, longtime superhero comics fixture Mike Hawthorne turns the full force of his talents on his own struggle to understand where he comes from and how he grew into the man and artist he is now. This stunning graphic memoir begins with an old shoe in a doorway, a sign to Hawthorne’s Puerto Rican mother that a curse is upon them, and then catapults through years of poverty, violence and psychological and physical trauma, as Hawthorne comes to grips with a heritage from which he feels removed.

Hawthorne’s narration is candid, raw and precise, but the memoir soars on the strength of his art as he zooms out to offer us a sense of isolation amid the crush of New York City, then zooms back in to depict haunting, bold close-ups of the key figures in his life. Chief among those figures is his mother; their relationship roots the book in a powerful, unflinching exploration of what it feels like to anchor yourself to another person, especially when that person is a harmful presence in your life. As Hawthorne takes us through the past and present, the cultural and personal, the painful and beautiful, he tells his story with empathy and vulnerability, and that makes Happiness Will Follow an essential graphic memoir.

Coming-out narratives are too often depicted in popular culture as a linear decision-making process followed by a single crystallizing moment when all becomes clear and a pure sense of self is achieved. But this is definitely not always the case. Coming-out journeys are just as often bumpy, messy and full of false starts, as British artist Eleanor Crewes reminds us through her beautifully rendered, endlessly witty graphic storytelling in The Times I Knew I Was Gay.

Drawing on memories from childhood, early adulthood and beyond, Crewes tells the story of her own journey to coming out fully and for good. Her memoir defies the conventional forms of graphic storytelling; there are no panel borders here, no defining boundaries to keep Crewes confined to a certain time or place at any given moment. Sometimes her gorgeous pencil drawings pause the narrative altogether so she can break the fourth wall and reflect on the tale as she’s telling it.

The Times I Knew I Was Gay began as a short zine, and that DIY ethos is still present in these pages, reminding us that our most personal stories are often best told in the simplest and most direct way. There’s an elegance to this simplicity that makes it feel like a friend is opening up to you as you read, creating an intimate connection between book and reader.

From Maids by Katie Skelly. Used with permission from Fantagraphics.

Of course, graphic nonfiction isn’t limited to memoirs. Sometimes the comics medium is also the perfect vehicle for a stylized retelling of a true crime story, as Brooklyn-based cartoonist Katie Skelly proves with her dazzling Maids.

Using a simple grid layout that she manipulates to great effect, and with art that blends Eastern and Western styles, Skelly tells the story of the infamous Papin sisters, who worked as maids for a wealthy French family until they murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in 1933. The story of Léa and Christine Papin has been told many times before, but never quite like this. Maids draws striking power from the way Skelly fully embraces the potential of her format.

The narrative unfolds slowly and suspensefully, giving ample space to build a visually and emotionally symbiotic relationship between the two sisters. The way they seem to float through the panels together, moving through the world in a way the other characters do not, contributes to a growing sense of dread. Even if you know this story intimately, you’ll be itching to know what happens next. That Maids pulls off this particular trick is a testament to both Skelly’s talent and to the power of graphic narratives.

For readers who enjoy immersing themselves in memoirs and true crime, the comic book format offers even more to devour.

Sometimes a story can be told solely through prose, but these two graphics make it clear that some stories need more than just powerful words. Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, these books find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder.

Tyler Feder confronts loss with a gentle smile in Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir. No stone is left unturned as Feder recounts her mother’s cancer diagnosis and reflects on her own ever-present grieving process. Feder walks us through her journey in hilarious, moving detail, and the illustrations enable us to experience her pain even more deeply.

When Feder and her sisters go to the mall to get “black mourning clothes,” they stumble into Forever 21, where 2000s-era neon dresses are comically lurid against their sullen faces. Feder jokes lovingly about this experience. She also shares insights into the grieving process that recall Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, as when she refuses to let anyone clean out her mother’s closet or when she admits to feeling like her mom is “just on a long trip somewhere far away.”

