May 2021

Alison Bechdel

Exercise and enlightenment
Interview by
Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir is a comic marvel that will make you think.
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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.”

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