Alison Bechdel calls Fun Home, her new graphic memoir, a "family tragicomic," and at the heart of the drama is her father: exacting and self-absorbed, an aesthete stuck in provincial Pennsylvania, and, as she finds out, a gay man in a loveless straight marriage. For most of her childhood, he neglected her in favor of his endless home renovations, his vast library, and the burly teens he hired to help around the house; but as she grew up she found herself, warily, in the focus of his narrow attentions. In high school, when it turned out that she liked the books he loved, he jumped at the chance to direct her education, and in college when she came out to him as a lesbian, he clumsily came out to her in return. A few months after that shared confession, he died in an accident she and her family have every belief was intended.
So Bechdel is left to divine his history through the books he read, letters and documents left behind, and her own obsessive diaries. If you know Bechdel as the creator of the long-running strip Dykes to Watch Out For, you won't be surprised that their belated connection as "inversions of each other" ("I wanted to be a girl!" "I wanted to be a boy!" they finally admit) drives the emotional undercurrent of the story. But their other connection—the books they both see the world through—shapes this book even more strongly. She has always observed her life from the "cool aesthetic distance" her family raised her to cultivate—her awakening as a lesbian, for example, occurred while browsing in the campus bookstore—and with an compulsiveness that rivals his, she sifts through their lives and their books, looking for literary echoes and answers to the mysteries he left her.
As she does this, you can see the separate gears of words and pictures working more visibly than in most comics. Bechdel tells her story in retrospect, and it reads almost like a slide show of her past, with a wordy voice-over running atop nearly every frame and no scene lasting more than a few panels under its own power without the narrator stepping in to interpret it, and often to footnote it with a literary reference. Sometimes her aesthetic distancing cools the fire of the story. When she deflates one of the most intense panels of the entire book—she and her little brother greeting each other "with ghastly, uncontrollable grins" when they first meet after their father's death—with a lengthy digression on Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, her literary lens feels less like an organic reflection of her family's bibliomania and more like an undergraduate crutch. At other times, though, especially as the pieces of her masterfully constructed story fall into place, her bookish parallels catch the right rhythm, as when she finds an echo of her mother's resigned acceptance of her bitter marriage in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. As she quotes James's lament for his heroine, "ground up in the very mill of the conventional," her dad, in the panel below, shouts his wife back into the car, muttering "crazy bitch."
The talky, crowded frames of the relentlessly up-to-the-minute Dykes to Watch Out For strips open up here into wider angles and more varied textures as Bechdel steps back for a longer-term view. Although she compares her antique home (and its gloomy residents) to the Addams family, her illustrations have a light tone, closer to the Edwardian-era gags of the Amelia Bedelia kids books than the gothic shades of Charles Addams. But the simple lines carry weight. She is an absolute wizard with eyes, for instance; with a single lowered eyelid she can burden a whole panel with a character's annoyance. And her figures, even at their tiniest, are wonderfully expressive; most of all her father, a wiry, bantam combination of Woody Allen and Robert Redford, with his gaze narrowly intent on some object or the vague middle distance, and rarely on his daughter.
Except on the final pages, that is. There he finally looks up at the young Alison, ready to catch her leap from a diving board into the pool where he waits. It's an image full of sentiment, and it's here that Bechdel's thoroughly unsentimental aesthetic distance pays off. At the close of this clear-eyed accounting of father and daughter, their melancholy not-quite-coming-together recalls the quiet near-communion of Bloom and Stephen toward the end of Ulysses. And don't think she missed that connection: She makes the most of it, and she has earned it—which is saying a lot.