While Feder’s experience is uniquely Jewish American, including kriah ribbons and a shiva, her memoir looks beyond culturally specific ideas about death to face loss and grief on a personal level. With a mix of sadness, compassion and joy, Feder tells a touching story for anyone who has lost someone—or really, for anyone who loves someone.

Borja González’s A Gift for a Ghost is the ensorcelling, strange yet familiar tale of the intertwined fates of a 19th-century girl who longs to be a horror-poet and a 21st-century high school punk band. The story and images are reminiscent of something Kurt Cobain wrote about the Raincoats, another amateurish band: “Rather than listening to them, I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still, or they will hear my spying from above, and if I get caught, everything will be ruined.” The novel creates a similar effect: The story unfolds slowly and endearingly, and you find yourself drawn in to its air of mystery and magic. 

As Teresa prepares for her poetry debut, and as bandmates Gloria, Laura and Cristina try their hands at songwriting, the story builds, with anxiety rising in all of their lives. As the four girls struggle to decide which sides of themselves to embrace, González’s artwork can be both spare and hyperfloral. We begin to wonder who the girls will become and what brought them all together in the first place. Once (some of) these questions are resolved and the story reaches its end, you can’t help but feel that you missed something, but that feeling is actually just a desire to read the book all over again.

Addressing themes of death, grieving, angst and longing, two new graphics find that love can survive loss, and that the world is perfused with wonder.

Four books celebrate our friends who fight for justice, the right to love, the power to tell their own stories and the possibility of a better future. They’re also the perfect gift for a budding ally who wishes to learn more.

Activist by KK Ottesen
One can’t help but feel inspired by the over 40 interviews and black-and-white portraits compiled in Activist: Portraits of Courage, written and photographed by KK Ottesen, a Washington Post contributor and author of a similarly styled book, Great Americans. Ottesen’s powerful photographs immediately draw readers in, adding to the intimacy of these highly readable first-person interviews, all introduced by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

In content, layout and style, this is an engrossing, inviting volume, one that spotlights a wide range of figures, from age 21 to 94. There are well-known personalities like John Lewis, Ralph Nader, Angela Davis, Billie Jean King, Bernie Sanders and Marian Wright Edelman. Then there are relative newcomers to the scene, such as Jayna Zweiman, co-founder of the 2016 Pussycat Project; Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian American co-chair of the 2017 Women's March; and transgender actor Nicole Maines, the anonymous plaintiff in a Maine Supreme Judicial Court regarding gender identity and bathroom use in schools. Maines speaks of knowing from an early age, “I didn’t feel the need to hide who I was. Nobody else had to, so why should I?”

Seeing Gender by Iris Gottlieb
After reading last year’s Seeing Science and now Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression, I’ve become an incurable Iris Gottlieb fan. No matter what the topic, this graphic artist has a singular knack for presenting an imaginative array of art and text in an informative, exciting way.

Early on, this new book features a helpful spread of 24 gender terms, including agender, cisgender, gender dysphoria and intersex. “All of us are shapeshifters,” Gottlieb explains. In straightforward, vibrantly illustrated prose that is neither politicized nor reactionary, Gottlieb further explores these terms, while also discussing such varied topics as gender etiquette, gender biology, sex verification in sports, Frida Kahlo, Laverne Cox, Prince, gender violence, Stonewall, #MeToo and much, much more. Gottleib also includes her own story, noting that “she” is her pronoun of choice for the time being, that she identifies as a boy (“for now”), is asexual, has struggled with anorexia and in 2018 had both breasts removed, a surgical transformation she bravely describes with a series of “after” photos.

No matter your age or inclination, Seeing Gender presents an extraordinarily helpful discussion in a way that’s both personal and powerful. As Gottlieb concludes, “The process of learning about gender is never finished.”

Drawing Power edited by Diane Noomin
Many books have been born from the #MeToo movement, but perhaps none so comprehensively resonant as Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival. In vastly divergent styles, 63 female cartoonists—of different races, ages, nationalities and sexual orientations—tell their immensely varied, poignant stories here, demonstrating the power of their medium.

