ALLISON BECHDEL’S FUN HOME – A BREIF ARGUMENT FOR THE DARWINIAN SUPERIORIY OF GRAPHIC NOVELS OVER REGULAR NOVELS
Were it not assigned reading for a class, I never would’ve picked up Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Graphic novels didn’t make a blip on my radar screen. Because of their similarity to comic books, I assumed the genre was lowbrow, incapable of communicating any real complexity or depth of emotion, and a cop-out for unskilled writers.
“Using images,” I would’ve argued if someone would’ve asked me (no one ever did), “is a crutch for bad storytelling. If it has pictures, it’s not a novel!” To some extent this is correct. It’s not a novel, it’s a graphic novel – a different species, and a more evolutionarily fit one.
Fun Home is technically a graphic memoir, a record and interpretation of events in Bechdel’s own life. For those of us who feel daunted by memoir, afraid of being sucked into an unknown and obscure life story, the comic book aspect of Fun Home allows for easy transition out of our own familiar lives and into someone else’s. As an artist, Bechdel is meticulous in capturing extreme realism with few strokes of a pen. She’s especially good at depicting the natural goofiness of kids. The childhood versions of herself and her brothers are drawn with slightly oversized heads and eyes, and their bodies are often tangled in those kid-poses no adult could ever manipulate themselves into.
In frames of a trip to New York City, Bechdel’s uncanny attention to detail in architecture so accurately captures the urban landscape that recently, walking up Sixth Avenue, I thought to myself, “this looks exactly like Fun Home!”
A traditional novelist is also capable of drawing out the essence of a city or of the quirky mannerisms of children using just words. But the charming cartoon renditions of characters and settings in a graphic novel serve a sleeker, more immediate form of storytelling, without sacrificing the descriptive nuance and intricacies of purely textual narrative.
The problem of dealing with dialogue in Fun Home, as in all graphic novels, is dealt with using the speech bubble: a device far superior to its novelistic equivalent, quotes. Even in the hands of the most skilled writer, quotation, with so many accessories – starting a new paragraph, constantly addressing who’s speaking, describing tone, etc.– brings too much attention to its own artifice. Speech bubbles are clear, direct and economical. There is never confusion about the speaker’s identity, and, in combination with a convincing visual language, like that of Fun Home, no reason to describe the delivery of words.
Though the aesthetic tools of graphic novels are more expressive than those of traditional novels, if their narratives are weak, they will eventually die out. If only one in a thousand graphic novels are as compelling as Fun Home, however, I think that would be enough to sustain the race. Besides presenting a few complex and sympathetic characters – Allison and her parents – the book explores some of the darker corners of the human condition. Repressed homosexuality, shame and emotional neglect in families, and meditations on suicide are all faced head on in Fun Home. The pages are textured with elaborate comparisons of Bechdel’s own life to dozens of canonistic works of literature, including Joyce’s Ulysses and Dubliners; philosophical works, such as Camus’s A Happy Death, and Greek mythology.
I’ve gathered from various sources that Fun Home’s headiness and literary leanings are exceptional within its genre. Still, experiencing for myself the book’s success in tackling heavy issues, similarly if not more intelligent graphic narratives are sure to follow. Eventually they will outnumber and take the place of their less-adapted cousin, the traditional novel.