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.
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.