Emil Ferris (My Favorite Thing Is Monsters) describes how she found her way back to cartoons decades after being sexually brutalized by a relative while watching a Mr. Magoo special on TV. As a result, her beloved cartoons felt suddenly poisoned, and for years she turned instead to fine art and illustrating. Finally, while working on the aforementioned graphic novel, Ferris noticed that she “found herself using a cartoonier style when I needed to talk about difficult things . . . especially those revelatory moments when a character confronts abuse, fear and shame.”

As Drawing Power so strikingly proves, cartoons do indeed provide the perfect forum for sharing these intensely intimate, painful stories. And editor Diane Noomin offers an important distinction, noting, “The artists in this collection present themselves not as victims but rather as truth tellers, shining light on the dirty secrets of abusers.”

How to Cure a Ghost by Fariha Róisín
As an Australian Canadian based in Brooklyn, Fariha Róisín knows all too well how tricky it is trying to navigate the world as a queer Muslim femme. “i was born to this sticky mess, this stark confusion.” she writes in How to Cure a Ghost, her powerful biographical collection of 50 poems, beautifully complemented by abstract illustrations from Monica Ramos.

In a sensual, evocative style reminiscent of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, Róisín acknowledges, “i am tied to this skin, although I may not always understand it.” She chronicles her father’s challenges as an immigrant and her mother’s struggles as a Muslim woman with mental illness. Róisín remembers being 7 and briefly taking a “white name”—Felicity Hanson—to try to gain acceptance from a neighbor. She describes watching 9/11 unfold on television from her home in Sydney, Australia, saying that as a Muslim, “this world was not built for us.” Her virginity was stolen by a man who got her pregnant, telling her “it’s not a big deal.”

Despite everything, Róisín writes of hope, boldly declaring, “i am better now. i gave birth to myself, a new beginning, a robust cycle. i rewrote the scriptures of my mother’s pasts, and her mother’s pasts. i am in the throes of survival, i am lived. i am living. it’s astonishing.”

Four books celebrate our friends who fight for justice, the right to love, the power to tell their own stories and the possibility of a better future.

With its deceptively simple line drawings, Erin Williams’ Commute illustrates the numerous ways she (and many women) negotiate the presence of sexual threat on a daily basis. Some of these encounters might seem mundane—such as the man who continuously stares at her while sitting too close on the train—but their impact is real. In an otherwise empty train car, such a man is a threat; and while women instinctively know this, men need to learn that this can be a daily experience. Among other things Commute does well, it’s a good education for men about the lived experience of women.

Commute is a graphic (in both senses of the word) memoir. Williams focuses the book on one regular day in her life, the life of a working mom: her 5 a.m. alarm, the commute into Manhattan, the work day, her commute home and time with her baby. The illustrations can be lively and humorous at one moment and shattering the next. They show, in a way words can’t, how creepy it can feel to be stared at. Or how the memories of a teenage sexual assault might play back each and every day, as routine as a morning cup of tea, but far more disturbing.

Through the use of flashbacks, Williams reviews her sexual history, both the assaults and the more ambiguous encounters. Some of the most arresting moments in this memoir concern Williams’ past use of alcohol to pursue bodily disassociation. Her subtle and devastating illustrations reveal the link between sexual assault and alcoholism in visceral detail, and the graphic-memoir format makes these issues accessible to a broad range of readers.

Williams asks hard questions about shame, compliance and desire, both in her own life and in the larger culture. Her story, she says, is the “mundane tragedy of every woman you know.” By sharing it, she adds an eloquent voice to the chorus of stories testifying to the daily experiences of women under patriarchy. Commute is a book that really should be read by everyone.

With its deceptively simple line drawings, Erin Williams’ Commute illustrates the numerous ways she (and many women) negotiate the presence of sexual threat on a daily basis. Some of these encounters might seem mundane—such as the man who continuously stares at her while sitting too close on the train—but their impact is real. In an […]

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