Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Study Guide

Alison Bechdel

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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | Context


Graphic Memoir and "A Family Tragicomic"

Understanding Fun Home requires understanding three key terms: graphic novel, memoir, and tragicomic. Fun Home closely resembles a graphic novel. Graphic novels are longer-length comic books generally ascribed a literary significance and complexity not usually conferred on most comics. Graphic novels are also usually written and published in book form rather than the serialized format of comics, though some serialized comics are collected in graphic novel format.

The term "graphic novel" originated with cartoonist and writer Will Eisner (1917–2005), who published A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories ... A Graphic Novel in 1978. In Eisner's biography, his biographer defines a graphic novel as "book-length ... sequential art." This first "graphic novel" was more like a story collection than a novel in terms of construction. An important distinction of graphic novels from comic books and comic strips is a presumed mature audience, although, again, there are exceptions on both sides. With regards to this maturity, Fun Home certainly features content that would be out of place in a newspaper comic strip. Drug use, images of gore, descriptions of pedophilia, and other issues would make publication of the story in a newspaper difficult, if not impossible.

Apart from resembling a graphic novel, Fun Home is also a memoir. Memoir is best defined as nonfictional narrative constructed from or informed by personal experience. While closely related to autobiography, not all autobiography is memoir. Historically, memoir has been identified with personal accounts of momentous occasions in human history, while autobiography focuses on individual lives. Autobiography could be seen as an account of a person's entire life, while memoir perhaps covers a moment in time or an important stretch. In this sense, Fun Home is memoir because it centers on the instance of Bruce Bechdel's death and all the memories surrounding that moment. Writer Ian Jack argues, however, that the distinction between autobiography and memoir is one of detail. For Jack, memoirs feature a "novelistic" level of detail that would be impossible for any person to accurately recall. Again, Fun Home qualifies as memoir by this definition. Alison Bechdel purposefully recounts the gaps in her childhood diary to show how reliant she is on unreliable human memory for storytelling purposes.

Finally, Bechdel subtitles the work, "A Family Tragicomic." The term tragicomic here serves a dual purpose. On one hand there is the word comic, reflecting the book's sequential art narrative. On the other, there is the older term tragicomedy that the subtitle alludes to. "Tragicomedy," as its name implies, is the admixture or intersection of the seemingly opposite forces of tragedy and comedy. In Ancient Greek theater—and much of subsequent western literature—tragedy and comedy were viewed as opposites, with their own separate rules and conventions. "Tragicomedy" was first coined by the Roman dramatist Plautus (c. 254–184 BCE) to describe a play in which characters reversed the roles assigned to them. Gods and humans, masters and slaves would switch places. Later tragicomic plays would mix tragic elements in comedic narratives. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) wrote a number of plays considered tragicomedies, including Merchant of Venice (1596–97). Fun Home qualifies as a tragicomedy because it often finds humor in the tragic.

Literary References

A central part of the story is Alison's references to the myth of Daedalus from Greek mythology. Daedalus was a legendary inventor who created a labyrinth designed to contain the monstrous Minotaur, a creature with a bull's head and a human body. After being condemned to imprisonment in the labyrinth along with his son, Icarus, Daedalus plans an ingenious escape. Building two sets of wings from feathers and wax, Daedalus and Icarus escape the labyrinth. However, Icarus ignores his father's warnings and flies too close to the sun, melting the wings' wax and plunging to a watery death in the ocean.

In Fun Home, Alison compares her father, Bruce, to Icarus, Daedalus, and the Minotaur. Bruce metaphorically "plummets from the sky," much like Icarus, experiencing a fall from grace after his arrest that culminates in his "suicide." But like Daedalus, Bruce is capable of "dazzling displays of artfulness." At one point, Alison calls him an "autodidact," meaning someone who teaches themselves various skills through voracious reading. However, to complete the mythic allusion, Bruce is also likened to the Minotaur, as his respectable exterior hides a dark alter ego. Finally, the house itself is something like the labyrinth: a large, confusing place where many secrets are hidden.

Bechdel's other graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (2012), also deals with her past and her family. However, unlike Fun Home with its focus on Bruce, the second book focuses instead on Alison's mother, Helen. In part, the book is also a metanarrative on the process of writing Fun Home, as well as an examination of mother-daughter relationships throughout literary history. One of the other key differences between the two books is that Are You My Mother? uses red and gray shading rather than the dull turquoise background of Fun Home. According to Bechdel in an interview with the Paris Review, the lack of color in Fun Home was a reflection of Bruce's "controlling" spirit, while Are You My Mother? allows for more nuanced tones.

Queer Civil Rights and Politics

Another prominent element of the book is the infusion of queer political ideology and historical political commentary. The book's historical scope allows Alison to consider the political backdrop of her childhood as well as her ideological evolution when she attends college. Even during her early childhood there are radical stirrings in Alison. She reflects on how an early childhood vacation to New York City occurred only weeks after the Stonewall Riots, a key moment in the queer civil rights movement, also called the gay rights movement. Alison suggests she may have received a "contact high" from lingering residue of the riots, instilling radical sentiments in her.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 began after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village in New York City. The resulting riot led to six days of protests that included violent clashes with police as LGBTQ New Yorkers protested oppression. Stonewall is today regarded as the prime galvanizing moment of the queer civil rights movement, though not its actual beginning. During scenes concerning Alison's college education, she is pictured reading major queer and feminist theoretical texts, including Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971), published by Boston's Women's Health Book Collective. Additionally, Alison reflects on her predecessors, brave lesbians from the 1950s who wore male clothing despite the dangers they faced.

In addition to the references to queer civil rights, Fun Home also contains references to other political events, most notably Watergate, a political scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon (1913–94) in 1974. The developing scandal and the resulting fallout are pictured at various moments between 1972 and 1974 when Alison is a teenager. On a few occasions, Alison even references Watergate and Nixon in her diary. Nixon's fall coincides with Bruce's arrest and trial, and Alison draws connections between the public disgrace of these two difficult patriarchal figures.

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